The 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:
Hillary 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. photo credit: sskennel
Nancy 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
Rosalynn 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.
Elizabeth 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.
Patricia 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.
Anna 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.
Grace 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.
Edith 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.
Ellen 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.
Caroline 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.
Harriet 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.
Sarah 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.