To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re rounding up some of the coolest and most badass First Ladies of all time. These women were not content to sit idly by and watch their husbands have all the fun; on the contrary, they advocated for legislation, pushed for equal representation in the government, and spoke out on issues near and dear to their hearts.
Married to John Adams during his time as both Vice President and President, Abigail Adams has the unique distinction of being the first Second Lady and the second First Lady of the United States. Therefore, she played a major role in the founding of the country, working with her husband to develop policy, set presidential precedent, and establish what the role of women in Washington would be. Plus, she was a prolific letter writer, providing historians with invaluable insights into life during the American Revolution.
The tradition of First Lady as grand hostess began in earnest with Dolley Madison, one of the most popular socialites of her day. She was known for throwing lavish fetes in the newly furnished White House mansion, bringing together members of both political parties for networking and merriment. Though these bipartisan bashes were apparently quite fun, they served a larger purpose; at the time, politics in Washington was horribly and sometimes even violently divided, so these gatherings provided the one place in which politicians of different persuasions could mingle peacefully.
Edith Wilson is a slightly controversial First Lady. For some, she was a hero, boldly stepping in to take the reins of the presidency after a severe stroke left then-President Woodrow Wilson incapacitated. Others, however, viewed her as a sly figure who pushed her personal agenda on a leader largely unable to object to her demands (I have a sneaking suspicion this take is laced with deep-seated misogyny). Either way you spin it, it’s clear that Edith Wilson played an important role in the Wilson administration, and may have very well laid the groundwork for the modern, hyper-involved First Lady.
Speaking of hyper-involved, let’s chat about a personal favorite First Lady: Eleanor Roosevelt. A tireless advocate for a litany of progressive causes, Roosevelt used her platform to rally the masses for gender, racial, and socioeconomic justice. It was clear at the time — and even clearer now — that she and FDR were equal political partners through and through, working together to draft the New Deal and address the very real horrors of WWII. After her time in Washington, Roosevelt helped to encourage the United States to join the United Nations and served as its first delegate.
With a passion for flowers and wildlife, Lady Bird Johnson spearheaded a number of impressive environmental projects during her time as First Lady, all of which culminated in the passing of the Highway Beautification Act. She also went on a tour of the South to promote the Civil Rights Act, the central legislation that outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and sex. All in all, a stand-up woman who used her position to advocate for causes she believed in. Ain’t nothing wrong with that!
Though her husband may have done just OK in his role as president, Betty Ford worked it out as First Lady! A staunch proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment (which, like, we all should be), Ford was a leader of the Women’s Movement and voiced progressive opinions on a number of hot-button issues of the day. She was also surprisingly candid about her history with substance abuse, an openness that many considered to be quite transgressive for the time period. The Fords only occupied the White House for three years, but Mrs. Ford kept up her activism long after she returned to private life, maintaining close ties to the feminist movement and opening up the Betty Ford Center for addiction.
I believe I speak on behalf of the entire world when I say that I desperately miss Michelle Obama. She brought so much class, intelligence, and humor to her role as First Lady, imbuing the White House with that most ineffable and important of qualities: humanity. Yes, she made the entire endeavor feel real, which endeared her to the folks (us) the First Family was hired to serve. Plus, she tackled some impressive initiatives, wore amazing clothes, and carried herself with inimitable grace. Michelle Obama for 2024!
And with that, we’re off! For more White House fun, check out our round-up of some of the best presidential quotes of all time.
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