The Lives of Three U.S. First Ladies

It’s an exclusive club: the women who have served as FLOTUS (that’s First Lady of the United States). Although they held their ‘office’ simply by being the wives of Presidents, the 3 First Ladies we’ll follow in this Expedition led meaningful political lives of their own.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Dolley Payne Madison (Mrs. James Madison) (1804) by Gilbert StuartThe White House

Each began by supporting her husband but soon earned a place in history on her own merits, combining exemplary communication skills with a willingness to fight for important causes. 

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt (Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt) (1949) by Douglas Granville ChandorThe White House

As we visit places that touched these women’s lives, we’ll consider how the role of FLOTUS has changed and stayed the same over the last 250 years as well as the losses and successes these women experienced during their lifetimes.

Dolley Madison (1848) by William S. ElwellSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The Lady of Montpelier

Dolley Payne was a young widow with a son when she met and married the wealthy Congressman, James Madison—17 years her senior—in 1794. The couple soon moved to his family plantation in Virginia.

Even during the two terms James Madison served as President (1809 to 1817), they spent much of their time at Monticello. Here, Dolley shone as homemaker and hostess. This lavish sitting room is where the Madison’s received frequent guests.

‘The Hall of Notables’

The busts of many of the nation’s founding fathers—all friends of the Madisons—including George Washington, John Adams, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin, stare aloofly at visitors. Portraits of luminaries, including James and Dolley and Thomas Jefferson, also hang prominently.

Game Table

Dolley was known as a great conversationalist. She was very good at getting guests to reveal their opinions about political issues. We can imagine her doing this over a game of whist, one of the most popular card games of the 19th century.

Discoveries during Restoration

During restoration, workers discovered red-flocked wallpaper stuck to a window frame and a mouse nest that used red silk threads. Based on these finds, the room features crimson flocked wallpaper and a replica of the fabric that Dolley ordered from France.

The Public Celebrity of Lady Madison

The Madisons’ dining room at Montpelier was a lively center of social and political discussion. Most historians agree that Dolley’s popularity as a Washington D.C. hostess contributed significantly to her husband’s political success.

As first lady, she set a new standard for the role, involving herself in home decorating and fashion choices to correspondence and political appointments. She was the first FLOTUS to formally support a specific project: a home for young orphaned girls. 

Diplomacy in the Dining Room

Customarily, the man of the house sat at the head of the table. However, Dolley was a better conversationalist that her husband; in fact, her sharp wit and articulate intelligence made her the life of their parties.

Photographs and Engravings from History

The Madisons celebrated history at every opportunity. The dining room is hung with 32 images, including portraits of Napoleon and Confucius, scenes from Stockholm and New Orleans, and engravings of famous battles and other historical events. 

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1905 (printed later)) by Pach Brothers StudioSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In My Mother-in-Law’s House

In 1902, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt encountered her distant cousin, Franklin, on a train. A romance began that led to their marriage on March 17, 1905. The couple settled on East 65th Street in New York City, in a house owned by Franklin’s mother, a doting and domineering woman with an only child.

In this home, Eleanor and Franklin raised six children before FDR won the White House in 1920. Eleanor once commented that her children were more her mother-in-law’s than they were hers.

A Double-Sided Home

The entryway inside the double iron doors leads to two separate houses. Mother lived in No. 47; Franklin and Eleanor in No. 49. The mirror-image residences could be connected by opening sliding pocket doors on two of the floors.

Six Stories and a Basement

Each unit had six stories and an elevator. First floors had reception rooms and dining rooms. Second floors held libraries and drawing rooms. Bedrooms were on the third and fourth floors. The fifth and sixth floors housed employees and workspaces.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and family at Campobello (1920-07-27) by Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

A Life of Service Begins

Under President Woodrow Wilson, FDR became Secretary of the Navy (1913-1920), and Eleanor became more politically active. 

Beyond the customary social calls and event hosting Eleanor began to show her political prowess as an advocate for Americans who struggled in different ways. 

By Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

For example, she joined with First Lady Ellen Wilson to demolish or repair housing that were unsanitary or dangerous for the poorest citizens of Washington D.C.

Residents at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital served mentally ill veterans. After Eleanor Roosevelt became an ardent supporter, the institution’s budget increased built, and this recreation centre was added. 

Eleanor lobbied the government to create a commission that would investigate and improve veterans’ services.

Val-Kill Cottage

During Franklin Roosevelt’s 3 terms as president, the Roosevelts often spent time at Franklin’s family estate in Hyde Park, New York. Franklin gave a piece of land on the estate to Eleanor and her friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. 

They built Stone Cottage as living quarters for Nancy and Marion and Val-Kill Cottage as an experimental furniture factory, where local people were trained in craft skills. When the factory eventually closed, Eleanor renovated Val-Kill as a comfortable retreat from public life.


This photograph shows Eleanor with her younger brothers Elliot and Hall. Eleanor’s father was an alcoholic and had been committed to an asylum. Her mother died when she was 8, and brother Elliot died soon after. Eleanor and Hall were raised by their grandmother.

Piano Lessons

As a girl, Eleanor was tutored in French and German, and she studied the piano. At 15 she entered Allenswood Academy, where piano lessons continued. She always remembered listening to one of her aunts playing the piano as a joy of her childhood.

On the Radio

As first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt used radio to advance her ideas and causes. She hosted several on-going radio programs and made dozens of additional broadcasts. The income she made from commercial broadcasts allowed her to support the charities she cared about.

Meeting with JFK

When John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination in the 1960 presidential race, he knew he needed Eleanor’s support to take the White House. In this intimate corner of the living room, Kennedy convinced Roosevelt that he would further the causes she cared about.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-08-16)Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site

From Service to Courageous Activism

 In 1920, FDR suffered paralysis due to polio. At first, his wife never left his side. Eventually, with the help of aides, Eleanor became freer to follow her own career as an activist in organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the World Peace Movement, and the Todhunter School for Girls.

Eleanor in a New York City studio (1942-10-19) by Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

When FDR became President in 1933, she wrote columns in magazines and newspapers, hosted her own radio broadcasts and became an outspoken and passionate proponent of both gender and racial equality.

Marian Anderson (1960) by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

A Rejection of Racism

Eleanor resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they banned African-American opera singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall. In 1939, she supported Anderson’s concert here at the Lincoln Memorial and hosted Anderson at the White House. 

Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations (1946/1947) by Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

The Longest Serving FLOTUS

No first lady served longer than Eleanor Roosevelt. During her years in the White House, she visited with veterans and continued to work as a writer, public speaker, and media figure. After FDR died in 1945, she remained in New York as a tireless political leader. 

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949-11) by Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationU.S. National Archives

She was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

The United Nations Plaza

After World War II, New York City became the home of the United Nations. President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the first American delegation, the only woman on the team. She represented the U.S. from 1945 until 1952. 

Jacqueline Bouvier: Budding Writer

Born into a wealthy New York family in 1929, Jacqueline Bouvier attended boarding and finishing schools amidst family turmoil between her parents. At a young age, she was an exceptional student and an accomplished writer.

Jfk Wedding (1953) by Lisa LarsenLIFE Photo Collection

She spent her junior year of college in Paris and then went on to complete a B.A. in French Literature. Soon after she accepted a job in Washington, she met a dashing young Senator. Their 1953 marriage was the talk of the town. 

A Foundation at Vassar College, NY

At Vassar College, Bouvier participated in drama and wrote for the newspaper, laying the foundation for a life of letters. When she met John F. Kennedy in 1952, their mutual love of reading sparked the romance. Jackie helped her husband write Profiles in Courage.

By Joe ScherschelLIFE Photo Collection

The White House, Children, and Loss

Jackie became first lady in 1961 at the age of 31 and brought two young children, Caroline and John, Jr., to the White House. She devoted her time to her children, the restoration of the White House, and to the promotion and preservation of American arts and history. 

 She lost an infant son in 1963, and historians agree that the First Couple’s shared grief brought them closer together.

Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas

Jacqueline Kennedy’s life pivoted when her husband was assassinated here on November 23, 1962. She planned JFK’s funeral, managed his library, slipped in and out of depression, and later, became an editor in some of New York’s major publishing houses.

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