First Lady Florence Harding: Behind the Tragedy and Controversy


Florence Kling Harding has come down through history as one of our most scorned first ladies. Victimized by caricatures and branded a shrew, she stands at the bottom of historians' polls, her reputation tarnished by her husband's scandals despite their joint popularity while in office. These depictions, argues Katherine Sibley, have prevented us today from seeing how innovative a first lady Florence Harding really was.

This new look at Mrs. Harding restores humanity to an ...

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Florence Kling Harding has come down through history as one of our most scorned first ladies. Victimized by caricatures and branded a shrew, she stands at the bottom of historians' polls, her reputation tarnished by her husband's scandals despite their joint popularity while in office. These depictions, argues Katherine Sibley, have prevented us today from seeing how innovative a first lady Florence Harding really was.

This new look at Mrs. Harding restores humanity to an oft-maligned figure by examining her progressive causes, her celebrity, and her role in her husband's work. For if Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with shattering the first lady's ceremonial mold, it was Florence Harding who made the first cracks.

Sibley's is the first book to offer a full treatment of Florence as first lady rather than as mere supporting actress in the Harding administration. Never shying from publicity, she made herself more available to the press than did her predecessors and opened the White House up to the public. And she took such a pioneering role in Warren Harding's campaign and presidency that many thought she outdid her husband as a politician.

Turning to primary sources that others have overlooked, Sibley challenges the clichés about Florence's time in the national spotlight. She describes how Mrs. Harding supported racial equality, lobbied for better treatment for veterans and female prisoners, and maintained a lifelong interest in preventing animal cruelty. As adviser to her husband, she assisted with his speechwriting and consulted with the cabinet; she was also the first first lady to deliver spontaneous speeches while traveling with the president.

At a personal level, Sibley examines in detail how Mrs. Harding responded to her husband's death, assessing why this tragedy struck Americans with such force even as national empathy proved so fleeting. She also offers a more nuanced description of the president's philandering, viewing Nan Britton's claims with skepticism while noting the effects on Florence of his dalliance with Carrie Phillips.

Florence Harding bequeathed an activist legacy, and it is due to her example that aspiring presidential wives are expected to campaign with their husbands and be accessible to public and press. Florence Harding truly set the stage for those to follow; this book delivers the full and fair portrait that has long been her due.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700616497
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 4/30/2009
  • Series: Modern First Ladies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 380
  • Sales rank: 838,934
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Katherine A. S. Sibley is chair of the History Department at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia and author of Red Spies in America.

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Table of Contents

Editor's Foreword



1. Early Life, Marriages, and Ohio Politics, 1860-1915

2. Washington Life and the Presidential Campaign, 1915-1921

3. Inaugural Year 1921

4. Defining the Job, January–August 1922

5. Crisis and Convalescence, September 1922–August 1923

6. Crossing the Country, June–August 1923

7. Harding's Death and Its Aftermath, August 1923

8. Widowhood, August 1923–November 1924


Bibliographic Essay


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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2009

    Not the Whole Story

    Professor Sibley claims that "this book is the first to offer a full treatment of Florence as first lady, rather than as a supporting actress in a drama of scandalous dealings, womanizing, and illicit booze." (page 2), but is incorrect on two counts. Historian Carl Anthony has already done a masterful job detailing the life of Florence Harding ("Florence Harding: First Lady the Jazz Age and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President"). Then, her book unsuccessfully tries to divorce the life of Florence from her adulterous husband Warren. You cannot write in a vacuum. This is unfortunate, for in order to understand Florence, you have to deal with her husband. And when she does touch on Warren's sordid lifestyle, she does it in a way that always gives him the benefit of the doubt. The cover-up of Harding's scandalous lifestyle began with the Harding Memorial Association, formed shortly after his death. Family members then, and now, have managed, through lawsuit, intimidation; to keep pertinent factual information from competent historians. Sibley finally tells us on page 240, what all the rest of us have known, that because of this continual cover-up, no competent biography has been written, including hers. I quote: "Shrouded in mystery, the Harding years reminded subject to rumor and speculation of the worst kind, chiefly on the basis of the scandals that surfaced after Harding's death. Florence contributed to this poisoned picture in other ways; she refused to endorse any biography or collection of her husband's speeches that she did not direct or edit herself." This book is not the final full treatment that the author pretends. It is a rehash of old information. Little is learned from Florence's diary, which the author reports to have seen, but does not correctly cite, nor does she disclose where these papers are at present. Her treatment of Florence as First Lady, which was to main course of this book, has been relegated to an appetizer inserted in chapter four. And it consists of very thinly researched material concerning her life in the White House, her close friends, her kidney illness, and her experiences on the presidential trip out West. Most is fluff: tidbits revealed by news articles, but never really getting at the "real" Florence Harding. She even cites Ebay as a source of information! Instead of a proper Bibliography, the author cavalierly dismisses author upon author, only because they told the truth about the Harding scandals. She needs to heed her own advice given on page 324, note 27: "(There are) dangers of writing biographies and the ways in which perceived partisanship can poison a book's reception." Sibley is guilty herself of "corrosive bias, assiduous mudslinging" against other academic authors, without any proof provided in her refutation of them. Her biography is a diatribe against previous biographers of Harding...without offering any proof whatsoever. Mistakes are everywhere in this book, ad nauseum. Sibley is an academic "reputational entrepreneur," who attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Florence & Warren Harding. It can't be done.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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