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Historical presenters launch First Ladies Forum

The First Ladies Forum (l-r) Dolley Madison, Louisa Adams, Mary Lincoln, and Jacqueline Kennedy
The First Ladies Forum (l-r) Dolley Madison, Louisa Adams, Mary Lincoln, and Jacqueline Kennedy

Today is Presidents’ Day, celebrated each year on the third Monday of February to honor the men who have served in our nation’s highest office. But each President is accompanied by a companion, an unelected member of the white house who has the President’s ear and plays a critical role in our government. I’m talking, of course, about the First Lady, a position that is not actually defined by any law or in the constitution.

To help the public better understand this position, and some of the women who have occupied it, four historical presenters have created the First Ladies Forum.

“One of the fun things, I think, about having four of us, is that they’re four very different women, in so many ways, and yet they’re all grappling with some of the same kinds of issues,” said historical presenter Leslie Goddard.

Goddard has a masters degree in theater and a PhD in history, two fields she combined when she began portraying First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 2008. “What do you do when you’re trying to balance life as a wife and a mother in the White House, which is also a public role? How do you negotiate this job where you have a lot of power because you’ve got the voice of the President, but you’ve also not been elected?”

Goddard is joined by Dolley Madison presenter Judith Kalaora, Louisa Adams presenter Laura Rocklyn, and Mary Lincoln presenter Laura Keyes. They have all been presenting for over a decade, but this idea for a First Ladies Forum came about, in part, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s so funny,” Goddard said. “The pandemic suddenly made it so crazy easy to find other people.”

History presenters depend on live audiences, often in schools, libraries and museums. But when the pandemic hit, they had to pivot, offering programs virtually. As a result, presenters from different parts of the country discovered each other. Laura Keyes lives near Peoria. Leslie Goddard lives just outside Chicago. And Judith Kalaora and Laura Rocklyn live in Boston.

“I knew someone who portrayed James Madison and he contacted me,” Goddard said. “He said you’ve got to see this presentation of Dolley Madison. And that’s how I found out about Judith.”

Like Goddard, Judith Kalaora also has a background in theater. After graduation, she wasn’t sure how she was going to support herself with a theater degree, until she saw a commercial for the Freedom Trail, an organization that links the various Revolutionary War sites around Boston.

“They said ‘our talented cast of actors and historians will provide you with an entertaining and educational experience,’” Kalaora recalled. “And I said, Aha!”

She began in 2006 portraying Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War. She was also the first woman to professionally fight in and be honorably discharged from the American Military.

In 2010 Kalaora started History at Play, an immersive, living-history company that offers a variety of educational programs featuring historical figures.

“We all do our own research,” she explained. “We all write our own scripts. We all produce our own programs. We procure our own props and historical attire. And that’s what makes a true living historian. And that’s important. That’s what we’re offering: a higher caliber of programs.”

Kalaora began portraying Dolley Madison, wife of 4th President James Madison, in 2016. Madison was First Lady during the War of 1812 and had to flee the White House before it was burned by the British.

Joining the group is Laura Rocklyn, an award-winning writer and actress who portrays Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams. Louisa Adams was born in London. Until Melania Trump became First Lady in 2016, Adams was the only First Lady born outside of the United States or the original 13 colonies.

Rounding out the troupe is Laura Keyes, head Librarian of the Dunlap Public Library outside Peoria, Illinois. Keyes has been portraying Mary Lincoln since 2008 when she was cast in the role for a community play.

“Being the good little librarian that I was, I started my research,” Keyes said. “I wanted to portray Mary Lincoln as accurately as I could. I was interviewed, as was the rest of the cast, in the local paper, and I had three phone calls from three different public libraries asking me to come and give a talk on Mary Lincoln, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna try this.’”

Leslie Goddard acknowledged that all four presenters came to this field in different, unexpected ways.

“In my case,” she said, “it was because someone asked me to do a portrayal of a local woman. And I thought, this is such an interesting way to talk about history. Because you can really get inside the person and it’s a lot more than what you’d get in a book.”

Even though their time at the White House spans over 150 years, these four First Ladies found themselves grappling with the same kinds of issues. Being the First Lady is a full-time job, completely unpaid, and subject to intense public scrutiny, all while maintaining the previous role of wife and mother. All four women came from wealth, but they also experienced extreme heartbreak. They had all lost children and two of the four lost children while in the White House. Yet they were still expected to host visitors and throw lavish parties while maintaining a high sense of taste and fashion.

And why are some First Ladies praised while others are criticized? Why are some engraved into our national consciousness while others are largely forgotten? These are questions Laura Keyes hopes the First Lady Forum can address.

“The audiences will be able to see not only the change in the women and what they thought was important,” she said, “but also how the public saw these women, and how the public accepted or did not accept them.”

The First Ladies Forum officially launches today. They can be contacted via their website, Facebook or by email: FirstLadiesForum@gmail.com.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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