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C-SPAN profiles first ladies in series

– Mark Farkas is used to his teenage daughters showing little interest in his work. After all, he is a producer at terminally unhip C-SPAN.

This time is different. The girls are intrigued by some of the stories Farkas is finding for the public service network’s series on first ladies. The 35-episode series begins with an overview tonight, on Presidents Day, and ends with an hour on Michelle Obama next Feb. 10.

The series lets C-SPAN look at political and social history through a different prism, said Farkas, its executive producer. The White House Historical Association is assisting.

“The more digging that we did, we found that so many of these women were influential and had fascinating biographies,” Farkas said.

James Madison’s wife, Dolly, set the tone for the roles played by presidential spouses and was sought after for advice by first ladies who followed her, Farkas said. He considers Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt, who held regular news conferences and called upon news organizations to send female reporters, the most influential first ladies.

All have found roles corresponding to their interests, up to Mrs. Obama’s focus on military families and children’s fitness.

Most of the women – there’s been no first man yet – get a single hour in C-SPAN’s series. In a few cases, a handful of 19th-century first ladies have their stories compressed into a single hour. Anna Harrison, for example, never made it to the White House: She stayed in Ohio recovering from an illness and was packing for Washington when her husband, William Henry Harrison, died one month into his term.

The first ladies had particularly divergent roles in the nation’s first century, when women did not have the right to vote.

Abigail Adams was a strong writer and stood up for women, Farkas noted. Lucy Hayes was the first college-educated first lady and was considered more popular at the time than her husband, Rutherford B. Hayes. She set up the annual Easter Egg Roll, a tradition that continues today, and banned alcohol from the White House.

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