Attractive, hospitable, gracious—eager volunteers. This is the traditional image of the First Lady of the United States.
Since there is no official job description for the wife of the President, each First Lady has had to create her own platform. While on the public level, many were were quiet, many found ways to use their gifts for the good of the country, some wandered into the spotlight, and not a few helped to empower women in American society.
During February we traditionally celebrate the birthdays of Presidents Lincoln and Washington, nodding to all our U.S. leaders with a holiday known as “President’s Day.” But let us also remember the great women who accompanied them—both the public powerhouses and the strong silent types in the background.
In the beginning…
Martha Washington, of course, had no precedents to to follow as First Lady. Her gift was hospitality, and she often entertained VIP’s in her home. Mary Todd Lincoln visited the hospitals and camps where Union soldiers lay wounded and dying, grim work that contrasted with her gossip-bred reputation for compulsive shopping. Dolley Madison (pictured, above) is famous for her parties in the White House but was also responsible for saving state papers and a portrait of George Washington when the White House was burned in the British invasion of Washington D.C. in 1812.
Influence, education, and activism
Did you know that the first woman acting as president was Edith Wilson (pictured, right)? When Woodrow was ill in office, she screened his incoming work and visitors, deciding who could and could not see him. Her “stewardship,” as she called it, was in making minor decisions and consulting Woodrow on larger ones.
Abigail Adams was an early supporter of women’s rights. In 1776, she reminded her husband, John the not-yet-president, to “remember the ladies” in he and his colleagues’ work of building the new country.
Mary Todd Lincoln was able to hold intelligent debates with guests in her home because of her education. She spent 12 years in private education when most women spent less than 4 in school. Lucy Webb Hayes was the first president’s wife with a college degree. She promoted social causes such as aid to the poor and the prohibition of alcohol. Lou Henry Hoover learned several languages and received a geology degree from Stanford. She contributed her writing to scientific and historical publications.
The dean of First Ladies
Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured, right) is one of the most influential women in U.S. History. Her humanitarian efforts were made known through her nationwide lecture tours, 350 press conferences (for women only), and daily newspaper columns and magazine articles. Her political participation was not only in campaigning for her husband (slowed down by polio), but also for equal rights among women and minority groups. Her influence won her a seat in the United Nations General Assembly after her husband’s presidency, and JFK later appointed her head of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1961.
Power and politics
Thanks to the first steps made by Eleanor Roosevelt, First Ladies in the last half of the twentieth century continued to redefine the institution. Not only was Lady Bird Johnson a leading environmentalist, she participated in the policymaking process in a more direct way than any previous First Lady. Rosalynn Carter(pictured, left) showed courage stating that she and her husband “ran the White House together,” and she sat in on cabinet meetings.
During the Clinton administration, Hillary Rodham Clinton received a great deal of criticism for her active participation in her husband’s work, accused of meddling and acting as president herself. Yet she survived this as well as a very public marital scandal, only to have her own political career ascend as a member of the United States Senate respected by colleagues from both sides of the aisle.
All photos courtesy of www.whitehouse.gov.