The wives of Iowa’s 43 governors are the subject matter of a new “First Ladies” exhibit in the governor’s mansion in Des Moines. Iowa’s current First Lady, Christie Vilsack, is the one who launched the project. “When I started looking for information about Iowa’s First Ladies, what I found was inaccurate. It wasn’t historically correct,” Mrs. Vilsack says. “I was a little embarassed for the fact that we had not attended to the history of the First Ladies.”
It took months of research to assemble the information for the display because Mrs. Vilsack says in some cases even the obituaries of some of Iowa’s First Ladies were filled with information about the governors, but not the women themselves. During today’s unveiling, Mrs. Vilsack read aloud from the exhibit itself. “And I love this language: ‘History has all but forgotten Iowa’s First Ladies. It is as if their biographies were written in invisible ink, yet their impact on the course of Iowa history is as certain as the influence they had on the Iowa governors they knew as husbands,'” Mrs. Vilsack recited.
Former First Lady Chris Branstad, the wife of former Governor Terry Branstad, says she discovered something new about herself when she saw the exhibit. “I was I think maybe the youngest First Lady to ever be a First Lady because I was 30. I had two small children, a baby that was born a year later and (I was) scared to death. I couldn’t imagine being here, doing this job. It took me a long time to say my name in public, I think,” Mrs. Branstad says. She was Iowa’s First Lady for 16 years, and in the last six she made history. “I was the first First Lady to have a job, outside the home, for a paycheck.”
Former First Lady Billie Ray, the wife of former Governor Robert Ray, was Iowa’s First Lady when the state took posession of Terrace Hill, the Victorian mansion that became the official residence of Iowa governors. Her work on the home is chronicalled in the new exhibit and Mrs. Ray says she feels fortunate to have been there to design the third-floor private-residence for her family and the First Families to follow. “I had been around to a lot of governor’s mansions in the country and I thought the ones that are the most spectacular and the most enjoyed are the ones where the governor lives in the mansion,” Mrs. Ray says. “Now, it’s beautiful as a museum, but it’s a lot better to have a live museum.”
The First Ladies exhibit is in the visitor’s waiting area in the basement of the governor’s mansion and tours of the home will be reorganized to include a stop at the exhibit.