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Article updated: 2/15/2013 5:29 PM

C-SPAN begins historical series on first ladies

Associated Press File Photo, 2011
 First lady Michelle Obama speaks at the National League of Cities Conference about the Let's Move! initiative in Washington. C-SPAN has teamed up with The White House Historical Association to produce a series on first ladies.

Associated Press File Photo, 2011 First lady Michelle Obama speaks at the National League of Cities Conference about the Let's Move! initiative in Washington. C-SPAN has teamed up with The White House Historical Association to produce a series on first ladies.

 
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By David Bauder

NEW YORK -- 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 -- "First Ladies: Image and Influence" -- begins with an overview Monday, on President's Day, and ends with an hour on Michelle Obama next Feb. 10.

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The series gives C-SPAN the chance to look at political and social history through a different prism, said Farkas, its executive producer. The White House Historical Association is teaming with C-SPAN to make it, after the idea came from a network historian who had been working on an oral history of White House social secretaries.

"The more digging that we did, we found that so many of these women were influential and had fascinating biographies," he 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 settled on roles corresponding to their interests, up to Mrs. Obama's focus on military families and children's fitness.

Most of the women 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.

Franklin Pierce's wife, Lucy, had the most tragic story. She never wanted her husband to run for president. Two of the couple's children died before age 5, and the lone survivor, 11-year-old Benjamin, was killed in a train accident while traveling with his parents two months before inauguration. Lucy Pierce spent most of her time in the White House residence and didn't make an official appearance as first lady until two years into her husband's term.

"Even if that hadn't happened, I'm not sure she would have been prepared for the role," said Farkas, who has also produced C-SPAN series on presidents, unsuccessful presidential candidates and the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Each new episode premieres Monday at 9 p.m. and is also shown on C-SPAN3. C-SPAN and the White House historical group are collaborating on a website to accompany the series.

As a public service network, C-SPAN has never been about ratings. Farkas said, however, he hoped the first lady series would attract an audience beyond those who like to check up on congressional hearings.

"To me, it's sort of an untapped audience for us," he said. "My daughters might not watch all 35 of them, but they'll watch some of them."

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