My Top Ten: US First Ladies | Sarah Stook
Since George Washington ascended the office of President in 1789, the office of First Lady has also existed, with Martha Washington being the first to take up the mantle. For over two hundred years, these women have been constant residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Though they are usually wives, daughters, sisters and friends of bachelors and widowers have also taken the title, though this tends to be in an unofficial capacity as opposed to an official one.
In this article, I will rank my top 10 First Ladies. These women are a constant inspiration, yet are often forgotten. The role is unpaid, yet these ladies are expected to essentially take on a role that they were not elected to- whether that is through the official hosting capacity, or the more recent idea of taking up a cause, something that has developed prominently over the last century.
Though I myself do count the non-wives, all of the women listed were married to the President. In order to distinguish the couples from one another, the Presidents will be referred to by their surname and the First Ladies by their forename. Furthermore, I have not ranked Melania Trump, as her term has only just begun. It has therefore not allowed me to take view of her role in hindsight, which I believe is the best way to judge.
The second wife of the controversial Woodrow Wilson, Edith Bolling Galt met the President only a few months after the death of his beloved first wife Ellen. Rumours floated of an affair, or that Ellen was murdered, but Edith refused to back out of the engagement, and they married over Christmas 1915.
We all know that America has never had a female President, but Edith was the closest to it- even closer than Hillary Clinton over a hundred years later. In 1919, Wilson suffered a severe stroke that debilitated him to such a level that had it been known to the public, they most likely would have called for his resignation. He had been paralyzed down one side and was close to blind, and was forced to use a cane once had somewhat recovered. With two more years left of his term, it seemed like it would be close.
In 1919, women had not achieved full suffrage- it would not come for another year. Even so, it would take a long time for women to get to the stage that they are now. Yet Edith became the de facto President, and pretty much the first woman to get even some semblance of control of the executive branch. Whether it was delegating tasks to members of her husband’s cabinets, or deciding which issues should come to his attention, the First Lady managed to do things that not many would expect a woman to do in the early twentieth century. Of course, it was hushed up, because firstly, they didn’t want the public knowing how ill the President was, and secondly, having a woman in high office was unthinkable at that stage.
This was not to say she was perfect. Edith was fiercely protective of her husband and his mental health, but that came somewhat to his detriment- though she swore that she had never taken the office fully, there were cases of her firing officials (including members of the Cabinet) and withholding information. Edith was not an elected official, and had certainly not been elected President.
Overall, however, Edith showed true courage as a woman and wife. In protecting her husband, she would essentially run a nation. This showed not only her love for her husband, but her strength in political affairs, which is why she is Number 10 on my list.
Now more known in her own right as Senator, Secretary of State and Presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham became Hillary Clinton in 1975 upon her marriage to Yale Law School fellow Bill Clinton. From lawyer to Democratic candidate, Hillary found herself as First Lady between those two parts of her life.
Though she courted early controversy with her damning, and mostly inappropriate comments about women who ‘stay home and make cookies,’ Hillary showed herself to be a shrewd political operator who wasn’t going to be a traditional First Lady. In her role as the President’s spouse, Hillary started off her reputation as a policy wonk as she fought for healthcare reform, especially difficult in a Republican controlled Congress. From appearing at the Senate to jetting off around the world, Hillary felt- at least on the outside- that no child should be without healthcare, and that they should not be at fault if their parents did not have the correct insurance.
What made her most famous was her strong feminist persona. On a trip to China, Hillary delivered her famous ‘women’s rights are human rights.’ A strong advocate of gender equality, Hillary decried the disgusting treatment of women under the Taliban regime, then ruling Afghanistan, and in other countries such as Pakistan. She encouraged women to take a stand in political process in their countries, whether it be as activists or elected officials. Many questioned her feminist stance when she chose to stay with her husband in light of the Lewinsky scandal, but Hillary maintained that she would love him for all his faults.
If one does not regard her later career- Hillary is an especially polarising politician- she showed herself to be a strong, intelligent woman who used her position to help other females. With her intelligence and drive, Hillary finds herself in Number 9.
Nancy Davis started life as a film star. Through her career, she met Ronald Reagan, a divorcé and President of the Screen Actors Guild. The pair married in 1952, and begun a happy life together.
Nancy Reagan, also known for her dynamic anti-drugs campaign ‘Just Say No’ was somewhat of an Edith Wilson in her role as protector of her beloved husband. Nancy was horrified when Reagan was nearly assassinated only a few months into his Presidency, and took every precaution to protect him. Though her obsession with astrology and iron grip over the White House was controversial in a similar way to Edith, Nancy’s strength came from her fiery persona. In protecting those she loved, she was uncompromising. Though many have criticised the ‘War on Drugs’ that started under Reagan, Nancy’s fight against illegal substances showed that she didn’t care how popular her fight was, she would fight anyway.
Furthermore, Nancy tried hard to restore the White House by ordering new china. Considering the economy at the time, Nancy’s purchases caused controversy due its extravagancy, even though the donations made did not come from public funding. One must remember that the White House is a historical building, a symbol of government and home of important functions, so Nancy’s work meant that it could live up to its reputation. Important dinners and discussions occur at the home, and its residents must impress to create strong diplomatic ties. Nancy did not insult the taxpayers.
A loving wife, and a woman unafraid of being a traditional spouse, Nancy Reagan’s lasting image will be of her hugging her husband’s coffin. Some will question her devotion, but her everlasting love and loyalty to husband and country allows her the Number 8 spot.
Rosalynn Smith’s family had known Jimmy Carter’s family for years, their families acquainted in the small town of Plains, Georgia. The pair dated for a short period before Rosalynn Smith became Rosalynn Carter in 1946.
As her husband served only a single term, Rosalynn’s tenure as First Lady was shorter than most of the ladies on this list, beating only Jackie Kennedy and Betty Ford’s unfinished terms. Even so, Rosalynn showed herself to be the loving, kind woman that she still seems to be today as she works for Habitat for Humanity. Rosalynn’s choice of issue was mental health, then still a hugely taboo subject in the world, even more so than today. In the 1970s, those who sought help would never have admitted it, and many would not have even gotten that far due to the perception of those who were mentally ill. Rosalynn testified before the Senate in order to pass a bill on mental health, and continued this work even after she left the White House.
Similarly to other feminist First Ladies, Rosalynn advocated for gender equality. Though the Equal Rights Act was unsuccessful, she still fought for its passage. She also revelled in her role as a fighting First Lady, pleased that she was not constrained by the office in a way that early spouses such as Martha Washington and Dolley Madison would have been.
To this day, Rosalynn still maintains her charity work, even having just celebrated her 90th birthday. By advocating for mental health reform in a time of deep stigma and lack of understanding, Rosalynn showed genuine concern for others in her limited time in office. This strength and kindness had placed her at Number 7.
After her first marriage, Betty Bloomer met Gerald Ford. Their wedding had to wait til just before his election as Congressman due to concerns about him marrying a divorcée, but she became Betty Ford in 1948.
Commonly called ‘No Lady’ by conservative critics, Betty Ford was one of the most outspoken First Spouses. A strong proponent of female equality, Betty worked hard to support the ERA, commonly attacking opponents and joining other second wave feminists in gaining support. Only a few years after the controversial Roe v. Wade was passed, Betty voiced her unwavering support for abortion rights, and spoke candidly of other polarising issues such as marijuana legalisation. Betty also opened up about her breast cancer and mastectomy, something taboo at the time, in order to raise awareness for a cancer that mainly targets women. She succeeded in encouraging women to check themselves for lumps and bumps.
Many also know her for the Betty Ford Clinic. She spoke candidly of her dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs, which forced her into treatment. The Betty Ford Clinic is a famous rehab known for its celebrity clients, and has ensured that her name is always on our minds. She held the highest post in the organisation until only a few years before her death, and wrote multiple books on the subject.
Candid and controversial, Betty was more popular than her husband. Even though the people of the 70s were beginning to embrace sexual awakening and controversial issues, conservatism was still rife, and Betty was brave to face against the conservatives. For this, she is Number 6.
Michelle Robinson, a Chicago girl born and raised, was distinguished in that she holds degrees from not one, but two Ivy League institutions- Princeton and Harvard. She met Barack Obama when she mentored him during an associate job at their law firm. In 1992, the pair married.
An educated lawyer in her own right, it was clear that Michelle would be an outspoken First Lady, contrasting with her more restrained predecessor, Laura Bush. Michelle took on three major issues in her two term tenure- military families, healthy living and the education of girls. Her advocacy in healthy eating has been controversial- this writer disagrees somewhat with her methods, but one must admire her sentiment in trying to tackle childhood obesity. Considering both the physical health problems and the psychological issues that may come from bullying, Michelle’s efforts to curb childhood obesity are extremely commendable.
As both a highly intelligent woman and mother of two young daughters, Michelle’s efforts to get girls into education are an example of a worldly attitude. Considering the rate of girls who are unable to be educated due to various societal attitudes- most notably underage marriage, child pregnancy and a preference for male education, it is not a surprise she worked hard in this respect. Travelling the world, Michelle spoke in both first and third world countries to educate both the educated and uneducated on the power of female education. Her initiative ‘Let Girls Learn’ became a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Like many first ladies, she was more popular than her husband, and received better figures.
Bright, intelligent and popular amongst many young women, Michelle proved a strong role model for girls around the world. Michelle combined the traditions of office with her own training, to be ranked 5.
Laura Welch met George Bush at a barbeque one summer. A teacher and a librarian, Laura found herself in a short courtship, becoming Mrs. Bush only four months after their meeting, in 1977.
Sandwiched between two outspoken first ladies- Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, one may think that Laura is forgotten. Whilst she was definitely more traditional, we should celebrate a woman who was not ashamed to be somewhat more traditional, similarly to Nancy Reagan. Laura, a former librarian and teacher, was a passionate advocate of education and literacy, encouraging reading in both US schools and in developing countries. A lover of children, Laura encouraged protecting their innocence in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Health was a huge issue for Laura as well. Both heart disease and breast cancer prevention became passions for her, especially in regards to women- Laura herself stated that many think of heart disease as something that affects men more. The First Lady travelled the world to countries such as the UAE to talk to women, giving them a voice in places where they are usually silent. Her worry of women continued to Afghanistan, where women were hugely oppressed by the Taliban regime.
Laura also worked hard to encourage her husband, an alcoholic, to quit drinking. Now teetotal, Bush thanks his wife for saving his life. Laura provided a role model for women in her traditional womanhood, and provided hugely popular- her ratings are some of the highest for any First Lady. She continually supported her husband through his unpopular decisions- such as the devastating Iraq War, defending him to the press.
Poised and elegant with a huge heart, Laura truly served her country well. Unafraid to show loyalty and compassion, we should not forget the woman with hugely memorable successors and predecessors. Therefore, she finds herself in 4th place.
A member of high society, Jackie Bouvier held a French Literature degree, which she used to get into photojournalism. She married John F. Kennedy in 1953 after a huge societal wedding, becoming the famous Jackie Kennedy.
Due to her Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie only had a short time in office. Her famous restoration of the White House and the widely watched TV tour showed her love of all things beautiful. Known widely as being fashionable and classy, her kind nature and ability to converse in several languages won her many friends in the diplomatic arena. She famously won over the grumpy Charles de Gaulle, who warmed to her much faster than he did her husband. Nikita Krushchev was more interested in meeting her than Kennedy. Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who was in charge of her protection and who jumped on the car when Kennedy was shot, remembers her being incredibly kind, and asking what would become of him after her husband died.
What puts Jackie above others on this list is simply her courage. Firstly, she had many miscarriages and had a stillbirth daughter, whom they planned to name Arabella. After two healthy children, Jackie lost her son Patrick after only a few days, right in the middle of her husband’s Presidency. On top of this, Jackie had to watch her husband openly conduct affairs with her knowledge, with a notable lover being Marilyn Monroe. As this was the 1950s/1960s, Jackie divorcing her husband would have been scandalous, even if he had wronged her in that way. Furthermore, the pair were Roman Catholic, deeply distrusting of divorce.
Jackie also watched her husband killed in front of her eyes, but bravely watched LBJ take the oath of office only hours later, whilst she still wore her blood stained suit. Her dignity at the funeral- Jackie did not visibly cry- won her many fans, as she wore a brave face in front of her young children and devastated public. In the months and years that followed, she never faltered.
The epitome of grace, a style icon and charming woman, Jackie is the default name for first ladies. Her tenure was tragically cut short, and the Kennedy curse lingered over her for years, yet Jackie remained graceful even until her death in 1994. As a result of her outstanding dignity, Jackie gets 3rd place.
Deeply intellectual, Abigail Smith’s health and gender prevented her from getting a good education. As a teenager, she caught John Adams’ eye in a romantic sense, though they had known each other for years. In 1764, she became Abigail Adams.
Living in a time before women had basic rights, and First Lady over one hundred years before female suffrage, Abigail was an amazing feminist who truly believed that women could change the world. In 18th and 19th century terms, Abigail was a radical feminist who believed women should be educated, not have to submit to laws with discriminated against them and that they should be on equal footing with their husbands. Abigail worried about allowing only men to have power, with her famous quote ‘remember all men would be tyrants if they could.’ As well as this, Abigail, was an early abolitionist, believing that slavery was disgusting and that African-Americans should be educated equally, even enrolling some in school.
Adams and Abigail’s marriage was one of the most loving of all Presidential couples. The two were hugely in love, noted by hundreds of letters the pair exchanged when they were apart. Unusually, Abigail was an unofficial advisor to her husband, who often took her advice and enjoyed her support (remember that Abraham Lincoln told his wife that women would have no place in his White House). This was known at the time, but maybe not to its deepest extent. Even as a political advisor, she continued the traditional role of First Lady by hosting dinners and events, becoming a popular host.
Abigail Adams is definitely not the most well known First Lady across the pond, and may even be forgotten in the United States. We should not, however, forget how truly revolutionary she was, and the influence she had on her husband. Had she lived today, Abigail could have easily held high office. It is sad that she lived in a time where her power and feminism could not be appreciated. Advocating not only for education, but genuine equality, Abigail Adams was one of the most amazing women in early American history. Whilst she is pipped to the post, as you will read in a minute, I have placed her in second place.
Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of this writer’s second favourite President, Theodore Roosevelt, had an unhappy childhood, becoming an orphan at a young age. In 1899, Eleanor was sent to England to study under feminist headmistress Marie Souvestre, where she thrived under a new learning environment. A few years later, however, she was pulled back home to make her debut in society. In 1905, Eleanor married her fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Eleanor Roosevelt, in this writer’s opinion, is not only the greatest First Lady of all time, but one of the greatest women in history.
Similarly to Jackie, Eleanor had to deal with her husband’s infidelity in a time where divorce would be even more unthinkable. FDR’s affairs were so enduring that when he died, it was not his wife with him, but Lucy Mercer, his most prominent mistress. For her entire life, Eleanor struggled through hardships. Her mother, who died when Eleanor was eight, shamed her for her plain looks and serious attitudes. Her father died two years later, and one of her younger brothers died at the same time as her mother. For years, Eleanor hated her plainness, before realising that character was more important- something that would influence her outlook on life. She was forced to leave education to take her place in society, before marrying a man whose mother hated her, and who would cheat on her, even though he did care for her. Her mother-in-law, Sara, controlled her grandchildren’s upbringing, even going so far as to call herself their mother. She also had to watch her husband succumb to the polio that essentially paralysing him, changing the dynamics of their relationship.
Eleanor, however, was nothing short of remarkable.
In her role- in what will be the longest tenure in that role due to the 22nd Amendment, Eleanor defined what it means to be a First Lady. She made media her friend with her daily column ‘My Day,’ as well as frequent appearances on radio and later, television. As First Lady in the Great Depression, Eleanor was a pioneer of workers, the greatest example being when she met the ‘Bonus Army’ protestors, who Herbert Hoover had set the army on. As a result of restriction on female reports, Eleanor often insisted on being met by only them, and not men, creating all-female press conferences in order to give them some footing, and expose the hypocrisy. Eleanor also dedicated herself to responding to mail, which she received in huge volumes.
An activist, Eleanor was also a huge proponent of gender equality and civil rights at a time where neither were en vogue in government. An icon to many women, Eleanor’s focus on equal pay would not just happen in the White House, but after it, all the way up to Kennedy’s administration. In conjunction with her work for female reporters, she advocated for women workers across the States, who were struggling to find jobs due to the priority of men getting them as ‘breadwinners.’ Eleanor’s work with African-Americans was hugely controversial at the time, though she is widely lauded for it now. She befriended Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent black member of the Roosevelt administration, even going so far as to walk to work with her every day. In wartime, Eleanor got the Tuskegee pilots to be allowed to go to battle, her ride with one increasing pressure on military bosses. Whilst her husband had problems with civil rights, Eleanor implored him to pass an anti-lynching bill that he was concerned about (which didn’t pass), and also fought against his plans to put Japanese-Americans into internment camps. The KKK was so disgusted that it put a bounty on her head.
One of her crowning achievements happened in 1939, combining both her belief in gender and racial equality. The Daughters of the American Revolution, a group of women who are related to men who fought in the Revolutionary War, and whom Eleanor was involved with, did not allow famous African-American singer Marian Anderson to sing at an integrated venue. Horrified, Eleanor resigned her place in the organisation and arranged for Anderson to sing to hundreds of thousands at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
During the War, Eleanor made several trips abroad, most notably to the UK, where she became a great friend of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (mother of our current Majesty). Furthermore, she encouraged the participation of women and ethnic minorities, who were often barred from employment.
Though I have mostly limited my arguments in that I have discussed only their role as First Lady, I feel Eleanor’s achievements after her husband’s death in 1945 need to be discussed in order to convey what a truly great woman she is. Her husband’s successor, Harry Truman, appointed her to a position in the United States delegation to the new United Nations. Eleanor essentially wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important documents of all time, which she called ‘the international Magna Carta of men everywhere.’ She was courted for high office, and it was rumoured that Harry Truman considered asking her to be her running mate. Imagine that, a woman Vice Presidential nominee in 1948. For years, she made numerous media appearances and speeches across the country regarding a number of important subjects.
Her final public role happened under JFK. She was appointed as Chairperson of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which was to commission a report on women in the USA. Its existence encouraged politicians to think of women in a way they’d never before considered, allowing them to consider a new voter base. Eleanor tragically passed before the report was finished, and also never got to see the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a result of the report.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a revolutionary woman whose genuine belief in equality put her above nearly all others. She did not care about popular opinion, and after a rough start in life, she found herself. Whether in or out of the White House, Eleanor never stopped, transcending the office of First Lady and creating the benchmark in which all other First Ladies have struggled to reach. Immense obstacles in terms of gender, society and family were put in her way, yet she cleared them in order to be the best she could be.
Eleanor Roosevelt was truly the First Lady of the World, and 1st in my ranking of First Ladies.