Women of their times: Exhibit celebrates Arkansas first ladies

Recently, I retired from a career that I dearly loved. I was a registered nurse at the Conway Human Development Center for 37 years. I loved my profession. One of the most rewarding parts of working in a long-term care facility was the opportunity to know and care for the same individuals for many years. I have told many people the best part of working at the Conway Human Development Center was getting to age with the folks at the Center. 

But, back to this month’s story. Being retired now allows me to wander around the 501 on weekdays. I am enjoying visiting many of our state’s museums and exhibits during times when there are less people.   

While in Little Rock recently on one cold and windy day, I made it back to the Old State House Museum to see the newly renovated exhibit titled First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times. I had seen the exhibit many times but the new exhibit is well worth a trip to the Old State House even if you have seen it before.  

The exhibit’s focus is not just the fashions of the day, but on the lives and the accomplishments of the wives of Arkansas governors. This exhibit is the largest exhibition of first ladies’ gowns outside of the Smithsonian Institution.  

The museum has gowns from 28 of the Arkansas’s 47 first ladies and includes every first lady’s gown since 1901. Gowns worn by Susan Hutchinson, Ginger Beebe, Barbara Pryor, Hillary Clinton, Mabel Martineau, Elizabeth Little, Ewilda Robinson, Anne McMath, Betty Tucker, Gay White, Jeannette Rockefeller, Alta Faubus, Anne Brough, Betty Bumpers, Janet Huckabee, Margaret Cherry and Eula Terral are presently in the exhibit. 

Not all of the gowns housed at the State House are on exhibit at this time. Light, time, climate and gravity are harmful to fabrics. Some of the older gowns have faded and have deteriorated over the years. They are now being protected as a historical artifact. Plans are for the dresses to be rotated on and off for display, so the exhibit will change from time to time.  

Along with the first ladies’ gowns, personal items and accessories are included in the display, such as jewelry, purses and shoes. The items – which share the personality and interests of the first ladies – include Gay White’s duct-taped hiking boots. She wore the hiking boots on a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. While she was hiking the boots fell apart and she repaired them with duct-tape.  

Ginger Beebe’s tennis shoes are also on display. She broke her ankle prior to the inaugural ball and was unable to wear high heels, so she wore Adidas tennis shoes. They are displayed right next to Mrs. Beebe’s beautiful formal gown. 

Also part of the display are Barbara Pryor’s denim shirt and denim pants that she wore during the 1978 campaign, and Anne McMath’s handkerchief and campaign dress. 

The Old State House asks each first lady to donate something to represent her in the collection. First ladies are not required to donate their inaugural gowns, but it has become a tradition that each new first lady has contributed her gown, or in the case of Betty Bumpers, her sister’s dress. When Mrs. Bumpers was getting ready for her husband’s inaugural ball, her sister came in and Mrs. Bumpers’ sister liked her dress better, so the sisters traded dresses.  

The oldest dress in the collection is Mary Kavanaugh Oldham’s dress from the 1889 inauguration.  

The exhibit admission is free and is open to the public. The Old State House Museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. It is located at 300 West Markham in Little Rock.  

The exhibit is not only about pretty dresses but it includes what these ladies did prior to and after their husbands completed their terms. Many of our first ladies were business women, public officials, authors, educators and activists. They have been and continue to be involved in education, politics, healthcare, the arts, farming, preservation of historical sites, environmental issues and the suffrage movement. The role of the Arkansas first lady has evolved over time. They continue to run the Governor’s Mansion and household. They still act as the hostess for many official events, but they also advocate for issues that are important to them.  

Linda Henderson
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