When I look back on my life there are challenges and obstacles which I overcame to accomplish what, I thought, were important things. Yet reading this brilliantly crafted historical fiction work titled The First Ladies, authored by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, opened my eyes to the raw truth. I could have done more to contribute to the world in terms of “good” during my years so far on Earth. And yes, of course, there is still time.

Both of the “First Ladies” featured in this book, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, meet for the first time in an awkward setting in October 1927, at a luncheon where Eleanor (wife of FDR, the Governor of New York before she became the official American first lady) has gathered the heads of various esteemed women’s clubs from several states across the country.

Eleanor’s goal for this event is to get, “The best of the best” women together to collaborate on how to further the education and success of all women in every walk of life across America. The luncheon is a big deal and as host, Eleanor has invited Mary McLeod Bethune, the head of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the president of Bethune-Cookman College, a school for young black women.

But as soon as Mary enters the expansive conference room, the treatment of Mary by several of the women at the Women’s Club event is appalling, some insisting that Mary leave immediately and exclusively because of the color of her skin. Eleanor is shocked by the behavior from these supposed esteemed female leaders.

The cold hard truth slaps her in the face. She vows to herself that day, and one on one to Mary Bethune personally, and then to all attendees with her strong words as speaker that we all need to work together to, “Right” this foul wrong.” She is direct, crisp, and unrelenting with her message. And she knows that she will be committed to leading the way.

Although Eleanor is fired up, at first, she does not truly understand the enormity of the unequal treatment of black people in our country, which sadly includes a pronounced degree of racism and violence against people of color. But slowly and surely, Eleanor’s eyes are opened because of Mary, who becomes her friend and educates Eleanor regarding the realities of being “Negro” in America.

The lynchings of black men continued to frequently occur in several states during the 1920’s, 30’s and beyond, the segregation of blacks and whites on trains, in restaurants and hotels happened every day; and the poverty experienced by so many black families across the nation prevailed, especially during the depression years and far outnumbered the degree of white families critically impacted.

These facts and many others sober Eleanor’s perceptions. She begins to see the world through a new lens. The naivete carried for so many years in her younger life is replaced with her fired-up yearning to be a champion for equal rights; and she is determined to partner with the most influential and passionate black female leader she knows, Mary McLeod Bethune.

The close friendship between Eleanor and Mary deepens and flourishes over the next several decades. The two women work as one laser force, a beautiful and powerful force, with shared goals and enthusisasm. Although Eleanor is a committed Democrat dedicated to her husband, FDR, and Mary is a true Republican, enthusiastic supporter of Herbert Hoover, the two women forge a pact to drive progress in several areas: desegregation, equal rights, anti-lynching laws and the education for all women in America regardless of race, creed or religion.

Readers will love the ride of the The First Ladies, which is fully loaded with political, cultural and social accomplishments, yet with some disappointments and steps back. There are many obstacles to overcome, some close to FDR and inside the cabinet which he appointed. What really deepens the story are the family relationships shared behind the scenes for both Mary and Eleanor. The dry sense of humor and often pure playfulness between the two friends will warm the reader’s heart but then suddenly jerk the reader back to the cold shower of continued inequities in society.

The mix of history and the power in friendship pulls the reader in from the very first page of the book. I finished this novel in 48 hours. Yes, because I couldn’t put it down. I was thirsty for more every time I decided to close the book.

What I appreciated from both authors at the close of the book was the description of what was factually represented in the book and what was invented by the authors in terms of characters, relationships, and events that occurred. A great clarification for readers.

The First Ladies is sometimes painful to read, often uplifting and at moments exhilarating. Most of all, it’s an inspirational read. As I turned each page, I felt myself becoming more and more educated on what it was like to live in America in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, before I was born, regarding the extreme unequal treatment between whites and blacks. How bizarre it was! How bizarre it still is in some cases even today in 2024.

This book earned a 5 out of 5 rating from me. The First Ladies, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray should not be missed and I think should be placed on the top of your historical fiction must-reads pile of books. Finally, I’d also like to recommend that Book Clubs pick this one up as a read. Your discussion will be energizing, I guarantee it.


Linda S. Gunther has written six romantic suspense novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, Dream Beach. and Death Is A Great Disguiser. Most recently, Ms. Gunther’s memoir, A Bronx Girl (Growing up in the Bronx in the 1960’s) was published in 2023.