Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Reagan, Nancy from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US first lady. Fiercely protective of her husband, President Ronald Reagan, she was criticized by some for her interference in White House decision-making, but others argued that she provided a realistic counterweight to her husband's more casual and conservative approach.

She was born in New York City. After studying drama at Smith College, she became an actor in Hollywood where she met Ronald Reagan; they married in 1952. Her book The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan was published in 2000. It is a non-political collection of love letters, telegrams, and notes from her husband, proceeds from which have been donated to the Alzheimer's Foundation (the disease from which Ronald Reagan announced in 1994 that he was suffering) and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation for the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum.


Summary Article: Reagan, Nancy from Encyclopedia of Motherhood

Nancy Reagan, the wife of Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, was born on July 6, 1921, in New York City as Anne Francis Robbins. Influenced by her mother, Edith Robbins, a stage actress, she double-majored in theater and English at Smith College and pursued a Hollywood career. She performed in 11 films from 1949 to 1956, including Shadow on the Wall; East Side, West Side; and Hellcats of the Navy with Ronald Reagan. They married in 1952 and had two children: in 1952, Patricia Anne (who uses the professional name Patti Davis), and in 1958, Ronald Jr., and Nancy was also stepmother to her husband's children from his first marriage with Jane Wyman: Maureen Elizabeth Reagan and Michael Edward Reagan.

During the run for presidency in 1976, Nancy Reagan always supported her husband and tried to stay behind the scenes. She was sometimes criticized as an anachronism, denying what the American women had become. Nancy Reagan was often seen as the woman pulling the strings, interfering with personnel and influencing the President; she was even reported to pressure her husband to pursue peace with the Soviets.

Nancy Reagan emphasized the importance of her role as a wife and mother; although a professional actress before her marriage (as Nancy Davis), she retired soon after her marriage. She found her fulfillment in the traditional role of wife and mother, saying, “My life really began when I married my husband.… A woman's real happiness and real fulfillment come from within the home with her husband and children.” Even more notably, when her husband was shot in 1981 by would-be assassin John W. Hinkley, Nancy Reagan publicly expressed sympathy for Hinkley's parents.

In Reagan's first years in office, Nancy was lauded as one who brought style back to the White House; as Ronald Reagan said once, Nancy Reagan filled the role of homemaker plus that of actress and public figure, thereby putting her character to her office. However, she was soon criticized for elitism. According to Gallup poll in 1981, 62 percent of those polled felt that Nancy Reagan put too much emphasis on style and elegance, and 61 percent believed that she was less sympathetic to those underprivileged and poor. The media framed the situation as the “Nancy problem” and nicknamed her Queen Nancy and Dragon Lady. In order to transform her negative image, she downsized her extravagant attitudes and provided the media with a more sympathetic image.

Adopting her Just Say No antidrug abuse campaign was extremely successful. The campaign, aimed at children, mothers of young children, and young adults was intended to teach them to resist peer pressure: if offered drugs, they were instructed by the campaign to “just say no.” The campaign was launched in 1982 and Reagan made many public appearances in its support, even appearing on the television programs Dynasty and Diff'rent Strokes as well as the music video Stop the Madness to publicize the cause. Although there was criticism for the program—as simplistic for failing to take into account the complex issues facing young people, particularly those from less fortunate backgrounds—all the same, “just say no” became a popular catchphrase.

By 1986, Nancy Reagan had traveled 100,000 miles, made 49 speeches, gave 1,254 media interviews, and mobilized 5 million people to her causes. In 1985, she convened the First Ladies Summit with participation of the wives of 17 heads of the state. In 1985, polls showed that Mrs. Reagan's popularity was greater than even the President's: 72 percent to 62 percent.

Nancy Reagan took a caretaking role for her husband after the 1981 assassination attempt, and again when he became debilitated with Alzheimer's disease in the mid-1990s. The experience of caring for her husband and witnessing his deterioration from Alzheimer's emboldened her to speak out in favor of stem cell research after Ronald's death in 2004, a cause opposed by many conservatives, including then-president George W. Bush. In her public statements, she specifically referenced her husband's experiences with Alzheimer's and her desire to spare other families the pain she experienced from the inexorable decline of her husband's mental faculties.

See Also:

Bush, Barbara, Care Giving, Drug Abuse, Politics and Mothers, Social Action and Mothering

Bibliography
  • Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Muir, Janette Kenner and Moony, Mary. “Nancy Reagan: Leading Lady, Supporting Actress or Bit Player?” In Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century,Molly Meijer Wertheimer, ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Little-field, 2004.
  • Reagan, Nancy. My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. New York: Random House, 1989.
  • Troy, Gil. Affairs of State, The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple Since World War II. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
  • Watson, Robert P. The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.
  • Parmaksiz, Pinar Melis Yelsali
    Ankara University, Turkey
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Nancy Reagan
    A Companion to First Ladies

    Few first ladies have seen their time in the White House more heavily debated than Nancy Reagan, wife of Ronald Reagan and first lady from 1981 to 1

    Full text Article Reagan, Nancy (1923)
    The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women

    She's a warm and generous personHow do you describe someone that makes your life like coming into a warm room? —Ronald...

    Full text Article Reagan, Nancy
    American Government A to Z: The Presidency A to Z

    Nancy Reagan (1923–) was the second wife of Ronald Reagan, who served as president from 1981 to 1989. Both praised and faulted for her fierce...

    See more from Credo