Op-ed: Inspiring First Ladies: Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson, born Claudia Alta Taylor is remembered by history and the media as a socialite wife who only dealt with minor political issues such as highway beautification and was subordinate to her domineering husband Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th U.S. President. The truth is the complete opposite and Lady Bird was a much more influential figure in American history and politics than many realize. 

Claudia was born in Texas, 1912 to a wealthy businessman and his wife and lived a comfortable life financially. She received her nickname from a family nursemaid, a name which Claudia would come to be known as for the rest of her life. 

Following her mother’s passing in 1918, Lady Bird began to develop a keen interest in literature and nature in order to cope with what she described as a lonely childhood. She was incredibly intelligent, graduating from high school at the age of 15 and going on to attend St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Dallas to pursue her interest in writing. 

Lady Bird was certainly progressive for her time in regards to her education, embracing her intellectual gifts rather than trying to suppress or ignore her intelligence. She combated the stereotypical portrait of the socialite who was more concerned with money and beauty than education and a career, proving herself to already be an admirable role model from a young age. Despite having access to such money and luxuries from a young age, Lady Bird was known for her modest tastes and careful spending habits. She graduated from college with a degree in history, and later obtained another degree in journalism garnering skills she would later use in her political career. 

Lady Bird met and married Lyndon B. Johnson in 1934, and the couple would go on to have two daughters. Lady Bird was the one responsible for helping Lyndon get his political career off the ground by using 10,000 dollars of her inheritance to support his first congressional campaign. She would even go on to later take over his duties as first congressman while he fought for America during the early years of World War II. 

It was here that Lady Bird’s political interest was believed to have first developed and in 1943 she and her husband purchased an Austin, TX radio station in which she became manager and the station was met with great success in programs and listenership. 

As LBJ’s political career began to gain momentum and he quickly became a popular figure in Washington D.C., Lady Bird became more and more involved in his campaigns and quickly proved herself to be a skilled political strategist. When Johnson was elected as Vice President alongside JFK as President, Robert Kennedy later said in an interview that it was Lady Bird who won the democrats Texas during the election. She proved herself to be a capable and admirable political figure, especially as she faced media scrutiny and comparison to Jackie Kennedy following JFK’s assasination and Johnson instatement as president. 

Lady Bird vigorously campaigned with her husband during the 1964 election and their efforts paid off when he was elected president. 

As First Lady, Lady Bird became closely identified with her beautification project which sought to clean up America’s major highways and encouraged Americans to take pride in their outdoor surroundings. She urged the passing of the Highway Beautification Bill, which passed and became law in 1965. However, Lady Bird was also the power behind the program Head Start, a program dedicated to helping preschool children from disadvantaged backgrounds receive a good education and equal opportunities as those from privileged backgrounds. 

Following Johnson’s decision to not run for re-election in 1968, Lady Bird continued to dedicate her time to her official duties as First Lady while also setting aside some time to invest and manage some of her other passions, such as her interest in nature and the environment through the support of the National Wildlife Research Center which has since been renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 

Johnson left office in 1969 and passed away shortly thereafter in 1973, she dedicated her time to her projects and her family before passing away at the incredible age of 94 in 2007. 

Lady Bird Johnson is often one of America’s most overlooked First Ladies and has unfortunately been remembered by the media as a socialite housewife who dedicated herself to the beautification of her country. While Lady Bird did put environmentalism and nature as a forefront before, during and after her time as First Lady she was much more than that. She was politically equal to her husband, proving that the two of them were a team, and should be remembered for her intelligence, her dedication to her country and for being a role model that all women can look to and learn from.

Katie Hayes is Managing Editor for The Hub. She can be contacted at hayesc@emmanuel.edu.