5 Influential First Ladies

Bruce Crumley takes a look at U.S. history’s most fascinating First Ladies

For decades, one of the most overlooked aspects of presidential elections was also the dearest to the eventual winner’s life: the woman he’d bring to the White House as First Lady. Over time, however, attention in the lives of candidates’ spouses has increased, as has appreciation of the contributions First Ladies make to their husband’s presidency – often while also advancing worthy causes of their own. So here is a partial rundown of some of history’s most influential American First Ladies.

Martha Washington: The Very First First Lady

After years of unflinchingly assisting George Washington’s demanding military and political engagements, Martha Washington found herself cut-off and subdued by the rigid protocol of the presidential residence that came with her husband’s election. Yet despite feeling “more like a state prisoner” without a life of her own, Mrs. Washington dutifully oversaw all the official functions and obligations required by the presidency. Her self-sacrifice and discipline set the standard for First Ladies.

Martha Washington, circa 1850, Rembrandt Peale (Collection: The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia)

Dolley Madison: A 16-Year Reign

Dolley Madison took Martha Washington’s example and went even further. She first assumed the responsibilities of First Lady on behalf of widowed President Thomas Jefferson, and she only relinquished it 16 years later after her husband James Madison succeeded Jefferson for two presidential terms.

During that time, Mrs. Madison served as the welcoming face of America to visiting dignitaries, while also showing considerable political savvy in advising her presidential husband. She also demonstrated gritty patriotism: as British forces advanced on the White House during the war of 1812, Mrs. Madison rushed many of its national treasures to safety before the invading army set about destroying the building

Dolley Madison, 1848, William S. Elwell (From the collection of Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery)

Abigail Fillmore: Education and Learning First

Abigail Fillmore embraced what became a beloved cause of many First Ladies: the promotion of education and learning. She met future husband Millard Fillmore at school – she a teacher, he a student two-years younger – and later aided his rising political career all the way to the presidency.

Once there, she oversaw the creation of the White House library – selecting books and overseeing the collection as it grew towards its current status as one of the richest historical book archives in the country. That proved no small feat: prior to Fillmore’s election, Congress resisted efforts to establish a library in the White House, fearing the collection of knowledge would make presidents too powerful.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Model Modern First Lady

The arrival of Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady transformed the post into its current energetic, activist incarnation. Though initially forbidden from engaging in any of the political and organizing activity that had been central to her adult life, Mrs. Roosevelt gradually broke out of the withdrawn and reserved strictures of earlier First Ladies by wading into a population suffering the worst deprivations of The Depression.

While never shirking official duties back in Washington, Mrs. Roosevelt took up many different social and cultural causes during her travels across the nation, holding press conferences, hosting radio programs and writing newspaper columns along the way. In addition to serving her husband’s presidency and advancing a progressive position of her own, she later served as an official at the United Nations.

Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declarations of Human Rights, 1949, National Archives and Records Administration (From the U.S. National Archives collection)

Betty Ford: The “My Way” First Lady

Some 40 years later, Betty Ford stepped into the First Lady role with Mrs. Roosevelt’s engaged and inspiring spirit – though not always in a way her husband’s Republican backers liked.

Mrs. Ford became an outspoken supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment for women, and similarly took a pro-choice position that rankled some conservatives. As part of this work, Mrs. Ford spoke publicly about the rights of women to lead their lives free of judgment and stigma – stances normally considered the domain of liberals in that era. In spite of criticism from some fellow Republicans, Mrs. Ford’s actions as First Lady earned her Time magazine’s 1975 Woman of the Year distinction, and wide public respect.

As brave in private life as she was in public, Mrs. Ford did not shy from openly discussing her battle with breast cancer – a topic still disastrously avoided in ‘polite’ conversation. She later acknowledged her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, helping launch the Betty Ford Center in 1982 to assist people with chemical dependencies.

Learn more about the presidency and American Democracy.

Story by Bruce Crumley
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