The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide

First Ladies’ Contributions to Political Issues and the National Welfare

Abigail Adams, engraving by John Sartain, n.d. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)The US Constitution assigns no duties or responsibilities to the president’s spouse. Every woman had to define for herself the role she wanted to play. From the blank slate that Martha Washington encountered in 1789, the job gradually grew, as she and her successors shaped it. Although many presidents’ wives shunned a public role (and wanted to do nothing more than look after their own families) others used their prominence to support causes and achieve political change. By the late 1900s, America’s first ladies enjoyed huge potential to contribute to the nation’s welfare; they had a “magic wand,” one former White House employee observed in 1984.[1]

Two quirks in the American political system drew the president’s family into his job from the beginning and helped catapult his wife into a public role. First, a president is less tied to his party than the leader of a parliamentary system. He is able to choose surrogates and advisors from a wide field, including his relatives. Secondly, George and Martha Washington started the tradition that the president works and lives at the same address, and this pulls those who reside with him into the political arena as they watch (and sometimes interact with) legislators and advisors who come to confer with the president. Although in the early decades, the first lady was little known outside of the nation’s capital, these early presidents’ wives made their mark on the new republic’s political culture. Those marks varied greatly. Abigail Adams (1797–1801), for example, was unique among early presidential wives for openly criticizing her husband’s political opponents. When she claimed she saw in the eyes of one of them (Alexander Hamilton) “the very devil . . . lasciviousness itself,” another of her husband’s adversaries (Albert Gallatin) objected.[2] Gallatin wrote to his wife: “She is Mrs. President not of the United States but of a faction . . . It is not right.”[3] Dolley Madison’s (1809–1817) approach was more subtle; she initiated the practice of calling at legislators’ Washington homes to welcome their families to the capital, and her generous attention to them helped win support for her husband. When Elizabeth Monroe (1817–1825), Dolley Madison’s successor, refused to make that exhausting round of visits, her husband’s enemies labeled her a snob.

Although their influence remained local until after the Civil War, the first ladies were nevertheless expected by the nation’s leaders to set a standard for how all American women should behaved. How she entertained, wore her hair, and treated her children became topics of debate and concern. Thus when Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, a hostile newspaper advised readers to consider whether his wife, Rachel, was fit to head “the female society of the United States.”[4]

After 1865, the president’s wife became a national figure, known across the continent because of coverage in newspapers and magazines such as Godey’s Ladies Book and Frank Leslie’s Weekly. When Lucy Hayes (1877–1881) traveled with her husband, President Rutherford B. Hayes, from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1880 (the first presidential couple to make such a journey), people lined up to greet her. A new term—“first lady of the land”—began appearing in print, and Lucy Hayes became very popular. She used her prominence to help the temperance movement, a central reform effort at the time that urged abstinence from all alcoholic drinks. When she refused to serve alcoholic beverages at the White House, she was ridiculed by her husband’s opponents as “Lemonade Lucy.” But her husband boasted she had brought votes into the Republican column by championing a cause that many Americans supported.

The expansion of national media in the late nineteenth century turned the president’s wife into a celebrity. Frances Cleveland (1886–1889 and 1893–1897), aged 21 when she married bachelor President Grover Cleveland in the White House in 1886, became so admired and emulated that advertisers used her picture to sell their products. Americans began to seek help from the first lady when they thought the president was too busy to be bothered. Caroline Harrison (1889–1892), for example, received requests for scraps of her old clothes (to be sewed into quilts) and later, Edith Roosevelt (1901–1909) donated handkerchiefs to be auctioned by charitable organizations. Caroline Harrison used her prestige to improve opportunities for women. In 1890, she agreed to help raise funds for a new medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but she insisted her aid depended on letting women enroll there.[5] Yet neither Caroline Harrison nor any other first lady of the late nineteenth century worked to extend the vote to women. That was still controversial, and no president’s wife wanted to alienate her husband’s supporters by taking a stand they might not approve.

Ellen Wilson (1913–1914) died after only seventeen months in the White House, but in that short time she focused public attention on deplorable housing conditions in Washington, DC, where impoverished residents lived in alley shanties, hidden from public view. She conducted congressmen on tours of the slums and invited reformers to meet with lawmakers to discuss remedies. One of her household workers went home and told her family that they had “an angel in the White House—she’s talking about helping the poor and improving housing.”[6] After Ellen Wilson died, of Bright’s disease (a kidney ailment), on August 6, 1914, Congress passed a housing bill named for her. It was a first for a president’s wife.

A trained painter, Ellen Wilson exhibited impressionist works and sold them, then gave the proceeds to charity. Although she never enrolled in the increasingly popular suffrage movement to give all women the vote, she came very close. She said she was persuaded by her daughter, Jesse, a volunteer at a Trenton, New Jersey, settlement house, that women who held jobs outside the home deserved the right to vote.

Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Galt Wilson (1915–1921), whom he married in December 1915, openly opposed suffrage leaders. When they held a protest outside the White House and were arrested, she referred to them disparagingly as “those devils in the workhouse.”[7] She preferred using her prominence for other causes. After the United States entered World War I in 1917 she led a public campaign to show moral support for the nation’s soldiers. She knitted socks and caps, encouraged “meatless” meals to conserve precious food, and let sheep graze on the White House lawn to save the cost of mowing the grass. At war’s end, her husband changed his position on the vote for women, and by 1920 women could vote in every state of the union. But Edith Wilson, who is often singled out for running a “petticoat government” because she took over some decision making after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, was not a factor in his switching sides.

In the 1920s, two well-educated first ladies drew on their expertise to make a difference. Grace Coolidge (1923–1929), the first president’s wife to have earned a full-fledged university degree, had trained to teach the hearing impaired, and she sometimes used sign language in her speeches to call attention to the problems of the deaf. Lou Hoover (1929–1933), a multilingual geologist and physical education enthusiast, gave speeches on the radio to encourage listeners to improve their lives. She urged women to volunteer to help their less affluent neighbors, and she recommended that boys share housework with their sisters.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1933–1945) called herself the “eyes and ears” of her husband, who had suffered infantile paralysis in 1921 and could not walk unassisted. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many workers lost their jobs and families had to leave their homes, she took a leadership role in many reforms, but she would not campaign for her husband. She had worked to elect others, but she thought it inappropriate for a wife to tout her husband’s accomplishments. Not until 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term—a move many Americans disapproved—did she give campaign speeches for him.

When President Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, the first lady’s job was still what its holder wanted it to be. Bess Truman (1945–1953) and Mamie Eisenhower (1953–1961) refused to follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s example and campaign on their own or hold press conferences. They limited themselves to serving as the hostess at White House events, buying new china, and looking after their husbands’ health and well being. When Mamie Eisenhower published an article in Good Housekeeping in 1952, she would not even take a side in the upcoming presidential election. “Vote for my husband or for Governor Stevenson,” she began, “but please vote.”[8]

Such broadminded nonpartisanship did not last long. By 1960, expanding media, especially television, acquainted the public with every member of the president’s family and Americans watched Jacqueline Kennedy campaign with her husband in the 1960 presidential primaries. Lady Bird Johnson (1963–1969) went even further. Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president on November 22, 1963, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and a year later he ran for a term of his own. Months earlier, when he signed the Civil Rights Act, he had made enemies among voters who opposed changing old traditions and opening equal opportunities to all Americans, regardless of race, religion, sex, or national origin. Lady Bird Johnson knew her husband was called “traitor” in parts of the South, and she hoped to soften some of that opposition by campaigning for him in the part of the nation she knew best—she had grown up in Texas and Alabama. On a train, the “Lady Bird Special,” she wound her way through eight southern states, giving forty-seven speeches to crowds that gathered in stations along the way. When Lyndon Johnson won, in a landslide, she spearheaded reforms to protect the nation’s natural beauty and make Washington, DC, a more attractive city. In 1965, Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act to achieve the changes she advocated, including the removal of unsightly billboards along highways and the relocation of ugly junkyards.

Every first lady after Lady Bird Johnson followed her example and campaigned actively for their husbands and led a project to improve the national welfare. Pat Nixon focused on volunteerism; Betty Ford encouraged dance and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; Rosalynn Carter promoted mental health; Nancy Reagan urged Americans to “Just Say No” to illegal drugs; Barbara Bush championed literacy; Hillary Rodham Clinton, health care reform; Laura Bush returned to the cause of literacy; and Michelle Obama mounted an anti-obesity campaign for juveniles and encouraged additional aid for military families.

First ladies typically put partisanship behind them when they reach the White House and select a cause or project that has nearly universal support. The exception was Hillary Rodham Clinton (1993–2001). As an attorney and wife of the governor of Arkansas, she had already worked to improve education and extend the rights of minors. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her chair of his Task Force on Health Care Reform. When she limited participation in Task Force meetings to “government officials,” she was criticized. Medical professionals, who had a high stake in the outcome, demanded the right to join in the discussions. They charged that the First Lady was “not a government official” and if she could participate in this very important debate, so could they. When the doctors sued, a district federal court agreed with them. A higher court struck down that decision on the grounds that there existed “a longstanding tradition of public service by First Ladies . . . who have acted (albeit in the background) as advisers and personal representatives of their husbands.”[9] That decision underscored how much the first lady was seen as an extension of the president. Even one of the dissenters in the decision admitted the president’s wife was entitled to many presidential perks: she was greeted like a head of state, guarded by the Secret Service, and allowed to spend federal money.[10]

Many first ladies continued with their chosen projects after leaving Washington. Betty Ford set up eponymous clinics to treat drug dependence; Rosalynn Carter championed mental health reform and worked with her husband in Habitat for Humanity projects and in monitoring elections in other nations. Lady Bird Johnson rewarded winners of contests to beautify Texas highways, and she helped turn Austin’s lakeside into a popular recreation site. As Betty Ford observed, the job of first lady diminishes after she leaves the White House but it never ends.

[1] Mary Hoyt, former press secretary to Betty Ford, speaking at the conference “Modern First Ladies: Private Lives and Public Duties,” Gerald R. Ford Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 19, 1984, cited in Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama (New York, 2010), xxii.

[2] Page Smith, John Adams, 2 vols. (Garden City NY:Doubleday and Co., 1962–1963), 2:908.

[3] Henry Adams, Life of Albert Gallatin (Philadelphia PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1879), 185.

[4] Marquis James, Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President, (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1937), 93.

[5]  Alan M. Chesney, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, 3 vols. (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1943–1963), 1:196. 

[6] Lillian Parks and Frances S.  Leighton, It Was Fun Working at the White House (New York: Fleet Press Corp., 1969), 36, quotes Parks’s mother, Maggie Parks, who worked at White House from the Taft to the Coolidge administrations.

[7] Alden Hatch, Edith Bolling Wilson: First Lady Extraordinary (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961), 80.

[8] Good Housekeeping, November 1952, 13.

[9] A 1972 law specified that the president’s advisory committees must be open to the general public, but those advisory committees composed entirely of “public officials” were exempt from this requirement.  Hillary Clinton’s legal team argued that, as first lady, she was “a Federal official.” See New York Times, March 11, 1993, 1; May 1, 1993, 8.

[10] New York Times, June 23, 1993, 1.

Historian Betty Boyd Caroli is the author of The Roosevelt Women (1998); America’s First Ladies (1996); Inside the White House (1992); Immigrants Who Returned Home (1990); and First Ladies (1987).


Recommended Resources

Gilder Lehrman suggests Betty Boyd Caroli’s First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

The author also recommends for further study:

Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies, 2 vols. New York: William Morrow, 1990–1991.

Gould, Lewis L., ed. American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2001.

University Press of Kansas has published a series of biographies on Modern First Ladies, under the general editorship of presidential historian Lewis L. Gould: Edith Roosevelt, by Lewis L. Gould; Helen Taft, by Lewis L. Gould; Ellen and Edith, by Kristie Miller; First Lady Florence Harding, by Katherine A. S. Sibley; Grace Coolidge, by Robert H. Ferrell; Lou Henry Hoover, by Nancy Beck Young; Eleanor Roosevelt, by Maurine H. Beasley; Bess Wallace Truman, by Sara L. Sale; Mamie Doud Eisenhower, by Marily Irvin Holt; Jacqueline Kennedy, by Barbara A. Perry; Lady Bird Johnson, by Lewis L. Gould; Pat Nixon, by Mary C. Brennan; Betty Ford, by John Robert Greene; Rosalynn Carter, by Scott Kaufman; Nancy Reagan, by James G. Benze Jr.; Barbara Bush, by Myra G. Gutin; and Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Gil Troy.

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