09 | 03 | 2020
Traditionally, First Ladies serve as hostesses, allies, strategists, campaign surrogates, advocates, and partners. Some have reveled in the role, driving policy change and setting trends. Others recoiled from the spotlight. Four presidents (Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Chester A. Arthur) lost their wives before their inaugurations, while one First Lady was married in the White House’s Blue Room.
One wasn’t a wife at all, but the niece of America’s only bachelor President, James Buchanan. While each served their country differently as FLOTUS (a.k.a. First Lady of the United States), all 42 women held a role in American history, shaping voters’ views of the presidency, the White House, and more.
1. Martha Washington — wife to President George Washington
While it’s clear she preferred private life, Martha Washington embraced her role as a high-profile champion of the war, joining her husband at the Continental Army’s winter encampments, including at Valley Forge. She cared for injured and exhausted soldiers, and did substantial fundraising for money and supplies for the Continental Army. A wealthy widow before she married the General, she even donated $20,000 of her own money to the campaign of 1780 — nearly $380,000 in today’s dollars!
2. Abigail Adams — wife to President John Adams
Abigail Adams vehemently opposed slavery, condemning its supporters in her many letters.
“The passion for liberty cannot be eaqually [sic] strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs,” she wrote in one 1776 letter to her husband.
In another dated 1797, she told a story about teaching a young, free Black boy to read and write, and later enrolling him in school. When a neighbor complained about his presence in the school, she lectured him on his prejudice: “Merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood?”
3. Dolley Madison — wife to President James Madison
During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison was waiting for her husband to return to the White House when British troops approached. She abandoned the couple’s personal belongings and instead hurried to save a full-length portrait of George Washington, much to the frustration of a friend who came to help her escape. The White House was pillaged and burned, but what Madison didn’t know was that the portrait was actually a copy of the original Gilbert Stuart painting.
4. Elizabeth Monroe — wife to President James Monroe
Mrs. Monroe proved herself an effective diplomatic player when living in Paris with her husband, who was then serving as the ambassador to France. During the French Revolution, when many aristocrats and their families were imprisoned and faced the guillotine, Elizabeth Monroe made a high-profile visit to see political prisoner Adrienne de Lafayette, the jailed wife of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. Adrienne publicly wept when she saw her very influential visitor, and the visit helped secure Madame de Lafayette’s release.
5. Louisa Adams — wife to President John Quincy Adams
Adams had a keen political sensibility, and used her social standing in Washington to advance her husband’s interests. She even served as an unofficial campaign manager for his 1824 bid for the White House. Her husband, however, stopped soliciting her counsel once he won the presidency and generally ignored her advice unless he needed her to host social functions. A decade after leaving D.C., Louisa Adams began writing an autobiography she shrewdly called “Adventures of a Nobody.”
6. Anna Harrison — wife of President William Henry Harrison
Anna Harrison was First Lady for exactly one month, and she never even made it to the White House. She was 65 and ill when her husband left Ohio to attend his inauguration. Anna planned to move to Washington, D.C. shortly and was in the middle of packing when news came that her husband had passed. She’s the only First Lady who never entered the White House.
7. Letitia Tyler — wife to President John Tyler
Letitia Tyler was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke two years before her husband unexpectedly became President — the Tylers hadn’t expected to move to Washington for his role as William Henry Harrison’s vice president. In the end, Letitia took on a quiet role within the family and left the social responsibilities to her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler. In 1842 at age 51, she was the youngest First Lady to pass away.
8. Julia Tyler — wife to President John Tyler
Socialite Julia Gardiner was 30 years younger than President Tyler when they met and became secretly engaged, earning ample publicity when they married in 1844. She served as First Lady for the last eight months of his second term before they moved to his Virginia estate. She never remarried, despite being widowed at 41, and signed her letters “Mrs. Ex-President Tyler.”
9. Sarah Polk — wife to President James Polk
Sarah Polk was an extremely formal and faith-oriented First Lady: she only served wine to dinner guests (no beer, whiskey, or anything stronger, and both Polks abstained) and she barred dancing in the White House, only throwing formal and sober social engagements. “How indecorous it would seem for dancing to be going on in one apartment while in another we were conversing with dignitaries of the republics or ministers of the gospel,” she once quipped.
10. Margaret Taylor — wife to President Zachary Taylor
Peggy, as she was known, mostly abstained from the duties that typically came along with being married to the President of the United States; her 24-year-old daughter Betty took on the hostess duties. Peggy even refused to sit for an official portrait or photograph.
11. Abigail Fillmore — wife to President Millard Fillmore
Upon moving into the White House, Millard and Abigail Fillmore — both lifelong lovers of books — discovered there was no library. Her husband secured funds from Congress to correct this, and Abigail spent months carefully selecting written works to be in the White House’s first permanent collection. She also used the space to entertain writers and artists at her invitation, including Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and William Makepeace Thackeray, whose novel Vanity Fair was said to be the First Lady’s favorite contemporary work.
12. Jane Pierce — wife to President Franklin Pierce
Jane Pierce hated politics and pressured her husband to find another career during his years in Washington in the House and Senate, but in 1852 Pierce became his party’s presidential candidate. Jane fainted upon hearing the news and actively prayed that he would not be elected. She skipped her husband’s inauguration and spent two years refusing to attend large public events.
13. Harriet Lane — niece to President James Buchanan
Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane, whom he adopted when she was orphaned at age 11, took on the role of First Lady for her bachelor uncle. She was a stylish woman whose youthful energy made her a popular figure in her own right — Lane was 26 when she began her duties as First Lady, and she became known as the first modern First Lady for her advocacy and philanthropy as well as her status as a trendsetter. She is credited with personally inspiring gown bodices to drop “an inch or two overnight” after she wore a low-cut European gown to her uncle’s inaugural ball.
14. Mary Todd Lincoln — wife to President Abraham Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln was a fervent supporter of her husband’s political career and frequently offered him counsel. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, he was said to have run home yelling, “Mary, Mary, we are elected!”
15. Eliza Johnson — wife to President Andrew Johnson
Eliza was just a teenager when she first saw Andrew Johnson, and according to legend she told a friend that they’d marry. They soon did — he was 18 and she 16. Johnson was illiterate at the time, but Eliza taught him to read, write, and do math, playing an integral role in his rags-to-riches story.
16. Julia Grant — wife to President Ulysses S. Grant
Julia Grant preferred to be photographed in profile to obscure the fact that she was slightly cross-eyed. In her autobiography, she wrote that, though she was scared of surgery, she was considering a procedure to fix her eyes since her husband had become so famous. “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes?” Grant reportedly asked his wife. “I like them just as they are.” Julia swooned: “My knight, my Lancelot!”
17. Lucy Hayes — wife to President Rutherford B. Hayes
Fans of the White House Easter egg roll have Lucy Hayes to thank. The First Lady loved children and frequently welcomed friends and relatives’ children to the White House; when Congress banned childrens’ games on the grounds of the Capitol, the Hayeses invited thousands of D.C.’s children to the White House lawn on the Monday after Easter, 1878.
18. Lucretia Garfield — wife to President James Garfield
Lucretia “Crete” Garfield was herself recovering from malaria when President Garfield was shot by an assassin. He lingered for 80 days while a number of doctors attended him, including Dr. Susan Edson, the first female physician to practice in the capital and a favorite of the First Family. When the First Lady discovered that Dr. Edson was being paid half that of the male doctor attending to the President, she was livid. She wrote to the committee who covered these expenses, claimed that the service rendered by the male physician “bore no comparison to Miss Edson’s,” and called the pay discrepancy “discrimination.” The committee thusly paid Dr. Edson $1000, the same as her male counterpart.
19. Frances Cleveland — wife to President Grover Cleveland
Frances Cleveland is the youngest First Lady in American history. She was 21 when she married President Cleveland (her late father’s former law partner) in the White House’s Blue Room. Frances was also the first woman to give birth in the White House and was so popular with the American public that she appeared in campaign materials like posters, handbills, and playing cards.
She served as First Lady during both of Cleveland’s non-consecutive presidential terms.
20. Caroline Harrison — wife to President Benjamin Harrison
Caroline Harrison liked a full house — she filled the White House with relatives, including her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, her elderly father, and a widowed niece. They all lived with the President and First Lady in the White House during his single term. Caroline oversaw a renovation of the White House, perhaps to make it a bit roomier for her brood, but also to add electricity, refinish the floors, and modernize the kitchen.
Frances Cleveland reportedly approved of all of Caroline Harrison’s improvements when she returned in 1893.
21. Ida McKinley — wife to President William McKinley
Ida Saxton was well-educated and well-travelled — she’d once hiked the Swiss Alps during a six-month expedition through Europe with her sister. She had even held a controversial job for a woman at the time, as a bank teller and manager at her father’s bank, before her marriage to McKinley. She suffered from debilitating seizures that limited her work as First Lady, but was able to advocate for women’s rights and suffrage.
22. Edith Roosevelt — wife to President Theodore Roosevelt
Edith Roosevelt knew her husband, Teddy, for nearly her entire life. Their families were next-door neighbors, she became a playmate of his sister as a toddler, and the pair were childhood friends. She even attended his first wedding, to Alice Lee. The two reconnected after Roosevelt was widowed, and they married in 1886 at St. George’s, Hanover Square in London.
23. Helen Taft — wife to President William Howard Taft
“Nellie” Taft was a smart and ambitious woman who encouraged her husband to seek the presidency and turn down opportunities (including two potential Supreme Court appointments) in order to run for the White House in 1908. As First Lady, she found work fitting of her energies, including arranging for thousands of cherry blossom trees to be planted along the city’s tidal basin — the famous trees that still bloom each spring.
24. Ellen Wilson — wife to President Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Wilson was a talented artist who started earning money for her art as a teenager, when she sold crayon portraits at age18. In 1911, she submitted a painting to a New York exhibition under a pseudonym — her husband was the governor of New Jersey at the time — and was accepted. She began submitting her art to more shows and, before moving to the White House in 1913, she held a solo show in Philadelphia. Ellen Wilson had an art studio installed in the White House.
25. Edith Wilson — wife to President Woodrow Wilson
President Wilson was widowed in 1914, during his second year in office. He soon met Edith Bolling Galt, who was a widow herself. They married in 1915, and she became a trusted counselor to Wilson during his presidency, even decoding State Department messages during World War I. When his health declined in 1919, she imposed a “stewardship,” requiring presidential work to go through her as she tried to guard his health. Edith was criticized for exercising such control, but there’s little evidence she usurped the presidency, as some thought.
26. Florence Harding — wife to President Warren G. Harding
Florence was the eldest child of an Ohio businessman and learned how to manage a business and do the accounting while working for her dad. After marrying Warren G. Harding, then the owner of a newspaper, she took over as the paper’s business manager. She armed The Marion Star with new equipment and staff, including a wire service, a circulation department, and the state’s first female reporter.
27. Grace Coolidge — wife to President Calvin Coolidge
Grace and Calvin Coolidge were a case of opposites attracting. While “Silent Cal” was always known as an austere, reserved individual and Grace was extroverted, their “thoroughly delightful senses of humor — his wry and deadpanned, and hers teasing and mocking” worked well together. Part of his proposal to her included the phrase, “I am going to be married to you.”
28. Lou Hoover — wife to President Herbert Hoover
Lou Hoover was one of the first women in America to earn a degree in geology, which she obtained from Stanford University, where she met her husband. In 1900, while they were living in China for Herbert Hoover’s career as a mining engineer, Lou helped fortify their town against attack and took a bicycle to deliver supplies to the front line. At one point, likely because of all of her dangerous work, a Peking newspaper printed a three-column obituary of Lou. “I was never so proud in my life,” she said.
29. Eleanor Roosevelt — wife to President Franklin D. Roosevelt
The nation’s longest-serving First Lady was monitored by the FBI because J. Edgar Hoover believed her liberal views to be dangerous and potentially communist; the Bureau developed an extensive, 3,000-page file on the First Lady as she advocated tirelessly for civil rights for Black Americans, women’s rights, and better working conditions for the working class.
30. Elizabeth Truman — wife to President Harry S. Truman
Bess Truman met her husband in 1890 — she was 5 and he was 6 — but they didn’t marry until 1919, following a nine-year courtship and a wedding derailed by World War I (she also declined his first proposal in 1911, but he persisted). To date, Bess is the longest-living First Lady; she died in 1982 at her home in Independence, Missouri, at age 97.
31. Mamie Eisenhower — wife to President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Mamie Eisenhower was a military wife, and her life was marked by moves — 27 in 37 years, she estimated, including the Panama Canal Zone, the Philippines, and France — and a long, three-year period during World War II when she didn’t see her husband, five-star General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, at all. After they moved into the White House in 1953, Mamie was known for her efficient household management, including clipping coupons from the newspaper.
32. Jacqueline Kennedy — wife to President John F. Kennedy
Jackie Kennedy was world-famous for her grace and style, and in 1962 she became the first First Lady to win an Emmy Award for her televised tour of the White House after a historic and pricey renovation. The award helped cement her growing celebrity and role as a trendsetter.
33. Claudia Johnson — wife to President Lyndon B. Johnson
Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson was the first First Lady to take her environmental protection and beautification agenda directly to Congress. In 1965, she personally lobbied the legislature to pass the Highway Beautification Act, which sought to control the surge of billboards cropping up across America. This work expanded the role of the First Lady and was popular with the American people, who rallied behind her cause.
“I love that woman and she wants that Highway Beautification Act,” President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly told his cabinet. “By God, we’re going to get it for her.”
34. Patricia Nixon — wife to President Richard Nixon
Born Thelma Catherine Ryan, “Pat” Nixon was given her nickname at birth from her Irish father — she was born the day before St. Patrick’s Day. After her father passed when she was 18, she decided to change her name to Pat (and occasionally Patricia) in his honor.
35. Elizabeth Ford — wife to President Gerald Ford
Betty Ford was famously candid: When she needed a partial mastectomy the month after moving into the White House, she made it public knowledge, encouraging women to get checked for breast cancer. For those who needed an operation or treatment (Ford completed two years of chemotherapy while First Lady), she advised women to “go as quickly as possible and get it done.” Then, she said, “put it behind you and go on with your life.”
36. Rosalynn Carter — wife to President Jimmy Carter
Rosalynn Carter had a hearty portfolio as First Lady: She represented the administration with Central and South American leaders, she raised awareness about displaced Cambodians by visiting refugee camps, and she advocated for legislation that funded mental healthcare. After her husband left office after just one term, she continued her advocacy work through the Carter Center, which she helped found.
37. Nancy Reagan — wife to President Ronald Reagan
Alleged Communism brought Nancy and her future husband together. As a young actress, Nancy Davis (a stage name, she was born Anne Frances Robbins) was wrongfully named on a Communist blacklist and sought the advice of the then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan. “I don’t know if it was exactly love at first sight,” she later said, “but it was pretty close.”
38. Barbara Bush — wife to President George H.W. Bush
Barbara Bush was tied to a slew of presidents: She was a distant relative to 14th President, Franklin Pierce; wife to the nation’s 41st president; and mother to its 43rd president, George W. Bush. And lastly, according to her memoir, former President Lyndon B. Johnson attended a wedding luncheon she hosted for a mutual friend in 1970, and though LBJ “held court in our little library and could not have been a better guest,” some of the children attending were “in deep shock” when he grabbed the newspaper from her front yard while leaving.
39. Hillary Rodham Clinton — wife to President Bill Clinton
As a child, Hillary wanted to become an astronaut and wrote to NASA to volunteer, only to receive a letter back detailing that her gender disqualified her. The letter outraged her, she would later say, and helped her understand discrimination better. The First Lady, senator, Secretary of State, and 2016 Democratic nominee for President later joked on the campaign trail that “poor eyesight and mediocre physical abilities” would have likely axed her space aspirations anyway.
40. Laura Bush — wife to President George W. Bush
Laura Bush traveled far and wide during her time as First Lady, from her advocacy work for women in Afghanistan to her work combating malaria and AIDS across Africa. After a devastating cyclone hit Burma in 2008, she held a press conference at the White House and urged the regime — which she had actively opposed — to accept international aid.
41. Michelle Obama — wife to President Barack Obama
Michelle Obama, the nation’s first Black First Lady, learned that her great-great-grandfather was enslaved until the Civil War, when family members and campaign aides pieced together her genealogy during her husband’s 2008 campaign.
“I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, Black young women — head off to school — waving goodbye to their father, the President of the United States,” she later said in a speech.
42. Melania Trump — wife to President Donald Trump
Melania Trump is polyglot: She speaks Slovenian, French, Serbian, German, Italian, and English. She is also America’s second foreign-born First Lady (after Louisa Adams); she was born in Slovenia and became a U.S. citizen in July 2006, a year after marrying Donald Trump.