United by Pearls

Martha Washington’s pearl pin, Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Pearls have been worn by 24 of our First Ladies. Martha Washington started the tradition. Her uplifting dove-shaped pearl pin is a symbol of both peace and hope. Abigail Adams wore pink faux pearl beads. A Dolly Madison portrait shows a single strand of black pearls. More recently, Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama all kept the pearl tradition going, but it was Barbara Bush’s signature strands of faux pearls that seemed prominent every time she was photographed.

Pearl-wearing is alive and well with our first female Vice President, Kamala Harris. Pearls are a wisdom symbol for Harris’ college sorority, AKA, the first Black Greek-letter organization for women. Like Bush’s photos, the photos of Harris feature signature pearls, beginning with her college graduation picture.

Pearl-loving Barbara Bush wrote a book, Pearls of Wisdom: Little Pieces of Advice (That Go a Long Way). In opening words from her book are these precious-as-pearls words for daily life: “I can think of no better lesson to teach you than to try—and oh boy, how hard it is—to always find the good in people and not the bad.”

Her pearls-of-wisdom words are pearls of peace. When we think of others in positive ways, we experience inner peace. However, seeing the best traits or parts of another’s personality is often elusive in our culture-of-criticism today. We could use more pearls of wisdom–the phrase dates to the early 1800’s, although there are references to the preciousness of pearls in the Bible and the Quran. In Buddhism the pearl is a symbol of spiritual wealth.

Bush parleys many word gems in Pearls of Wisdom: “For heaven’s sake enjoy life. Don’t cry over things that were or things that aren’t. Enjoy what you have now to the fullest…people do not want to be around a whiner. We can always find people who are worse off, and we don’t have to look far! Help them….” 

The COVID pandemic provides us with both worse-off suffering and surprising opportunities. We have not yet grieved all of the lives lost to an invisible foe. However, this health crisis also is an opportunity for us to pull together, regardless of political party affiliation. Pearls are not worn only in red states or only in blue states. Can pearls unite us? 

Pearls of Peace (PoP) quiz:

8. Each person forms certain habits, often represented through symbolism, to live by. What symbols hold meaning for you?

9. What little pieces of advice do you give yourself on a daily basis? 

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. Love this pearl of wisdom. I will look through my jewelry collection and find my faux pearls. I’ll wear them to remember all the good wisdom from your post and the words of the many first ladies.


  2. I love your messages about pearls as a symbol of peace and hope from Martha Washington and the First Ladies! I found it quite touching. The dove has always been a reminder of peace for me, but I had none for hope. I’ll happily join the march and get out my pearls!


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