First Ladies of the United States and Their Causes

The role of the First Lady of the United States has come a long way from the traditional hostess to something more influential. Throughout history, various presidents' wives ladies used the position to effect change at the White House, the country, and the world.

Two prominent first ladies, Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt, are credited for strengthening the role, according to the First Ladies Library. Madison viewed the public as her constituents, and Roosevelt asserted a stronger presence of political involvement, voicing her views on issues of social welfare and justice.

Several of these women took on the role reluctantly, and many suffered family tragedies, serious illness, death, and the burden of war during their term.

For Presidents Day, we give a nod to those women who served in this unelected and constantly evolving role in the White House, and a brief look at their causes. Most of the information is from the White House's information page on first ladies.

To learn more about the White House, its history or about past presidents and first ladies, visit WhiteHouse.gov.

Melania Trump
Melania Trump

Melania Trump enjoyed a high-profile modeling career starting at the age of 16. In April 2010, she launched her own jewelry collection. Now, as first lady, she is involved with several charities, including the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Boys Club of New York, and the American Red Cross. Her spokesperson told Vogue magazine in October that "...her focus is the overall well-being of children. This can include many things, including drug addiction, poverty, disease, trafficking, hunger, or teaching children the values of empathy and communication, which are at the core of kindness, mindfulness, integrity, and leadership."

Above, Trump speaks with children at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Nov. 10, 2017.

Photo: Master Sgt. Joshua Jasper

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama

A lawyer, writer, and the wife of the 44th President, Barack Obama, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama was the first African-American first lady of the U.S. She is an advocate for healthy families, service members and their families, higher education, and international adolescent girls' education. In 2011, she helped launch Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative calling all Americans to rally around service members, veterans, and their families and support them through wellness, education, and employment opportunities.

Above, Obama and children tour the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi in 2010.

Laura Bush
Laura Bush

Laura Lane Bush was first lady from 2001 to 2009, advocating for historic education reform and the well-being of women and families worldwide. A former teacher and librarian, she focused on advancing education and promoting global literacy. After the Sept. 11 attacks, she was an outspoken supporter of the women of Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton

Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton served as the first lady of the United States to the 42nd president, Bill Clinton. She went on to become a U.S. secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York. In 2016, Clinton was the Democratic party's nominee for president. As first lady, she was a leading advocate for expanding health insurance coverage, ensuring children are properly immunized, and raising public awareness of health issues.

Barbara Bush
Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush is both the wife of a president and the mother of a president. She promoted literacy as her special cause. A strong advocate of volunteerism, Barbara Bush helped many causes, including the homeless, AIDS, the elderly, and school volunteer programs.

Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan

From Broadway actress to first lady, Nancy Reagan is remembered for her advocacy for decreasing drug and alcohol abuse, especially among young people. She spent many hours visiting veterans, the elderly, and the emotionally and physically disabled. With a lifelong interest in the arts, she used the White House as a showcase for talented young performers in the PBS television series "In Performance at the White House."

Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter

Eleanor Rosalynn Carter, the wife of 39th President, Jimmy Carter, was first lady from 1977 to 1981.  As first lady, she focused national attention on the performing arts, and programs to aid mental health, the community, and the elderly.

Above, Carter testifies before a senate subcommittee regarding her capacity as honorary chairman of the President's Commission on Mental Health in 1979.

Elizabeth "Betty" Ford
Elizabeth "Betty" Ford

In her first year in the White House, 1974, Betty Ford had to undergo radical surgery for breast cancer. She was noted for raising breast cancer awareness and being a passionate supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was frank about her successful battle against dependency on drugs and alcohol. She helped establish the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcohol abuse. She died in 2011.

Patricia Nixon
Patricia Nixon

As the wife of the President Richard Nixon, Thelma Catherine "Pat" Ryan Nixon was First Lady of the United States from 1969 to 1974. She was an avid supporter of charitable causes and volunteerism. She added 600 paintings and antiques to the White House Collection. She died in 1993.

Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson
Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson

Thrust into the role of first lady as the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) after the assassination of President Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson broke ground for her role by interacting with Congress directly and advocating strongly for beautifying the nation's cities and highways. She was a shrewd investor and manager.

Jacqueline Kennedy
Jacqueline Kennedy

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy had a strong interest in the arts that was much publicized, and inspired a new national attention to culture. She devoted much time and study to making the White House a museum of American history and decorative arts. After her husband's assassination, she married Aristotle Onassis and worked in New York City as an editor for Doubleday.

Mamie Eisenhower
Mamie Eisenhower

The Eisenhowers entertained an unprecedented number of heads of state and leaders of foreign governments, and Mamie's evident enjoyment of her role endeared her to her guests and to the public. According to Biography.com, she disliked Senator Joseph McCarthy and made sure he was never invited to any White House social functions. As wife of Dwight D. Eisenhower, she was first lady from 1953 to 1961.

Elizabeth "Bess" Truman
Elizabeth "Bess" Truman

Elizabeth Virginia "Bess" Truman was the wife of Harry S. Truman and First Lady of the United States from 1945 to 1953. She served as her husband's secretary and was known for often voicing her opinions. Above, actress Ingrid Bergman pins a corsage on Truman.

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving first lady throughout her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms in office (1933-1945). She was a politician, diplomat and activist who later served as a United Nations spokeswoman.
She broke precedent by holding press conferences, and traveled all over the country, giving lectures and radio broadcasts, and expressed her opinions candidly in a daily syndicated newspaper column, "My Day."

Above, Roosevelt, left, with Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston Churchill, in Quebec.

Lou Hoover
Lou Hoover

Lou Henry Hoover was first lady from 1929 to 1933 as the wife of the 31st president, Herbert Hoover. An avid Chinese linguist and geology scholar, she was also the first first lady to make regular nationwide radio broadcasts. At the White House, she restored Lincoln's study for her husband's use, and used her own money to pay the cost of reproducing furniture owned by Monroe for a period sitting room in the White House.

Grace Coolidge
Grace Coolidge

Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge and her husband, Calvin Coolidge, entered the White House after President Warren G. Harding's death in office. She planned the new administration's social life, and was one of the most popular hostesses of the White House, from 1923-1929.

Florence Harding
Florence Harding

Florence Kling Harding reopened the White House and grounds to the public when her husband, Warren G. Harding took office in 1921. Both had been closed through the previous President Wilson's illness. The Hardings held poker parties in the White House library, and Florence was known as "The Duchess." President Harding died in office in 1923. Above, a photo of Florence Harding ran on the entire front page of the New York Daily News after she told the photographer it was "the best photo ever taken."

Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson
Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson

Ellen Axson Wilson, left, was the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson and first lady of the U.S. from 1913 until her death in 1914. A descendant of slave owners, Ellen Wilson lent her prestige to the cause of improving housing for black Americans in the capital.

After she died, Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, right. She served as first lady from 1915 to 1921. After the president suffered a severe stroke, Edith Wilson pre-screened all matters of state, basically running the executive branch of government for the remainder of Wilson's second term. She is sometimes called the "Secret President," and the "first woman to run the government." In the 1920 image at right, Wilson was paralyzed on his left side, so Edith holds a document steady while he signs. 

Helen Taft
Helen Taft

In the role of first lady from 1909 to 1913, Helen Taft made many changes that were seen, at the time, as positive for African-Americans. According to FirstLadies.org, the great legacy of Taft's years in the White House was the creation and development of what is now known as West Potomac Park, inspired by the cherry trees she had seen when she had lived in Japan.

Edith Roosevelt
Edith Roosevelt

Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt was the second wife and first lady of her childhood companion and the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt from 1901-1909. They came to the White House days after President McKinley succumbed to an assassin's bullet. She threw small parties, fiercely guarded her family's privacy and tried to keep reporters at bay. 

Ida McKinley
Ida McKinley

Ida Saxton McKinley arrived at the White House in 1897 an invalid, she received guests at formal receptions seated in a blue velvet chair. Her husband, 25th President William McKinley, was shot by an assassin in September 1901.

Frances Cleveland
Frances Cleveland

Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland became the youngest first lady at age 21 and the first woman to marry a president in the White House. She served as the 23rd and 25th first lady while married to President Grover Cleveland. She held two receptions a week, one was on Saturday afternoons, when women with jobs were allowed to come.

Caroline Harrison
Caroline Harrison

Caroline Scott Harrison was a music teacher and wife of the 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison. She tried in vain to have the overcrowded mansion enlarged but only managed an extensive renovation with up-to-date improvements. Fascinated by history and preservation, in 1890 she helped found the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She died of tuberculosis at the White House in October 1892.

Ellen Arthur and Mary Arthur McElroy
Ellen Arthur and Mary Arthur McElroy

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur, left, was the wife of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president.  She died of pneumonia before he took office. The president's sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, right, served as a hostess, acting in the role of first lady for his administration from 1881 to 1885.

Lucretia Garfield
Lucretia Garfield

Lucretia Rudolph-Garfield, far left, pictured with the Garfield family. As first lady in 1881, she held dinners and twice-weekly receptions at the White House, but fell gravely ill from malaria not long before her husband, President James A. Garfield, was assassinated.

Lucy Hayes
Lucy Hayes

Wife of the 19th President, Rutherford B. Hayes, "Lemonade Lucy," was a temperance advocate. Liquor was banned at the mansion during this administration,(1877-1881)  though she was a very popular hostess.

Julia Grant
Julia Grant

Julia Dent Grant entered the White House in 1869 with the 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant, to begin what she called "the happiest period" of her life. With Cabinet wives as her allies, she entertained extensively and lavishly. She was first lady from 1869 to 1877. She is pictured, standing, at left, behind Grant, with her family.

Eliza Johnson
Eliza Johnson

Eliza McCardle Johnson and the 17th president, Andrew Johnson, came to the White House after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. According to FirstLadies.org, she was an invalid due to tuberculosis, and played a limited public role. She was known as a competent, unpretentious, and gracious hostess even during the impeachment of her husband.

Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Lincoln was first lady from 1861 until the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 at Ford's Theatre. She did extensive redecorating and refurbishing of the White House. During Lincoln's administration, as the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. She often visited wounded soldiers and wrote letters for them. 

Harriet Lane
Harriet Lane

The niece of James Buchanan, the only president who didn't marry, Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston acted as first lady for her uncle from 1857 to 1861. With the country on the brink of civil war, she guided its social life with enthusiasm and discretion, winning national popularity. As tensions increased, she worked out seating arrangements for her weekly formal dinner parties with special care in an effort to keep political foes apart.

Jane Pierce
Jane Pierce

Jane Means Appleton Pierce, wife of the 14th president, Franklin Pierce, was first lady from 1853 to 1857. The Pierce's son was killed before their eyes in a train accident shortly before the inauguration. In her grief, she had to force herself to meet the social obligations of the role of first lady.

Abigail Fillmore
Abigail Fillmore

Abigail Fillmore first came to Washington in 1849 as the wife of the vice president. She became first lady after President Zachary Taylor's death. She is credited for improving the White House library, spending contented hours selecting new books.

Margaret Taylor
Margaret Taylor

Margaret Taylor, as the wife of the 12th President, Zachary Taylor, was first lady from 1849 until her husband's death in 1850. Her health was poor, and she took no part in formal social functions, giving the duties of official hostess to her youngest daughter, Mary Elizabeth.

Sarah Polk
Sarah Polk

Constantly -- but privately -- Sarah Childress Polk helped her husband with his speeches, copied  his correspondence and gave him advice. She enjoyed politics, but warned the 11th president, James Polk, against overwork.

Julia Tyler
Julia Tyler

In 1839, Letitia Tyler, left, suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed and too ill to get around easily, according to FirstLadies.org. She was confined to an invalid's chair for two years when her husband, Vice President John Tyler, unexpectedly became president when President William Henry Harrison died. Her daughter-in-law took on the duties of hostess at the White House. Letitia died while at the White House.

After his first wife died, John Tyler married Julia Gardiner, pictured at right, who was 30 years his junior. She presided with vivacity and animation at a series of parties during her 8 months as first lady.

Anna Harrison
Anna Harrison

Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison held the title of First Lady for the shortest length of time: one month. Her husband, President William Henry Harrison, died of pneumonia one month into his term. She never entered the White House.

Hannah Van Buren
Hannah Van Buren

Hannah Van Buren died of tuberculosis before Martin Van Burne was elected, leaving him one of the few presidents to remain unmarried in office.

Rachel Donelson Jackson
Rachel Donelson Jackson

Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson was married to Andrew Jackson. When she died before his inauguration as President in 1829, the duties of first lady fell to her niece, Emily Donelson.

Louisa Adams
Louisa Adams

Until Melania Trump, Louisa Adams was the only first lady born outside of the U.S. (she was born in London.) She suffered from poor health and depression. She entertained, but preferred reading, composing music and playing her harp. She was first lady to John Quincy Adams, the 6th president, from 1825-1829.

Elizabeth Monroe
Elizabeth Monroe

Elizabeth Monroe was an accomplished hostess when her husband took office in 1817. Through much of the administration, however, she was in poor health and curtailed her activities.

Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison

Though she was known for her social graces and tact, Dolley Madison's political acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned. Hostile statesmen, difficult envoys from Spain or Tunisia, warrior chiefs from the west and flustered youngsters — she always welcomed everyone. She was the only first lady given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress, according to FirstLadies.org.

Martha Jefferson Randolph
Martha Jefferson Randolph

Martha Jefferson Randolph was Thomas Jefferson's daughter. Jefferson's wife died of ill health during the Revolutionary War, and did not live to see her husband become President. When he took office in 1801, Jefferson had been a widower for 19 years. His daughter served in the role of first lady.

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams was the first woman to serve as second lady of U.S. and the second woman to serve as first lady. When John Adams was elected president, she continued a formal pattern of entertaining, even in the primitive conditions of the new capital in 1800. Washington was wilderness, the president's house not completed. Her private complaints to her family provide blunt accounts of both, but for her three months in Washington she duly held her dinners and receptions. She was her husband's closest adviser.

Martha Washington
Martha Washington

From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the presidency, she followed him bravely. She was often referred to as "Lady Washington." The term "First Lady" was not coined until after her death.

Advertisement

More from Politics

If You Must Trade Tilray, Use This Options Play: Market Recon

If You Must Trade Tilray, Use This Options Play: Market Recon

Trump Should Pay Attention to LNG -- and His 'Energy' Donors

Trump Should Pay Attention to LNG -- and His 'Energy' Donors

China Empire Strikes Back at U.S. LNG

China Empire Strikes Back at U.S. LNG

Striking Options: Tariffs, Equities, Rates

Striking Options: Tariffs, Equities, Rates

Bears Are Giving Up on the 'Trade War Will Kill the Market' Theme

Bears Are Giving Up on the 'Trade War Will Kill the Market' Theme