AU partners with the First Ladies Association for Research and Education to study US first ladies
Organization launched in June with the support of the School of Public Affairs
American University is partnering with the First Ladies Association for Research and Education (FLARE) in an effort to shed light on the legacies of United States first ladies.
On June 21, the FLARE website went live, marking the official launch of the organization after two years of planning. The group’s mission is “to create and sustain a network to promote and publicize research and education about the contributions, lives, impact, and lasting legacy” of U.S. first ladies.
Nancy Kegan Smith, an archival consultant and the vice president of FLARE, served as the director of the presidential materials division of the National Archives and Records Administration from 1998 to 2012. In this role, she advised presidential and first lady staff members on records. However, she found that, at this time, most research on first ladies was conducted “in a little bit of a vacuum.”
“[Researchers] didn’t necessarily know what the political scientist, or the journalist, or the biographer, or the communications person, or the archivist or the public servant next to them was doing,” Smith said.
According to FLARE President Dr. Myra Gutin, a Professor Emerita in the Department of Communication, Journalism and Media at Rider University, she and Smith started to correspond via telephone and email with a group of other first Lady experts in 2018. In June 2019, after a year of discussion, seven of these researchers met in Alexandria, Va. to develop their vision and mission statement.
Dr. Diana Carlin, a Professor Emerita of communication at Saint Louis University and FLARE’s treasurer, said that one of the major conversations at the 2019 meeting focused on the organization’s need for a physical presence. The group concluded that American University would be “a logical place to go” due to the School of Public Affairs’ First Ladies Initiative (FLI). The FLI was established in partnership with the National Archives Presidential Libraries in 2011 to “highlight the significant contributions from these women, as they use their platform to advocate for issues, promote change, and improve our society.”
Anita McBride, executive-in-residence at the SPA’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies and the former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, serves as the director of the FLI. McBride, now a member-at-large on the FLARE board, said during an interview with MSNBC on the organization’s launch date that the FLI makes the University “the perfect partner” to affiliate with FLARE.
“This is a dream come true for all those who have been working on this topic of studying first ladies,” McBride said during the MSNBC appearance.
The School of Public Affairs is named as an inaugural lifetime institutional member on FLARE’s website. The organization also has plans to engage the University community through internship positions and networking events. Carlin recommended that any student who is “interested in the American political scene writ large … and the role of women” gets involved with FLARE.
“This is an opportunity to either do some work directly for FLARE or a way to connect … with individuals from potentially presidential library foundations, the White House Historical Association, to do some work for them as interns,” Carlin said.
Junior Lily Denman started an internship with FLARE in January as they prepared for their launch, after McBride was a guest speaker in her History of the White House class during the fall 2020 semester. Denman worked on a variety of projects, including the development of FLARE’s social media accounts and compiling facts about each first lady for a page on the website.
“The coolest thing, I thought, was when they first launched the website and they told me that LBJ’s daughters … saw [the website] and freaked out, they loved it,” Denman said. “I was like, ‘Wait, you’re telling me that members of a first family are looking at stuff that I worked on?’”
Denman said that she thinks a position with FLARE would be a “good fit” for any student who is “in the political realm.”
“It’s not just about historical research, definitely, because the first ladies have a huge impact on society, culture, foreign and domestic policy,” Denman said.
FLARE is in the process of assembling an “experts bureau” for student groups and faculty to contact if they are in search of an event speaker, Carlin said. The association will also provide syllabi and other educational materials for the University to take advantage of.
As campus operations resume for the fall 2021 semester, Smith is excited about the “world of opportunities” for students to get involved with FLARE. Students can become members of the organization for a reduced fee.
“I think FLARE is sort of infectious whatever way you get involved,” Smith said. “You learn so much more than you thought you would because there’s so many facets to it.”