Two brilliant women—a First Lady and Civil Rights leader—become friends and agents of progress for a changing nation.
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The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Mary McLeod Bethune refuses to back down as white supremacists attempt to thwart her work. She marches on as an activist and an educator, and as her reputation grows she becomes a celebrity, revered by titans of business and recognized by U.S. Presidents. Eleanor Roosevelt herself is awestruck and eager to make her acquaintance. Initially drawn together because of their shared belief in women’s rights and the power of education, Mary and Eleanor become fast friends, confiding their secrets, hopes and dreams—and holding each other’s hands through tragedy and triumph.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected president, the two women begin to collaborate more closely, particularly as Eleanor moves toward her own agenda separate from FDR, a consequence of the devastating discovery of her husband’s secret love affair. Eleanor becomes a controversial First Lady for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights. And when she receives threats because of her strong ties to Mary, it only fuels the women’s desire to fight together for justice and equality.
This is the story of two different, yet equally formidable, passionate, and committed women, and the way in which their singular friendship helped form the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.
The First Ladies
New York, New York
October 14, 1927
Nearly fifty blocks whir past my cab window as I ride through the upper reaches of Manhattan from the Hotel Olga in Harlem. Traveling toward the Upper East Side, I feel as though, somewhere, I’ve crossed an invisible line. The shades of complexions fade from colored to white. Not that it matters to me. I have never been hindered by the views and prejudices of others, not even the Ku Klux Klan.
My cab stops in front of a limestone town house amidst the expanse of brick facades on East 65th Street. I exit the cab, then pause before I mount the few steps to the front door. The number 47 is on the left of the wrought iron gate, while 49 is on the opposite side. Yet there is only a single entrance.
Odd, I think, and a bit confusing to have one door for two residences. I certainly hope Mrs. Roosevelt gets along with her neighbor.
The door is opened by a young woman wearing a white-collared black uniform. For a moment, she stands still, her eyebrows raised and her blue eyes wide with astonishment.
“I am Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, here for the luncheon,” I say.
She recovers. “Yes, ma’am.” As she gestures for me to enter, her face becomes, once again, the expressionless servant’s mask.
Chatter and laughter float in from down the hall. “Ma’am?” she asks, reaching for my coat.
I shrug out of my black fur-collar wrap and pat my hat to make sure it hasn’t tilted. The young lady leads me down a hallway darkened by mahogany panels. As we approach the sound of voices, I listen to the medley of tones, searching for the accents and intonations that will give me clues to who these women are and where they’re from.
Why I love it
Author, The House of Eve
Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray have a knack for compellingly introducing readers to undersung ambitious women in history. In their new novel which earns a worthy spot on the shelf next to The Personal Librarian, the talented pair continues to dip their magic-making pens in little-known women’s history by shining a light on the extraordinary friendship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, white, privileged, and a Democrat, and Mary McLeod Bethune, a Black Republican woman who was born of formerly enslaved parents. These vastly different women kept me up at night as I clamored for just one more intimate peek into their singular friendship.
The First Ladies opens in 1927 at a luncheon hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt for women leaders of national clubs and organizations. Mary McLeod Bethune, then the president of the National Association of Colored Women and the only Black woman attendee, is snubbed by the other guests. Shy Eleanor braves a conversation with Mary—a conversation that sparks a relationship that spans through the Great Depression and the gubernatorial and presidential terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Over the years, Eleanor and Mary forge an unshakeable bond, supporting each other through personal struggles with marital infidelity, illness, loss, and love. And together, the two push an ambitious agenda that helped to form the foundation for the civil rights movement.
This novel is a brilliant illustration of the strength of two trailblazing women who cross race and class and hold hands through tragedy and triumph. The First Ladies is a perfect mid-summer read.
Member ratings (4,488)
This is an absolutely amazing novel, and I loved the inspiring story of Eleanor and Mary's friendship. These two women were courageous and stronger as they stood, Black and White hand-in-hand as one.
New Providence, NJ
A exciting look into the relationship of two very special ladies and history itself! i really enjoyed this book. I am partial to historical fictional and this is one of the best I have read to date!!!
I so enjoyed this book!! I never knew about this friendship and the enormous impact it had and still has on the country. I found this book to be so interesting from beginning to end. Would recommend.
Cherry Valley, NY
I loved learning about Mary McLeod Bethune and the Civil Rights Movement! I wanted more though - it felt like too large of a timeline. I wanted more depth and less breadth! Overall great read though!
I've read everything on Eleanor Roosevelt and while this is not historically accurate, it is a lovely depiction of her that captures her life and essences well. MMB also gets the flowers she deserves