Most modern historians conclude that Coolidge was one of the most “sexist” Presidents we ever had.
Born in 1872 in rural Vermont, Calvin Coolidge was deeply imbued with the Calvinist religious philosophy (hard work, and saving and knowing one’s place in the scheme of things), and the Victorian Age. Coolidge’s mother, Victoria, named for the British Queen, died when her son was around twelve. His only sister died two years later. It was just Calvin and his father John, and the two became very close.
Calvin went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, moved to the western part of that state, read law and passed the bar. He settled in Northampton, had a modest practice, and began augmenting his income by political activity and public service.
When he met Miss Grace Goodhue, a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf, he knew exactly what he wanted: A sensible, agreeable wife who was happy in the traditional woman-code. Home and family. That Grace Goodhue was also educated, attractive and popular, was a bonus he always treasured. But the agreeable wife and home-family was the essence.
Even when her parents were less than enthusiastic about their courtship, believing their only child could do a lot better, Calvin persisted. So did Grace. He loved her and she knew it.
The Love Part
When they married, Coolidge was 32. Grace was 26. They had both been on their own and had experienced the inner pleasure of making their own way. But they saw eye-to-eye. Coolidge was the bread winner. Grace was the bread baker. Whether she was good at it, or even enjoyed it, did not matter.
She was happy being Mrs. Coolidge, housewife. In time, she was happy being Mrs. Coolidge, mother of two sons.
Interestingly enough, despite the deep Coolidge sense of thrift, he was very generous regarding Grace’s wardrobe. He had a good looking, stylish wife, and was proud of her. He liked showing her off. He was the one who enjoyed shopping for her clothes, and bought her a closet of hats.
Sexism and Love in the White House
When Coolidge suddenly became President in mid-1923, following the death of Warren Harding, their life changed. Sort of. His did, hers not so much, albeit in a much bigger house. He advised his pretty and stylish wife “not to do anything new.” She decided to try horseback riding for exercise; he said no, so she continued her daily hour-long walk in the morning. But she never gave an interview, or made a speech other than “thank you for the flowers.” She was totally traditional. And charming.
Coolidge had inherited a Secret Service Agent, Col. (honorary) Edmund Starling. The taciturn New Englander and the Kentucky Baptist had a instinctive understanding of each other, and the two became friends, in their own way.
Starling related in a book he co-authored years later, that periodically, particularly when the Washington heat and Mrs. Coolidge’s sinuses were at odds, she returned to Northampton. When apart, they wrote each other daily.
Anyway, according to Starling, when the President’s personal mail was brought to him each day, he flipped through quickly for the familiar handwriting. Then he took his wife’s letter and slipped it into his pocket. A short time later, he went to his bedroom, closed the door, and read the letter in private.
In mid-summer of 1924, sixteen-year-old Cal Jr. died. He had been playing tennis at the White House, rubbed up a blister which became infected and raced through his blood system. He died within a week. His father was never the same, and “Silent Cal” became practically mute.
Col. Starling was genuinely worried about his boss, who had never had any hobbies to afford respite from his day-to-day cares. The Secret Service agent finally introduced the President to fishing – a quiet pastime, with fresh air and solitude. Coolidge reluctantly agreed – and liked it.
In 1927, they spent some time at a fishing lodge in SD, not far from Rapid City, where Coolidge could rent office space in the local hotel. Telephone and telegraph wires were installed, along with a secretary – and members of the press.
Early one morning, Grace, still on the sunny side of fifty, decided to take her daily walk, along with her regular Secret Service escort, bachelor James Haley. It was a wooded area, (fishing lodges usually are), and it was unfamiliar. When the POTUS returned from fishing, he inquired if Mrs. C. was ready for lunch. She had not returned – but was expected shortly.
The President waited another ten minutes and inquired again. They still had not returned.
After waiting more than an hour for the two “hikers”, Coolidge was seriously concerned, and was pacing up and down. An accident? Foul play? Hanky-panky? That thought was quickly discounted. But Coolidge’s tight-lipped silence spoke volumes. And the ubiquitous newspaper reporters were taking notes.
While a search party got underway, Agent Haley and Mrs. Coolidge finally appeared, none the worse for wear. They had merely gotten lost, and were going in circles for a time.
Of course the newspapers made hay with the incident.
The Boston Globe’s headline read “Wife’s Delay Taxes Coolidge’s Patience. She Goes Off on Long Hike and Luncheon Gets Cold. President Sits on Porch an Hour Waiting for Her to Explain”.
The Boston Herald headlined its story “Wife’s Long Hike Vexes Coolidge: President Paces Porch as First Lady Hits 15 Mile Trail”.
The Post announced “First Lady Almost Lost: President Worried.
Nevertheless, the President had been badly unnerved at the mere thought that something might have happened to the one he loved best. Two weeks after they returned to Washington, Agent Haley was reassigned.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Lathem, Edward Connery – Meet Calvin Coolidge: The Man Behind the Myth – Stephen Greene Press, 1960
Sugrue, Thomas & Starling, Col. Edmund W. – Starling of the White House – Peoples Book Club, 1946