May 9th: Howard Carter & Harriet Lane Johnston

Today, Google Doodles honors Howard Carter, the archaeologist and Egyptologist who discovered and excavated the tomb of King Tut (Tutankhamun). For those of you who are counting, Carter is the 13th Doodle posted in the United States in 2012, and again, all 13 have been male (if you’re paying close attention, you might note that I accidentally left Charles Addams out of my count a couple weeks back).

If we count Doodles that have been posted all around the world, then the stats are slightly better but still embarrassing: 42 Doodles honoring men and 5 honoring women. Next month I’m planning a series of posts exploring the Google Doodle statistics in the United States and internationally as we approach the halfway mark in 2012, so stay tuned for that; I’ll also be sharing the dataset.

Today we’ll take a look at another important figure born on May 9th: Harriet Lane Johnston, born on this day in 1830. Harriet wasn’t someone with whom I was familiar before I started investigating her for this post, but she’s a former First Lady of the United States (one of only a few who were not the spouse of the President) who started many of the traditions, including advocacy work, now intimately associated with that office.

Portrait of Harriet Lane

Portrait of Harriet Lane, circa 1860; photographer unknown.

When Harriet served as First Lady — as the niece of President James Buchanan — from 1857 to 1861, her surname was Lane, so she is most popularly known as Harriet Lane. She was extremely popular, inspiring hair and clothing styles, but I was more interested in her based on her work as First Lady. The position of First Lady of the United States, or “FLOTUS,” is a peculiar one: it is both an official and an unofficial designation. Specifically, the title is an official descriptor (to date, unfortunately, all Presidents have been male and so all “first spouses” have received this designation). On the other hand, the role carries no official duties and no salary, even though a great deal of responsibility has historically fallen to the First Lady and it would be erroneous to assume that the lack of official duties corresponds to a lack of work altogether.

For instance, Harriet Lane was responsible for both organizing and serving as hostess at official Presidential events, including ceremonies, functions of state, and meals. During her time of service, the tensions that would lead to the Civil War were rising, complicating the matter of seating and honoring various dignitaries at the President’s frequent functions.

Additionally, she has become known as the first “modern” First Lady for introducing the idea of advocacy work as an integral part of this position, a connection that now seems natural given the high visibility of the First Lady within both government and society at large. At the time, though, Lane was a pioneer for speaking out on social causes, both publicly and in her role as White House hostess. One social cause that she championed was the improvement of living conditions on Native American reservations, and she was also a patron of the fine arts, often inviting artists and musicians to functions and lobbying for the founding of a national collection of art. In fact, as part of her efforts to educate policymakers about conditions and needs on reservations, she collected and promoted indigenous artwork.

Later in life, Lane (then Harriet Johnston) became a collector of European art which she gave to the government upon her death, seeding the collection that would become the National Gallery of Art, and in response the Smithsonian has named  her the First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts.

While I’m naturally not thrilled with the statistics of Google Doodles that have led me to undertake this project in the first place, I’m really happy to have the chance to learn about women like Harriet Lane who otherwise aren’t usually acknowledged for their role. I’ve often complained about the “unofficial” position of the First Lady which is, in reality if not in law, actually very heavy with prescribed expectations and associated work. As a result, I was fascinated to have this chance to read and write about Harriet Lane, who took this position and expanded it into something greater and more meaningful. I only wish that all Americans took a moment to think about all of the service and advocacy carried out in this unofficial position.


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