For someone who considered being a marine biologist or a diplomat, Lisa Burns, Ph.D., has certainly taken an interesting journey. Burns is currently an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Quinnipiac University and just published her first book: First Ladies and Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives. She claims that she “never could have planned it,” but the book has been out since this past August.
In her book, Burns looks at five leading newspapers and magazines and investigates the media’s attention on the presidents’ wives. She pulled together information from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s to discuss a position, the First Lady, that has played an interesting and valuable role in American society.
“The position is very public,” said Burns, “but it’s not defined in the Constitution.”
Burns first became really interested in the topic of First Ladies during the 2000 election campaign.
“When I was tracing the coverage, I was fascinated that the stories weren’t about [Laura Bush and Tipper Gore],” explained Burns, “They were just comparing them to Hillary.”
Burns wants readers to see that the First Lady has been a role model for American women, and her book shows how difficult it is for these women to find a balance between the traditional and non-traditional roles of the First Lady. One woman who Burns feels was a particularly strong role model was Claudia “Ladybird” Johnson for her leading strides in feminism and the bravery to campaign at whistle stops in the southern states right in the midst of the civil rights movement.
Burns holds a Doctorate in communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and holds a Master’s degree in rhetoric and a Bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, both from Duquesne University. However, she considers her new book to be her greatest accomplishment.
“I never would have thought that I would be a published author,” Burns said, “I was the first in my family not only to graduate, but to get my Ph.D. Now I have a book, too.”
“The Media Studies program is very fortunate to have a scholar and teacher the caliber of Professor Burns,” media studies chair Nancy Worthington said. “Her enthusiasm for everything she does is infectious–as I’m sure any student who’s taken one of her classes will tell you.”
That enthusiasm will help to drive her research for her next book, which will focus on presidential museums–a topic she stumbled upon while researching presidents’ wives.
Burns’ Media History class does focus on much of the First Lady coverage, especially in this year’s stirring election. In the 2008 campaign, both Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain have received the same treatment as their predecessors. Burns claims McCain has been cast into the “traditional role” and could be compared to Nancy Regan, right down to the “Nancy gaze”.
On the other side of the ticket, Burns feels Barack Obama’s supporters do not want Michelle Obama to be seen like Hillary Clinton.
“They want her to be like the anti-Hillary,” Burns said.
She predicts that Michelle Obama will assume a role very similar to the one that Jackie Kennedy played, right down to the “bob” haircut.
Burns also strongly believes that Sarah Palin will change the dynamics in the coverage of the first ladies. Usually, the candidate’s wives cover the so-called “women’s issues,” like education and childcare. Although Obama and McCain are still getting their voices heard, Sarah Palin will probably become the female mouthpiece of this election.
So with a book, a Ph.D, and a recent interview on CNN, what keeps her at Quinnipiac?
“The students,” Burns said. “I love the students. They are very motivated and I don’t have to worry about students not wanting to be in the classroom. They are so gung-ho to go out and get jobs–I’ll live vicariously through them.”