The First Lady

Dakota Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer and Aaron Eckhart as Susan, Betty and Gerald Ford in The First Lady

Murray Close/Showtime

Cathy Schulman

Ilze Kitshoff
Fill 1
Fill 1
April 15, 2022
In The Mix

Cathy Schulman's Leading Ladies

With serious research and star power, a producer captures the women of the White House in Showtime's The First Lady.


Jacqueline Cutler

One of the world's most prominent positions has a title but no job description or salary. It can be extraordinarily influential, or it can be meaningless.

It's up to the woman, as Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama proved during their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In Showtime's lush The First Lady, Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Viola Davis portray the women behind the tight smiles.

While their husbands are, naturally, important (Kiefer Sutherland as FDR, Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford and O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama), the series focuses on remarkable women thrust into a spotlight.

Ultimately, showrunner and Oscar winner Cathy Schulman (Crash) wants to cover all first ladies. First, though, she and Emmy- and Oscar-winning producer-director Susanne Bier (The Undoing) have teamed up for ten episodes covering these three.

"It all started with Eleanor Roosevelt because to me, she is the first modern first lady," Schulman says from South Africa, where she's finishing a film with Davis. "She was the first person to see it as a job. When she came into the White House and asked for an office, people were like, 'What do you mean — like a room with a desk?'"

Schulman dove deep into research, piling up index cards as she pondered the threads that wove these women together: they didn't lose their identities once they became mothers, and they worked toward equality.

Ford was an "incredible character, because she's a Republican First Lady but sort of the most democratic of all, in the sense that she was so much of an open book," Schulman says. "Betty was able to bring up — for the very first time — issues having to do with women's health and psychiatry."

We see Betty's abusive first marriage and her days as a modern dancer (other actors play the younger versions). There's Barack arriving late on his first day at the law firm where Michelle was his boss. And we see that Eleanor had a powerful advocate in her uncle, Teddy.

But "I was most fascinated by the march of time," Schulman relates, "and by these women's march to find their voices."

Once their husbands were sworn in, the women had to find their places. "If there was one thing that struck me about all the first ladies, it's that the minute they walked through that threshold into the White House, they were basically told to shut up."

It didn't work. Can you imagine telling Eleanor Roosevelt to stifle?

Schulman hopes viewers see the first ladies "for what they were. And I want them to see the fight that it's taken to become relevant, included, respected — and how far we still have to go."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 2022, under the title, "Ladies Who Led."

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