Move Over, Melania Trump: These Are the Most Influential First Ladies in American History
When Donald Trump was inaugurated president of the United States, Melania Trump didn’t exactly drop everything to move to Washington immediately. Like other first ladies, Melania seems to have her own agenda. But unlike other First Ladies, Melania Trump doesn’t seem to have placed much of a focus on shaping policy, championing causes, or enacting change during her time in the White House. In fact, many first ladies proved very influential during their tenure.
Researchers at Siena College, C-SPAN, and the White House Historical Association created surveys for scholars and historians to rank first ladies on a variety of influence indicators — and to reveal which first ladies were the most influential women in the White House.
Read on to check out the most influential first ladies in American history. (And don’t miss the chance to see how Melania Trump stacks up on page 16!)
15. Nancy Reagan
During her time as first lady, Nancy Reagan led a campaign against drugs called “Just Say No.” She helped to establish thousands of “Just Say No” clubs across the country. And she went on speaking tours across the country.
Unfortunately, not everybody agrees that Reagan’s signature achievement has actually had a positive legacy. Think Progress notes that Just Say No — as well as Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, of which it became emblematic — didn’t actually work.
Next: This first lady was accused of running the country.
14. Edith Wilson
Like many other first ladies, Woodrow Wilson’s second wife took an immediate interest in politics. In fact, she minimized the number of social events held at the White House during World War I. Scholars note that after President Wilson suffered a stroke during his second term, his wife’s role in managing the executive branch greatly increased.
Biography notes that critics actually accused Edith Wilson of running the country when she refused to let him resign and have the vice president take over. And some of her decisions had serious consequences.
Next: This first lady wanted to stay out of the spotlight, but enabled her president to end a war.
13. Edith Roosevelt
Scholars note that Edith Roosevelt was a much quieter and more private person than her husband, Theodore Roosevelt. (In fact, Roosevelt makes the list of presidents with the most unpresidential personalities.) But Edith Roosevelt left her mark on the White House and its grounds. She undertook extensive renovations of the White House, added new landscaping, and even modernized the public rooms.
History notes that Roosevelt established a precedent by hiring the first federally-salaried White House social secretary, who answered mail, conveyed news to the press, and helped run the household. She also corresponded with a junior British ambassador, who kept the Roosevelts apprised of the Russo-Japanese war and enabled the president to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Next: This first lady chose her causes, and continued working for them even after she left the White House.
12. Laura Bush
Next on the list of the most influential first ladies? Laura Bush, whom historians characterize as one of the most popular first ladies of the modern era. As a former teacher and librarian, Bush chose children’s education as one of her main causes during her tenure in the White House. She launched the “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn” initiative during her husband’s first term as president.
Biography notes that since leaving the White House, Laura Bush has continued working for the causes she believes in. Those include breast cancer awareness, women’s health issues, and education.
Next: This first lady was a wife to one president and mother to another.
11. Barbara Bush
Just like her daughter-in-law Laura Bush, Barbara Bush makes the list of the most influential first ladies. Barbara Bush also promoted literacy among America’s children during her time in the White House. While she served as first lady, Bush founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
Biography notes that, interestingly enough, Barbara Bush is the only woman besides Abigail Adams to be both a wife and a mother to a president of the United States. (George H.W. Bush became president in 1989, and George W. Bush became president in 2001.)
Next: This first lady committed herself to public service, like a few other first ladies.
10. Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter dedicated her time in the White House to promoting the cause of mental health research. Carter supported the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. And she served as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.
History reports that like her husband, Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter remained committed to public service as her time in the White House came to an end. She promoted projects such as the nonprofit Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity.
Next: This first lady set a good example for subsequent first ladies.
9. Martha Washington
As wife of our very first president, Martha Washington set a great example for first ladies to come. As first lady, Washington managed the presidential household and held weekly receptions.
History reports that Washington “set many of the standards and customs for the proper behavior and treatment of a U.S. president’s wife. (The term “first lady,” however, did not come into common use until well into the 19th century.)” When she passed away about 2.5 years after her husband, Washington was remembered as “the worthy partner of the worthiest of men.”
Next: This first lady spoke candidly about her opinions and her struggles.
8. Betty Ford
Next on the list of the most influential first ladies? Betty Ford, whom scholars characterize as one of the most politically active first ladies. Ford championed numerous causes during her time in the White House, including breast cancer awareness and the Equal Rights Amendment. She also founded the Betty Ford Center, which took up the cause of combatting substance abuse and drug addiction.
CNN characterizes Ford as a first lady who “spoke candidly about hot-button issues like abortion, premarital sex and equal rights.” She also shared the story of her alcohol and prescription painkiller abuse, and became both “a high-profile example of substance abuse issues” and”a tireless advocate for drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment.”
Next: This first lady made major contributions to America’s environment.
7. Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson remains one of the most well-known first ladies — and for good reason. Johnson chose the environment as her key cause during her time in the White House, and dedicated her time to wildlife preservation and national beautification projects. In fact, in 1977, Gerald Ford awarded Johnson the Medal of Freedom for her service.
The New York Times notes that while Johnson is primarily remembered for her advocacy for highway beautification, she actually has a much larger legacy. Nearly all of the 200 laws related to the environment during the Johnson administration had Lady Bird Johnson’s stamp on them. That included the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and numerous additions to the national parks system. In fact, Johnson “worked to protect the redwoods and block the damming of the Grand Canyon.”
Next: This first lady later ran for president herself.
6. Hillary Clinton
Say what you’d like about Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, but she ranks high on the list of the most influential first ladies. Clinton advocated for health care reform and supported children’s and women’s issues during her time in the White House.
Plus, she maintained a high-profile political career after she left the White House, serving as a New York senator and secretary of state, plus running for president.
Next: This first lady made a major impact during her husband’s presidency.
5. Michelle Obama
Scholars also rank Michelle Obama as one of the most influential first ladies in American history. She took up many causes during her husband’s time as president, tackling issues as diverse as childhood obesity, veterans’ wellness, and education for young women.
Obama also made history as the nation’s first black first lady. NBC News reports that Michelle Obama also leaves a legacy not only as “a fierce defender of her husband’s policies, but as a champion for a healthier nation and access to educational opportunity.”
Next: This first lady was the first to be referred to as “first lady.”
4. Dolley Madison
In fourth place among the most influential first ladies is Dolley Madison. Scholars note that Madison set an important precedent during her time at the White House by advocating for social causes and using her extensive social network to support her husband’s political career.
In fact, scholars believe that the term “first lady” was used for the first time in Zachary Taylor’s eulogy of Dolley Madison.
Next: Generations of Americans have been fascinated by this first lady.
3. Jacqueline Kennedy
Few Americans will feel surprised to see Jacqueline Kennedy among the ranks of the most influential first ladies of all time. She served as first lady for fewer than three years, but nonetheless made an indelible impact on the United States. Scholars note that after her husband’s assassination, Kennedy helped support a grief-stricken nation.
The Washington Post notes that Kennedy “became a figure trapped in the public’s fascination.” The Post reports that as first lady, she ushered in an era of social graces, “restored the mansion with 19th-century furniture, invited cultural giants to elegant state dinners, all the while blossoming into a fashion icon.” Kennedy shaped her husband’s legacy and how he would be remembered.
Next: This first lady advocated for women’s rights.
2. Abigail Adams
Historians point out that Abigail Adams served both as the first second lady and the second first lady. Thus, she played an important role in the first years of the United States. She and her husband, John Adams, were actually the first couple to live in the White House. There, Abigail Adams fulfilled formal hosting duties in the new capital of our young country.
History also characterizes Adams as “a strong advocate of women’s rights.” She encouraged her husband and other members of the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies” as they laid plans for a new American government.
Next: This is the most influential first lady of all time.
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
As for the most influential first lady of all time? That would be Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as first lady for more than 12 years during the Great Depression and World War II. Scholars note that she played a very active role in advising her husband.
And interestingly enough, she was also the very first first lady to hold her own press conferences. Even after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt remained in the spotlight, and even served as chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Next: Here’s how Melania Trump compares to the most influential first ladies of all time.
How does Melania Trump compare?
Melania Trump famously stayed in New York during the first few months of Donald Trump’s presidency, enabling their son, Barron Trump, to finish his school year at the exclusive Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. Melania Trump’s course as first lady seems unclear so far, with Vogue reporting that Trump “has yet to officially announce the nonpartisan cause she’ll advocate for.”
Nonetheless, Melania Trump has expressed interest in combating cyberbullying, despite critics’ eye-rolling over the irony of that choice in light of her husband’s presence on Twitter. It’s unclear whether the first lady will exert more influence or make a bigger impact as her husband’s presidency progresses — and it’s also unclear how much she influences Donald Trump’s decisions. So far, she’s broken many traditions set by former first ladies and has definitely approached the role her own way.
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