From Ona Judge to Michelle Obama: The Historic Thread of Black Women in the White House:
In 1796, Ona “Oney” Maria Judge fled slavery and found freedom in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Her escape marked a critical moment in American history, not only because she accomplished the great feat of gaining her freedom, but because she ran away from a prominent figure—the first President of the United States. Indeed, prior to Ona Judge’s flight from President George Washington’s residence, she had provided personal services to First Lady Martha Washington as her maid and seamstress. The story of Ona Judge thus initiated a complicated legacy of black women’s proximity to the Presidency, engagement with American fashion, and carving of autonomous spheres within and without the White House. Ona Judge’s experiences, along with those of other black women like Elizabeth Keckly and First Lady Michelle Obama, highlight the way in which race, gender and aesthetics are intertwined with the history of the White House.
Throughout the early Republic, political leaders thoughtfully crafted plans for the nation’s capital, particularly the White House. Drawing from European architectural inspiration and the expertise of Frenchman Charles L’Enfant, these leaders—including the President and the First Lady—remained conscious of the aesthetic perception of the political center of their newly-formed Republic. For instance, although President Washington initially occupied the temporary presidential residence in Philadelphia, he nonetheless adorned all things pertaining to his office according to the latest European trends. Martha Washington, moreover, required that meticulous attention be paid to her personal appearance. Slaves thus worked tirelessly to create an impressive aesthetic presentation of the presidency and to fashion an identity of gentility for First Ladies like Martha Washington.
Although many women of the Revolutionary era, who frequently worked alongside their yeoman farmer husbands, were not necessarily preoccupied with fashion—at least not to the same extent as their European counterparts—Martha Washington led a different life. With a staff of over three hundred slaves, she enjoyed the luxury of hand-selecting the best seamstress (out of many) to create the historic garments she donned as the president’s wife. For this coveted role, she chose Ona Judge.
At that time, prior to the nineteenth-century rise of industrialization and wage-work, seamstress work was still produced in the home. The presence of former slaves such as Judge enabled wealthy mistresses to live comfortably and craft an image for themselves at the expense of slave labor. In this respect, the labor and skill of slaves allowed well-to-do white women to uphold ideals and privileges of womanhood denied black women. Within this contorted context of race and gender, seamstresses such as Ona Judge buttressed the domesticated ideal of white womanhood for many First Ladies.
As a trusted assistant, and one who went on several public shopping excursions with Martha Washington, Ona Judge naturally caused quite an embarrassment to the Washington family when she fled their residence. Following her escape, the Washingtons even made several failed attempts to lure her back to slavery. Judge chose, however, to live as a free woman. Although she ultimately never achieved wealth, she supported herself through her sewing talent, learned to read, and remained an active member of her community. This, in and of itself, made Judge a rare case during the Revolutionary era. Despite the racial and gendered limitations imposed on her, Judge made the daring escape from the President’s residence, took with her a marketable skill—sewing and needlework, and carved out a distinct historical space for herself as a black seamstress.
By the time of the Civil War, Elizabeth Keckly, continuing the tradition of black seamstresses, worked as the dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. A former slave who purchased her freedom by making gowns for elite white women, Keckly worked as the most sought-after designer in Washington society, creating dresses for not only the First Lady, but also the wife of Robert E. Lee and Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy. Thus, despite Keckly’s past experiences as a slave subjected to continual sexual violence, Keckly surmounted the odds, crafted a lofty reputation for herself within the fashion industry, and epitomized the ladylike and respectable character that many former slave women lauded.
Indeed, while many mistakenly refer to Keckly as Lincoln’s “maid,” she was much more than that: she was an entrepreneur who held multiple clients and managed her own dress salon. Her gowns made history, requiring discerning taste at the height of a burgeoning aesthetic of American fashion. Keckly also took seriously her relationship with the First Lady and, unlike Ona Judge, her loyalty never wavered even after the publication of her memoir Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.
Ultimately, Keckly both disturbed and intrigued nineteenth-century Americans. Many nineteenth-century Americans found her memoir inappropriate because it revealed her experiences during slavery and details of her intimate friendship with the First Lady, who apparently turned heads for her expensive taste and extravagant spending. Others found it difficult to conceptualize a black woman outside the confines of low-wage labor and a sex object, and thus could not fit Keckly into their social paradigm. Nonetheless, many Americans remained interested in her because of her proximity to the Lincoln White House and the controversial First Lady. By positioning herself as an authority on slavery and specific details concerning the Lincoln family, Keckly fashioned a lifestyle of success for herself notwithstanding the obstacles presented by her race, gender, and evolving status from slave to freewoman.
Well over a century later, when Michelle Obama arrived at the White House as the first black First Lady and wife of President Barack Obama, her image—like that of Judge and Keckly during their respective eras—disrupted the way many Americans viewed black women. Born on the south side of Chicago to working-class parents, Obama graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School. With this background, Michelle Obama forced Americans to see someone who transcended the pejorative constructions of black women. As a successful professional, devoted wife, and mother of two girls, Michelle Obama represented a relatable figure for many American women, but not all would embrace her completely. In the words of scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, “It is Michelle’s blackness that has deeply disturbed many Americans and much of the press, and it is that same blackness that has endeared her to many, but not all, black Americans.” Specifically, Michelle Obama’s refusal to exhaust topics concerning race bewildered those who expected this powerful figure to become the poster child for the “strong” or “confrontational black woman.” Those who believe Michelle Obama’s political agenda is completely colorblind, however, overlook the ways in which race, gender, and fashion are inextricably intertwined.
Indeed, the acclaim and notoriety that Michelle Obama—who made Vogue magazine’s Top Ten Best-Dressed List—has received for her appearance and sense of style cannot be understated. Her fashionable style attracts the praise and admiration of media worldwide, making her a likeable First Lady often compared to the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in terms of her sophistication and poise. In an age of images that depict video vixens, welfare queens, angry black divas, and the black superwoman, Michelle Obama embodied a different, but historically-consistent portrayal of femininity that forces Americans to see themselves in figures like Michelle Obama. In an article entitled “Why Michelle Obama’s Hair Matters,” journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris observes, “her hair is the catalyst for a conversation that begins with style but quickly transcends Michelle herself—a symbol for African American women’s status in terms of beauty, acceptance and power.”
Michelle Obama’s fashion politics, however, are not new. To the contrary, since the antebellum era, black women have used fashion and specific norms of ladylike behavior to engage in what historian Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham refers to as “the politics of respectability.” Viewed through this historical framework, Michelle Obama, like Keckly and other black women who have walked the halls of the White House, has projected this “respectable” portrayal of black women at the center of American political power. In the process, she has challenged Americans to grapple with racial differences, and has complicated historically-constructed perceptions of black women as laborers and sex objects. By presenting a countervailing paradigm of black women as professionals, wives, mothers, and community leaders, Obama has forced the nation to realize the varied dimensions in which black women evolved outside the confines of racist and misogynist constructions of black femininity.
Three black women, one enslaved who escaped, another enslaved but who purchased her freedom, and another who became the leading lady of the free world, all reflect transformative narratives that delineate changes in race, gender, and the significance of aesthetics in the White House. Black women’s history of creating fashionable lifestyles for white patrons—and now Michelle Obama’s history in the making as one of the greatest purveyors of American fashion—offer a particular lens in which to examine the complicated role black women played within the White House. Ona Judge took her freedom after serving the first presidential household and fashioning their portrayal of gentry and gentility; Elizabeth Keckly asserted her voice as a former enslaved seamstress and leading authority on American style among Washington’s elite First Ladies; and today, Michelle Obama, as First Lady, disrupts the racial and gendered hierarchies that historically dictated how Americans viewed black women. Obama’s function within the White House thus reaffirms the historical significance of women like Ona Judge and Elizabeth Keckly. Viewed together, each of their stories contributes to a fabric of progress and potential—the past misconstructions of black womanhood that have already been hemmed and the derogatory designations that remain ill-fitting.
- Clinton, Catherine. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, New York: HarperCollins, 2009
- Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of Friendship between First Lady and Former Slave, New York: Broadway Books, 2003
- Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “DNC Day 2: Will America Accept First Lady Michelle” National Public Radio, August 26, 2008
- Harris, Jenée Desmond. “Why Michelle Obama’s Hair Matters,” Time Magazine, September 7, 2009
- Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993
- Keckly, Elizabeth Behind the Scenes, Forty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House New York: G.W. Carelton & Co., 1868
- Lusane, Clarence. The Black History of the White House, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011
- Xiomara, Santamarina. “Behind the Scenes of Black Labor: Elizabeth Keckly and the Scandal of Publicity,” Feminist Studies, 28:3 (2002)