The position of First Lady seems like more than a full-time job; women who occupy the position are looked to for than politics.
First Ladies were supposed to be little more than figureheads, but many have turned the role into something special. Some of our most popular First Ladies used that influence to pave the way for real societal change, to champion causes, and to work alongside their Presidential spouses.
There hasn’t yet been a female President, right? You might think again after seeing what some of our most prolific First Ladies did with their time in the White House!
Don’t threaten Nellie Taft with a good time.
Helen Herron “Nellie” Taft, the wife of President William Howard Taft, was the first First Lady to own and drive a car, smoke cigarettes, write her own memoirs, openly support women’s suffrage, and ride in the President’s inaugural parade. She’s also responsible for the abundance of cherry trees in Washington!
Abigail Adams, or should we say the co-President?
Abigail Adams, while a First Lady, was rarely referred to as “Lady.” Instead, as a key advisor to the President with a keen mind for politics, she was often referred to as “Mrs. President.”
Dolley Madison was already a semi-First Lady when her husband won the Presidency.
Because his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, was a widower and James Madison was Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Dolley served as a hostess and performed typical “First Lady” functions.
Dolley Madison to the rescue!
Dolley Madison was also the only First Lady to be given an honorary seat in Congress. She’s considered a hero for saving important documents and a portrait of George Washington when the British burned the White House down in 1814.
The first female President has kind of already been a thing.
Edith Wilson actually took over decision-making for the President when Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in 1919. It’s still unclear how many decisions made during Woodrow’s illness and recovery were Edith’s work, though it is assumed that she was basically acting as President for those months.
Which First Lady’s love life led to a dramatic Italian elopement? Keep reading to find out!
First Lady, first blogger, all-around badass.
Eleanor Roosevelt was essentially the nation’s First Lady blogger, in that she wrote a newspaper column called “My Day,” describing her political goals and personal life. She hosted a weekly radio show and held routine press conferences.
Eleanor also learned to shoot her own pistol rather than surround herself with Secret Service constantly.
Eleanor also flew with the one and only Amelia Earhart.
Mrs. Roosevelt was also the first First Lady to fly in an airplane, after she snuck out of a White House dinner with Amelia Earhart. The two commandeered a plane and spent the evening flying over Baltimore!
Martha Washington will always be THE First Lady.
Martha was the first to be dubbed “Lady” by the press, called “Lady Washington,” and was the first First Lady to appear on a US postage stamp.
Why hasn’t the romantic drama of Rose Cleveland’s life been made into a movie yet?
Rose Cleveland was the sister of President Grover Cleveland. He eventually married Frances Folsom and she became the First Lady, but before this, Rose handled the duties of a First Lady. She also fell in love with a woman named Evangeline, and though the two separated when Evangeline married a bishop, they rekindled their relationship after his death and moved to Italy together. Rose lived the rest of her life living with Evangeline in Bagni di Lucca.
Meanwhile, back in Washington…
Frances Cleveland (nee Fulsom) is still the youngest First Lady. She married Grover Cleveland at the age of 21, and is the only First Lady to marry and give birth in the White House.
You’ll never guess which First Lady was pals with the legendary pilot: Amelia Earhart!
Anna Harrison never even lived in the White House.
Anna Harrison had the shortest tenure as First Lady ever. Her husband, William Henry Harrison, died from illness only a month after inauguration, and she had been too ill to join him in the White House before he died.
Being painted for 20 hours? No thanks!
First Lady Sarah Polk was the first First Lady to be photographed while in Office. She was also a strict Presbyterian, and banned cards, dancing, and hard liquor from the White House.
Eliza Johnson taught her husband how to read and write.
Both of those things are pretty essential for a President, and Andrew Johnson was barely able to do either when he married Eliza.
Florence Harding was all about the 19th Amendment.
The first First Lady to openly campaign for her husband, Florence Harding understood the Washington media and often hung out with movie stars at the White House. She was also the first to vote in an election.
Lucretia Garfield joined the ranks of women’s suffrage crusaders.
First Lady Garfield was a fierce early advocate of equal pay for women, even demanding that the female physician attending her husband on his deathbed be compensated fairly.
First Ladies can be the breadwinners too! One of them was even a millionaire before her husband occupied the most powerful position in the country. Read on to find out who!
Bess Truman was not a fan of the D.C. area.
Hailing from Missouri, First Lady Truman was often homesick and visited home as often as possible. She even hated how her laundry was done in Washington, and would stubbornly send her laundry all the way back to Kansas City to be washed.
Which would you rather have: Easter eggs or alcohol?
Lucy Hayes (wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes), began the tradition of hosting an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. She also banned all alcoholic beverages from the White House, for which people took to calling her “Lemonade Lucy.”
Mary Lincoln also had an interesting romantic history.
Mary Todd Lincoln was courted by her husband’s notorious political rival, Stephen Douglas, before ultimately marrying Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Also, they had an almost comically adorable height difference, with him standing at 6’4″ and her at 5’2″.
Betty Ford was known for her candid approach as First Lady.
She was unapologetically in favor of equal pay and gun control, pro-choice, and a feminist who advocated for equal pay. She also raised awareness of addiction, being the first First Lady to make public her struggles with alcoholism. She even founded an alcohol and drug treatment center in California.
Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson made bank before ever becoming First Lady.
Lady Bird is the first First Lady to become a millionaire in her own right, after serving as president of the LBJ Holding Co., and investing in radio and television stations.
Next up, there have been a few First Ladies in more recent years who have re-defined what being a “First Lady” means. Read on to find out how!
Rosalynn Carter was accused of overstepping the bounds of a “First Lady.”
But she was having none of that! First Lady Carter refused to bend to tradition and kept herself fully informed, sitting in on Cabinet meetings, and involving herself in activism and humanitarian efforts. In 1979, TIME Magazine called her “the second most powerful person in the United States.”
Three First Ladies have passed away while in the White House.
Letitia Tyler (pictured above) died of a stroke in 1842, Caroline Harrison of tuberculosis in 1892, and Ellen Wilson due to Bright’s Disease in 1914.
Eleven women have served as the Second Lady (which is the wife of the Vice President) and then later became the First Lady.
In chronological order, we have: Abigail Adams, Letitia Tyler, Abigail Fillmore, Eliza Johnson, Edith Roosevelt, Grace Coolidge, Bess Truman, Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Barbara Bush (pictured above).
Let a girl wear pants, already!
Pat Nixon was the first First Lady to hold a graduate degree, and, oddly enough, the first to wear pants in a public forum.
Hillary Clinton, unsurprisingly, occupies a ton of First Lady ‘firsts.’
These include winning elected office (as a senator of New York), winning a Grammy, and serving in the Cabinet as Secretary of State. She’s also, of course, the first First Lady to run for President, be nominated by a major U.S. political party, and to have won the popular vote in a U.S. Presidential Election.
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