First Ladies

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FIRST LADIES. The wife of the President of the United States is commonly called the First Lady. The term, like the position, is undefined, improvised, and extra-Constitutional. Nevertheless, the role of First Lady of the United States has evolved and developed certain boundaries over the years. Today, each First Lady is one of the most famous and most scrutinized women in America, for better and worse. The position offers the president's spouse a platform to address important issues. Yet, placing a modern woman in an anachronistic, derivative, and amorphous position, playing to a public with mixed emotions about the role of women, the nature of family, and the centrality of government, has made this unpaid task "the second toughest job in America."

Origins of the Term

The first "First Lady," Martha Washington, was often known as "Lady Washington." Then, as now, Americans were ambivalent. Proximity to the Revolutionary experience, and pride in their frontier independence, made Americans wary of bestowing monarchical touches on the presidency, or creating a family-based court around the chief executive. Yet a weakness for pomp and a yearning for majesty persisted. Abigail Adams was sometimes called "Mrs. President" or even "Her Majesty." Other early first ladies were addressed as "Presidentress."

The origins of the term "First Lady" are murky. In 1849, President Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison, saying, "She will never be forgotten, because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century." The British war correspondent William Howard Russell noted in his published Civil War diary in 1863 the gossip about "the first Lady in the Land." This is the first recorded reference to an incumbent First Lady, in this case Mary Todd Lincoln. A reporter and novelist, Mary Clemmer Ames, applied the same phrase to Lucy Webb Hayes in 1877, and the term was bandied about when the bachelor President Grover Cleveland married young Frances Folsom in the White House in 1886. The term became popular after Charles Nirdlinger's 1911 play about Dolley Madison, "The First Lady in the Land." Still, not all modern First Ladies have appreciated the title. Jackie Kennedy preferred the more democratic designation, "Mrs. Kennedy," grumbling that "First Lady" was more suited to "a saddle horse."

A State Prisoner? The First "First Ladies"

As all her successors would, Martha Washington balanced the informal and the formal, her private needs with public demands. George Washington decided that he and Martha would host a weekly drawing room on Friday evenings, and dinner parties on Thursday evenings. They would accept no private invitations. Mrs. Washington was miserable. "I am more like a state prisoner than anything else," she wrote, "there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from—and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal."

Many of Martha Washington's successors would resent the "bounds set" for them—by their husbands or the public. Traditional proprieties circumscribed First Ladies' behavior, well into the modern era. The ideology of domesticity constrained all wives, especially the President's wife. The one consistent duty was that of the President's hostess. Not all White House hostesses, however, were First Ladies. The widowed Thomas Jefferson relied on Dolley Madison. James Buchanan, a bachelor, relied on his niece Harriet Lane, while the widowed Andrew Jackson relied on two nieces. During John Tyler's one term four women hosted: his ailing wife Letitia, his daughter-in-law Priscilla, his daughter Letitia Semple, and after Letitia Tyler's death, his second wife Julia Gardiner Tyler.

First Ladies of the New Republic: Washington Society's Grand Dames

Still, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, First Ladies had considerable latitude in defining their broader roles and most enjoyed a low public profile. With the president himself removed from most Americans' daily lives, the First Lady rarely made the newspapers. However, in presiding over the White House social life, all First Ladies were the titular heads of Washington society. Some, like Dolley Madison, relished the role. Others hated it. Some, like Julia Tyler, plunged into politics, lobbying at White House social events. Most did not. Some, like Sarah Polk, were effective behind-the-scenes advisers, true political partners. Most were not.

Some nineteenth-century First Ladies did attract public attention. Dolley Madison was the grande dame of Washington, dominating the social scene, and capturing the public's imagination, for almost half a century. The vivacious Lucy Webb Hayes and the young Frances Folsom Cleveland also charmed the public, foreshadowing the modern role of First Lady as celebrity. Mary Todd Lincoln, by contrast, was the black sheep of the Lincoln Administration, distrusted as a Southerner, despised for her extravagances, and demonized for her individuality.

Just as Theodore Roosevelt helped usher the presidency into the twentieth century, his wife, Edith Kermit Roosevelt, helped institutionalize the First Ladyship. In 1902, Mrs. Roosevelt hired the first social secretary to a First Lady. A century later, the Office of the First Lady has a multimillion-dollar budget, and usually at least one dozen employees, including a social secretary, a press secretary, and a chief of staff.

Americans' longstanding republican fears of schemers subverting the presidency made the First Lady's position even more delicate. When Ulysses S. Grant proved to be inscrutable as president in the 1870s, Washington wags decided that his wife, Julia, was manipulating him. In fact, Mrs. Grant had little interest in policy issues. Half a century later, when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in late 1919, his second wife, Edith Wilson, did get involved. Mrs. Wilson functioned as a virtual chief of staff—some said as a virtual president—and suppressed information about the President's illness. Historians still debate how incapacitated Woodrow Wilson was, and how much input Mrs. Wilson had. Still, the charges that "Mrs. President" became "the first woman president," and instituted "petticoat government" offered a cautionary tale to activist First Ladies. Those who do seem too interested in power attract opprobrium.

Edith Wilson's three Republican successors reverted to the more traditional role. Although none were as passive as the public believed, they attracted less flak. Florence Harding helped orchestrate her husband's career; Grace Coolidge brought a touch of glamour to her staid husband's administration; and Lou Henry Hoover became the first First Lady to address the nation on the radio.

Modern Challenges: Eleanor Roosevelt and her Successors

The great divide in the history of First Ladies comes with Eleanor Roosevelt's tenure. Eleanor Roosevelt was more political, more engaged, more public, and more influential than her predecessors. Her activism was systematic not sporadic. She wrote an ongoing newspaper column, held frequent press conferences, lobbied Congress directly, and regularly served as Franklin Roosevelt's emissary to liberals, laborers, blacks, Jews, and other oftforgotten men and women. In demonstrating the First Lady's great potential, Mrs. Roosevelt renegotiated the terms of the relationship between the First Lady and the public. All of Mrs. Roosevelt's successors, including the supposedly passive Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower, would be operating as modern First Ladies, on the political stage, and in the public eye.

Since Eleanor Roosevelt, all First Ladies have felt compelled to project a public persona; all First Ladies have tended to advance at least one pet cause, from Jackie Kennedy's White House renovation to Lady Bird Johnson's beautification of the capital, from Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign, to Hillary Rodham Clinton's say yes to national health care crusade. The Roosevelt revolution was furthered by the expansion of the presidency and the government, the emergence of a national media, and the feminist rebellion. All these forces combined have shifted the First Ladies' priorities, making her role more public and more political.

Furthermore, in this celebrity age, First Ladies can generate excitement. Jackie Kennedy's charm and grace demonstrated First Ladies' political potential in the television age. Mrs. Kennedy became instrumental in setting the tone of her husband's "New Frontier," and perpetuating his legend.

And yet, the transformation had its limits. While First Ladies have struggled with modern demands, Americans have looked to First Ladies to embody tradition in a changing republic. First Ladies who seem too aggressive, too modern, often generate controversy, as do First Ladies who seem too powerful and too political. When Lady Bird Johnson's beautification campaign shifted from fundraising and uplift to a Highway Beautification Act in 1965, her project no longer seemed so innocuous. Nancy Reagan effectively rehabilitated her own reputation by shifting from seeming too concerned with redecorating the White House, to emphasizing her longstanding commitment to encouraging foster grandparents and discouraging drug use. But, by 1986, during Reagan's second term, as she clashed with presidential advisers, she, too, was attacked for being power-hungry. And after Barbara Bush's smooth term, wherein she avoided most political issues, Hillary Rodham Clinton's more activist stance thrilled some, and infuriated others.

Even today, in the twenty-first century, the First Lady struggles with gossamer shackles. First Ladies have a national podium, as Betty Ford discovered when she discussed her breast cancer in public in 1974. But it remains, as Nancy Reagan said, a "white-glove pulpit," a modern forum, suffused with the celebrity glow, still restrained by an American yearning for tradition, ambivalence about the role of modern women, and fear of someone, anyone, but especially his wife, getting too close to the President of the United States of America.


Black, Allida. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Helpful in seeing Eleanor Roosevelt in her broadest context.

Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Gould, Lewis L., ed. American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. Excellent and authoritative.

Troy, Gil. Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.


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First Ladies

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