Many of the first ladies had careers and interests outside of White House activities before, during and after their husbands’ presidential time. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, before marrying John F. Kennedy, was a writer and poet. She graduated from college and then went to work for a newspaper and worked as a writer and photographer, also known as a photojournalist.
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis worked for the Washington Times-Herald as a “Camera Girl.” Her job was to interview people on the street with the question of the day and report back. Eventually, she made the questions more political, since she often had contact with politicians and their families.
After marrying John F. Kennedy in 1953, she ceased her photography career and limited her writing aspirations to political correspondence on behalf of her senator husband: responding to mail, helping to edit his book, or helping to draft his political correspondence.
While her actions seemed limited on the outside, she had great influence with her husband and within the greater audience of the American people. Her interest in the arts fueled her husband’s interest after he became president. She was able to help artists through her husband’s presidency. In addition, her wardrobe and fashion sense become iconic and often imitated throughout his presidential career and after she left the White House when JFK was assassinated.
The title of First Lady goes to the wife of the incumbent president. However, should the current president not have a wife, the title would go to the female that would perform the duties of White House hostess.
First Ladies have a unique position in that they are highly visible, have the ability to affect political, social and cultural arenas, and yet receive no pay and are not voted into these positions of political power. Often, their personal interests and the social and cultural zeitgeist determine the causes that they will fight for during their husband’s presidency and beyond. Over time, the First Ladies have morphed from White House hostess to a more substantive role affecting real change in the country.
Some first ladies had careers prior to their assignment as the White House social director. Jackie Kennedy was a photojournalist before she met and married her husband, John F. Kennedy. Her job as a photojournalist may have even helped to prepare her for life as a politician’s wife since many of her dealings lead her to meet and work with politicians and their families.
Photography in early days required the photographers to not only take the pictures but develop them as well. Photography required expensive and heavy equipment as well as unpleasant smelling chemicals to produce a quality picture. These may have been some of the reasons that not many women entered into photography in general.
Many female photographic pioneers paved the way for Jacqueline Kennedy’s early career as a photographer. While not as well known as some of their male counterparts, women made a name for themselves in the profession even in the mid-1800s. However, historians have overlooked many of their achievements throughout the years. Yet, women photographers worked in advertising and photojournalism, documented social and scientific life, or created pictures for artistic reasons.
Historians note Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) as the most famous pioneer of women’s photography. Her adult daughter bought her a camera as a gift to dispel loneliness while her husband was away and her children had grown up. This simple gift lead to a notable career photographic famous people of the day, as well as other more romantic pictures. She was well regarded by many who lived in her home country of England as well as those abroad and won many prestigious awards for her work.