The position of First Lady, while unsalaried and without any official duties, is nonetheless a highly visible one, and its functions have evolved over time beyond the classic one of being the hostess of the White House.
In recent decades, we’ve become accustomed to seeing First Ladies adopt socially relevant causes and lend their charm and prestige to these non-partisan and non-divisive causes. Thus, Lady Bird Johnson adopted the causes of environmental protection and beautification of especially the nation’s capital; Pat Nixon promoted volunteerism; Betty Ford entered potentially divisive waters by championing women’s rights; Rosalynn Carter adopted mental disbilities as her cause; Nancy Reagan worked for drug awareness; Laura Bush advocated literacy, and Michelle Obama is emphasizing helping women balance career and family.
In Calvin and Grace Coolidge’s day, the role of First Lady was not yet as publicly visible as today. Her primary and customary role as hostess was one she filled with exemplary grace, easily complementing her retiring and introverted husband.
The one cause she adopted, in a quiet way, was her interest in the deaf. At the age of 23, she enrolled at the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. Here she learned lip reading, and the didactic necessities of working with and teaching deaf children. She began her work there by teaching primary children, and later taught in the intermediate school.
It was during her three years at Clarke that Grace Goodhue, as she was then, met Calvin Coolidge – her first encounter having a humorous touch, as reported by her biographer Ishbel Ross:
“One day as Grace was watering the flowers (…) she chanced to look up at the Weir House and saw a strange spectacle. A man stood at the window, shaving. Grace stared, for undeniably he wore a hat, and also apparently his union suit. She burst out laughing, then turned away and continued sprinkling the flowers. The man was Calvin Coolidge and he had heard the hearty laughter that was to become a familiar part of his future life.”
In her years in the White House, Grace Coolidge never forgot her interest in the cause of deaf people and while she did not publicly plead their cause or lent backing to the needs or demands of private institutions, she frequently mentioned the deaf, especially deaf children, at private and official functions, quietly spreading the word. Her concern for the special needs of the deaf undoubtedly caused her husband to give special heed to such programs that would affect the well-being of the handicapped. Shortly before the Coolidges left the White House, a group of wealthy and influential friends and backers, among them Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, philanthropist Edward S. Harkness, and publisher Cyrus H.K. Curtis, offered the president $2,000,000 to fund a memorial library or to use as he saw fit. Characteristically modest, the president declined the offer, and, no doubt thanks to the efforts of the First Lady, the full amount, a very substantial sum for the times, was used to fund the Clarke School.
In the final years of her life, she worked with her numerous private and political contacts to support a centennial development program for the school. As Ishbel Ross recounts, this was all done very quietly and after her death in 1957, fellow trustee Senator John F. Kennedy would comment:
“As a fellow trustee of Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, I have a strong personal recollection of her untiring devotion and labors throughout her life to this most worthy cause… Since her days in the White House she continued to epitomize the qualities of graciousness, charm and modesty which marked her as an ideal First Lady of the Land.”