• Directory Journal

12 American First Ladies Who Made A Difference

by Simeon on February 2, 2009 · 20 comments

in General

1242009_11317-pmThe story of America’s First Ladies is one as varied as that of the land that made them famous. Some were happy to focus on being a wife and mother in spite of the limelight. Some made deliberate efforts to avoid exposure even though their position as “First Hostess” typically required them to play an active role in entertaining dignitaries. Only a few were truly remarkable in how they used their position to help others. Each was a stand-out woman in her own time. Each made a point to leverage her position toward creating a better life for others. Michelle Obama, wife of the 44th President, Barack Obama, became the first African American First Lady when her husband took the oath of office on January 20th, 2009. With her Princeton and Harvard Law School education, Michelle Obama stands at the head of  a long line of incredible women with the grace to fill the First Lady’s shoes and the tools to make a difference. For your consideration, 12 First Ladies Who Made A Difference:

1242009_91052-amHillary Rodham Clinton: (1947- ) A former president of the Wellesley College Republicans, Hillary has made a name for herself as a vibrant Democratic political force. As the First Lady of Arkansas, she was active in her community as a board member of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital and chairman of the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee. As national First Lady, she was an outspoken advocate of public health care reform and awareness. After leaving The White House, she ran for and won a seat in the United States Senate as the junior senator from New York. She also ran the most successful bid for the Presidency by a woman to date and was recently confirmed as only the third woman to serve as a United States Secretary of State. Creative Commons License photo credit: sskennel

480px-nancy_reaganNancy Davis Reagan: (1921- ) Unlike the Nixons, who met in a minor play and ended their term with high drama, Nancy Reagan retired from a career in professional acting to to be a mother. Although she took great satisfaction in being a wife and mother, Nancy was a steady and powerful force as an advocate for the elderly, handicapped, and veterans. As First Lady, she encouraged the performing arts and raise awareness about drug and alcohol problems in youth worldwide. Although she had long since retired from acting, laboring as a First Lady proved to be her greatest and most influential role. photo credit wikipedia

carterRosalynn Smith Carter: (1927- ) From the start of their relationship this Georgia beauty was the constant companion and source of energy for her husband, Jimmy Carter. Rosalynn was an adept campaigner and traveled often in support of her husband’s political goals and social projects. She used her position as First Lady to encourage the growth of performing arts and aid awareness and treatment of mental health issues. After leaving the White House, she continued to promote improved health care for the mentally ill. Her projects as part of The Carter Center have given life-changing value to people all over the world.

fordElizabeth Bloomer Ford: (1918- ) “I like challenges very much” said the woman from Chicago who, in the course of her lifetime, taught handicapped children to dance, raised a family, and served a nation. When faced with invasive surgery as part of her fight with breast cancer, “Betty” had the strength and foresight to publicly discuss her experience and raise awareness about the challenges faced by victims of breast cancer. She continued her public conversation on drug and alcohol dependency to not only share  her own experience but to leverage her money and position toward establishing the Betty Ford Center to help others overcome their addictions.

nixonPatricia Ryan Nixon: (1912-1993) Patricia met her future husband when they were cast in the same community theater play. Little did she know that her theatrical experience with her husband would translate onto a larger stage with the Watergate scandal. Her name is primarily associated with the scandal of her husband’s presidency. This is unfortunate because Patricia Nixon exemplified a spirit of giving and love for art and people. She made significant additions to the White House Collection of art and traveled extensively on “Good Will” trips to encourage awareness and help for needy peoples. Her passionate efforts continued a tradition of First Ladies who were not content to watch the world pass when they had the power to change it.

eleanor_rooseveltAnna Eleanor Roosevelt: (1884-1962) No list of influential First Ladies would be complete without “Eleanor” Roosevelt, and for good reason. As a quiet child, she mourned the death of her parents, but adapted and grew into her new situation. An ability that served to later empower her polio-stricken husband and inspire a nation worried by depression and war. After her husband’s death, Eleanor continued his work in World politics as an American spokesman to the United Nations. The tall, quiet child from New York City had blossomed into a force for progressive reform and good will that continues to inspire Americans who want to make a difference in the world.

1242009_91614-amGrace Anna Goodhue Coolidge: (1879-1957)  The Green Mountain-born Grace dealt with her life in the public eye with an attitude fitting to her first name. Flexibility, simplicity, and a joy of living made her a successful and well-noted First lady. A lifelong passion and dedication to the Clarke School for the Deaf began with a teach position at the school and later service as a trustee.



1242009_92028-amEdith Bolling Galt Wilson: (1872-1961) Often referred to as “America’s First Female President”, Edith was the second and oft-discussed First Lady of Woodrow Wilson. You will not see it listed as a quality of the Former President, but Woodrow Wilson, much to America’s benefit, exhibited excellent taste in choosing impressive women to fall in love with. As her husband’s health failed, Edith grew into increasingly larger roles as the First Lady. Acting as a “filter” for her husband and choosing to what issues the President would dedicate his time, Edith’s smart mind and caring affection for her husband will continue to raise questions about her political intent.

1242009_124924-pmEllen Louise Axson Wilson: (1860-1914) The first of Woodrow Wilson’s two First Ladies, Ellen did not take great joy in the notoriety that came with his position. However, she did put her quick wits and caring heart to good use in advising her husband in political matters and fighting for the underserved population around her. Even though Bright’s disease haunted her and eventually claimed her life, she dedicated her energy and leveraged her position to improve the living conditions of African Americans in Washington, DC.


1242009_125753-pmCaroline Lavinia Scott Harrison: (1832-1892) An adroit student in her clergy father’s Oxford Female Institute, Caroline stayed active in her Presbyterian roots while breaking free from many of its rules. As her husband, Benjamin Harrison, developed his military career into a presidency, Caroline grew into an outspoken advocate for orphans and women’s rights. A founding member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Caroline was among the fundraisers who supported Johns Hopkins University on the condition that women be admitted to the school. She died of tuberculosis.


1242009_10008-pmHarriet Lane: (1830-1903) The niece of America’s only bachelor president, James Buchanan, Harriet lane is the only First Lady to never have actually married a President. She occupied her time in the White House with entertaining and organizing parties to welcome dignitaries and delight legislators. After discharging her duties as First Lady, she married and had children only to see her husband and sons pass on before her. Harriet Lane left a legacy of art and health care as she gave away her art collection to government curators and established an endowment to care for children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital where her memory lives on through the Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics.

1242009_10431-pmSarah Childress Polk: (1803-1891) In a society where a woman’s only acceptable career path was motherhood, Sarah’s childless marriage to President James K. Polk was filled with common goals and projects. She took an active, if shadowed, role in her husband’s political career. Her political experience grew rapidly as she wrote speeches with her husband and advised him on correspondence and policy. This experience grew and cemented her in the mind of Americans as a trusted source of political wisdom and reflection. For more than 40 years after the death of Former President Polk, Sarah continued to influence American politics as she entertained leaders from both sides of the American Civil War. Her death was not only mourned by her friends, but by an American public that had grown to love her as a treasured link to the past and wise voice for the future.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete February 2, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Michelle Obama will definitely make a difference because they will fight more wars than anyone else has done so far.

Reply

Pete February 2, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Michelle Obama will definitely make a difference because they will fight more wars than anyone else has done so far.

Reply

Rubab February 2, 2009 at 5:52 pm

The position of First Lady carries no official duties, so each First Lady has served her nation according to her own wishes and interests. Some have played an active role in policy-making, some have devoted themselves to humanitarian and charitable work, and others have focused on family and social responsibilities.

Reply

Rubab February 2, 2009 at 5:52 pm

The position of First Lady carries no official duties, so each First Lady has served her nation according to her own wishes and interests. Some have played an active role in policy-making, some have devoted themselves to humanitarian and charitable work, and others have focused on family and social responsibilities.

Reply

Bill Meyer February 2, 2009 at 8:16 pm

First Lady Obama has been first lady about 2 weeks. What substantial difference could possibly be observed given the short tenure?

Reply

Bill Meyer February 2, 2009 at 8:16 pm

First Lady Obama has been first lady about 2 weeks. What substantial difference could possibly be observed given the short tenure?

Reply

a2i3s February 3, 2009 at 12:30 am

wow, thanks for sharing, I like Sarah Childress Polk so much, :)

Reply

a2i3s February 3, 2009 at 12:30 am

wow, thanks for sharing, I like Sarah Childress Polk so much, :)

Reply

exinco February 3, 2009 at 12:45 am

our believe is behind the man success was a lady. we saw some change in every personality. we hope this will serve better to people

Reply

exinco February 3, 2009 at 12:45 am

our believe is behind the man success was a lady. we saw some change in every personality. we hope this will serve better to people

Reply

Michael Gray February 3, 2009 at 4:17 am

@bill meyer she isn’t one of the 12

Reply

Michael Gray February 3, 2009 at 4:17 am

@bill meyer she isn’t one of the 12

Reply

usd6 February 3, 2009 at 9:12 am

In these first lady Hillary I most admire, this is a great woman, especially in the treatment of her husband, Clayton and the Lewinsky scandal that paragraph above. Thank you!

Reply

usd6 February 3, 2009 at 9:12 am

In these first lady Hillary I most admire, this is a great woman, especially in the treatment of her husband, Clayton and the Lewinsky scandal that paragraph above. Thank you!

Reply

Jerry Harper February 16, 2009 at 1:29 am

You forgot our most recent First Lady, Laura Bush.

Laura Bush was keenly aware of the opportunity she had to share her love of reading, especially with young children. She used her role as First Lady to encourage people to share the magic of reading with children, to encourage Americans to pursue a teaching career and to showcase early childhood development initiatives that have been proven successful.

Soon after coming to Washington, Mrs. Bush launched her early childhood development initiative – Ready to Read, Ready to Learn. This effort helped parents and caregivers prepare infants and young children for success in reading and learning when they enter school and helps ensure that once there they have well-trained, highly qualified teachers. As part of this initiative, Mrs. Bush hosted two White House summits which brought together the leading researchers and practitioners in the areas of early childhood cognitive development and teacher recruitment and preparation.

Also as part of her Ready to Read, Ready to Learn Initiative, Mrs. Bush launched a series of magazines for parents of newborns. Modeled after her project in Texas, the magazines provide timely information to parents on child health, safety, nutrition and cognitive development. Called “Healthy Start, Grow Smart”, the magazine has thirteen editions – newborn through 12 months of age – and is being published in English and Spanish. Through grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the magazines will be mailed directly each month to mothers with newborns who receive Medicaid services.

Inspired by her successful Texas Book Festival, Mrs. Bush and the Library of Congress launched in September 2001 the first National Book Festival, which featured award-winning authors from across the nation and was attended by tens of thousands of people. She is also hosted a White House literary series called “White House Salute to America’s Authors”, which thus far has celebrated the life and works of Mark Twain and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Through these efforts Mrs. Bush shared her love of reading and good literature with America’s families and children.

Mrs. Bush also promoted the arts, and enjoyed showcasing the works of Texas artists at the Governor’s Mansion and State Capitol in Austin, Texas. She served as the Honorary Chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which focuses on creative ways to bring the arts to America’s youth.

I think she more than desrves a place of respect on this list. Why would you blatantly exclude her?

Reply

Jerry Harper February 16, 2009 at 1:29 am

You forgot our most recent First Lady, Laura Bush.

Laura Bush was keenly aware of the opportunity she had to share her love of reading, especially with young children. She used her role as First Lady to encourage people to share the magic of reading with children, to encourage Americans to pursue a teaching career and to showcase early childhood development initiatives that have been proven successful.

Soon after coming to Washington, Mrs. Bush launched her early childhood development initiative – Ready to Read, Ready to Learn. This effort helped parents and caregivers prepare infants and young children for success in reading and learning when they enter school and helps ensure that once there they have well-trained, highly qualified teachers. As part of this initiative, Mrs. Bush hosted two White House summits which brought together the leading researchers and practitioners in the areas of early childhood cognitive development and teacher recruitment and preparation.

Also as part of her Ready to Read, Ready to Learn Initiative, Mrs. Bush launched a series of magazines for parents of newborns. Modeled after her project in Texas, the magazines provide timely information to parents on child health, safety, nutrition and cognitive development. Called “Healthy Start, Grow Smart”, the magazine has thirteen editions – newborn through 12 months of age – and is being published in English and Spanish. Through grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the magazines will be mailed directly each month to mothers with newborns who receive Medicaid services.

Inspired by her successful Texas Book Festival, Mrs. Bush and the Library of Congress launched in September 2001 the first National Book Festival, which featured award-winning authors from across the nation and was attended by tens of thousands of people. She is also hosted a White House literary series called “White House Salute to America’s Authors”, which thus far has celebrated the life and works of Mark Twain and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Through these efforts Mrs. Bush shared her love of reading and good literature with America’s families and children.

Mrs. Bush also promoted the arts, and enjoyed showcasing the works of Texas artists at the Governor’s Mansion and State Capitol in Austin, Texas. She served as the Honorary Chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which focuses on creative ways to bring the arts to America’s youth.

I think she more than desrves a place of respect on this list. Why would you blatantly exclude her?

Reply

Mitch Pawl March 3, 2009 at 3:24 am

Michelle Obama, Michelle Obama??????

Are you kidding me???

she has been in the White House now for 3 weeks. she has not done a thing except throw a party every Wednesday since living in OUR house.

you have to be joking

Reply

Mitch Pawl March 3, 2009 at 3:24 am

Michelle Obama, Michelle Obama??????

Are you kidding me???

she has been in the White House now for 3 weeks. she has not done a thing except throw a party every Wednesday since living in OUR house.

you have to be joking

Reply

jawaatlarge March 4, 2010 at 5:26 pm

You didn't read the article, Mitch. She is not one of the twelve. The article, despite its being so brief, was really quite interesting. Much more so that looking where one can best throw their meaningless stones.

Reply

Mcdonald3154 November 11, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Mitch, don’t hate the person; get like her. sound like to me U are a jealousy THING

Reply

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