Saturday, February 15, 2014

First Ladies: Siena rank vs. Skiena rank?

As part of a collaboration with C-SPAN, Siena Research Institute has just presented the results of its latest historian poll ranking the top American First Ladies, i.e. the wives of the presidents.  They have conducted five such rankings over the past 31 years, through a process of asking experts where they rank in such categories as Background, Value to the Country, Leadership, Being her own Woman, Accomplishments, and Courage.

We constructed our own rankings of First Ladies in Who's Bigger, through Wikipedia analysis, so it is an interesting exercise to compare our rankings.  Bottom line -- we come off quite well.

We agree with the poll's selection of Eleanor Roosevelt as the top first lady.  In fact, six of our top ten appear among the top ten in the Siena Poll.   All of our top ten rank in the top half of the 38 first ladies ranked by Siena, except for one.   We regard Mary Todd Lincoln as the fifth most significant first lady, where they rank her as the 30th best.   There is no contradiction here: the meme associated with Mary Todd Lincoln is of a needy, crazy woman tormenting her husband when he really had other things to deal with.  She was indeed historically significant, but not in a favorable sense.

Our ranking of the ten least significant First Ladies included three Siena didn't bother to rank.  Chester Arthur and Martin Van Buren were widowers when they entered the White House, so it questionable whether we should have considered their spouses at all.   William Henry Harrison died after a month in office, barely leaving his wife with time to unpack.  Our remaining seven slots are filled with four from Siena's bottom ten (the wives of Taylor, Pierce, Fillmore, and McKinley), with the remaining three all ranking in the bottom half of the Siena poll.

These results demonstrate the ability of our ranking methods to tease apart significance even of relatively minor historical figures (the average first lady ranks in the neighborhood of 15-20,000 or so). My suspicion is that Wikipedia-based rankings does particularly well at this task because the expert panelists probably snuck peaks at the encyclopedia to help answer the poll!   I expect very few historians could keep straight the accomplishments of all the first ladies without a refresher.