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.
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
Abigail Fillmore: Education and Learning First
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 Roosevelt gradually broke out of the withdrawn and reserved strictures of earlier First Ladies by wading into a population suffering the worst deprivations of The Depression.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.
Betty Ford: The “My Way” First Lady