How Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford navigated White House

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

(L to R) Michelle Pfeiffer plays Betty Ford, Viola Davis plays Michelle Obama, and Gillian Anderson plays Eleanor Roosevelt in “The First Lady.” Credit: Ramona Rosales/Showtime.

Showtime’s “The First Lady” focuses on the private lives of Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), and Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer). They came from different socioeconomic backgrounds and lived in the White House at different times, but the series shows parallels between each woman. 

Why did showrunner Cathy Schulman choose these three specifically? She tells Press Play that it started with Michelle Obama, who she believes has become the most beloved of all first ladies. 

“It seemed important to analyze where the roots of her experience in the White House, which was really defined by attempts at desegregation and anti-racism, where did it all begin? And that led us straight to Eleanor Roosevelt … who really did set the wheels in motion for desegregation in America … [and] the importance of women's voices. … That led us straight to the amazing Betty Ford who … had been incredibly vocal about alcoholism and drug abuse. … [She was also willing to] speak openly about breast cancer, which ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of American women,” she explains. 

When all three women entered the White House, they were told to take a backseat to their husbands and not be outspoken. They all tried to buck the system in their own ways. 

Viola Davis plays Michelle Obama in “The First Lady.” Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/Showtime. 

Michelle Obama was asked to fully sublimate her voice, says Schulman. “That's a pretty amazing thing to ask of a person as formidable as her. I mean, she was a successful career woman in her own right. And the fact that she was the first Black woman in this White House built by slaves, I think she struggled a lot with how much she really could rock the boat.”

Obama was constantly criticized, particularly for her attitude and supposed anger, Schulman notes. “I don't actually think she's an angry person at all. I feel that she had so many more cages around her.” 

However, Betty Ford, a progressive Republican, was considered a threat by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, says Schulman. “The traditional values and the traditional habits of a Republican first lady, in their minds, needed to be that she stood behind her man, and she threw dinner parties. … And the support she got for being open about breast cancer just put her at odds with her husband's own cabinet.”

Ford maintained her activism after she left the White House, and Roosevelt kept it up until she died. “Michelle Obama's is an incomplete story at the moment, so interesting to watch.” 

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Betty Ford in “The First Lady.” Credit: Murray Close/Showtime. 

Gillian Anderson plays Eleanor Roosevelt in “The First Lady.” Credit: Daniel McFadden/Showtime.