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The Dish on First Ladies, From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama

First Posted: 06/14/12 09:27 AM ET Updated: 06/14/12 09:27 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- If President Barack Obama wants to expand broadband coverage to most Americans, he might want to start at home. That's because, according to first lady Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, the upstairs residence of the White House isn't wireless.

Not only that, but Susan Sher said there is just one phone in the official living quarters, forcing the Obamas to dash from room to room when it rings. "It's sort of quaint," said Sher, who left the East Wing in January to return home to Chicago.

The behind-the-scenes revelation was among the many shared by former White House staffers and historians at a conference sponsored by American University exploring the legacies of America's first ladies.

Only 46 women have served in the demanding yet ill-defined position of first lady or White House hostess. Criticized for their clothes and their causes and looked to as role models or scapegoats, first ladies may be the most misunderstood public figures in Washington.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith recounted a letter first lady Betty Ford received after she gave her shocking "60 Minutes" interview in which she said she supported abortion rights, would consider smoking marijuana if she were a teenager and admitted to having seen a psychiatrist.

A woman in Texas scolded Ford, saying she didn't understand that "as first lady, you are constitutionally mandated to be perfect."

The job of first lady isn't in the Constitution. Neither, for that matter, is chief of staff. Yet both have enjoyed influence and often-unseen power inside the White House.

Long before first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton led her husband's failed health care reform fight, Ellen Wilson became the first presidential wife to directly lobby Congress, when in 1913 she pushed to improve housing for impoverished blacks living in slums near the Capitol. Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith, was labeled the "Secret President" for the power she wielded after he was incapacitated by a stroke during his last 18 months in office.

When Jimmy Carter expressed doubts about bringing Israeli and Egyptian leaders together at Camp David to forge a peace treaty in 1978, his wife told him, "If you don't try, we'll never know" if peace is possible, recalled Kathryn Cade, a former project director for Rosalynn Carter. He did what he was told.

Nancy Reagan's social secretary, Gahl Hodges Burt, spoke about the first lady's role in creating the social conditions necessary to allow President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to bond and begin the process of ending the Cold War.

"These ladies do a lot more than set a table," Burt said. "It's really important who is at that table."

Whether it was Jacqueline Kennedy's negotiating trade policy in French with Charles de Gaulle or Lady Bird Johnson working behind the scenes to get funding for Head Start, "these women are smart," said historian Allida Black. "They are players. They're tough."

But many first ladies found the unelected position onerous. Martha Washington referred to herself as a "state prisoner," Smith noted. Abigail Adams was her husband's trusted confidante but derided by critics as "Mrs. President." Her daughter-in-law Louisa Adams, the wife of President John Quincy Adams, would later write a memoir titled, "Adventures of a Nobody."

The panelists all agreed that every first lady has chafed at living inside the White House bubble.

Hillary Clinton once stuffed her hair into a baseball cap and put on sunglasses and "crummy clothes" so she could take a walk, recalled former chief of staff Melanne Verveer. When someone stopped her and said she looked like the first lady, "she said, 'I've been told that' and kept walking," said Verveer, now Secretary of State Clinton's ambassador-at-large for Global Women's issues.

Sher said Michelle Obama still misses shopping at the Target on Roosevelt Road in Chicago. She recalled how excited she was when they walked across the street to see an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery. The Secret Service halted traffic.

"It's an unusual way to live," Sher said.

But for all the perks like exotic travel and Secret Service agents to watch over their children, first ladies of every partisan persuasion have taken the slings of the media and the arrows of their husbands' political enemies.

"There is resentment of power in the hands of women," said Edith Mayo, a former curator of women's history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Having fought to expand the museum's first ladies exhibit to encompass not only what they wore but their contributions to the presidency and American society, she looks forward to the day a woman is elected president -- and there's a first gentleman in the White House.

"I'd like to put a suit in that gown exhibit," Mayo said.

This article originally appeared on AOL News on March 2, 2011