Being the first lady of the United States is a unique and powerful role. As a position that started out with simply fulfilling “hostess” responsibilities to the White House, it has transformed into an opportunity for women to truly make a difference in their country.
However, none of that could have happened without many of the first ladies in U.S. history. From their style and grace to their dedication to their country, all of these women earned the love and respect of citizens across America.
These are the 15 most popular first ladies in history, leading up to the No. 1 most beloved first lady of all time.
15. Edith Roosevelt
As a seriously dedicated first lady, Edith Roosevelt received love from many Americans. She served as first lady from 1901 to 1909 as the wife of Theodore Roosevelt. In addition to totally revamping the White House (including the creation of the West Wing in 1902), she showed a true interest in helping those in need.
According to the National First Ladies’ Library, “Her secretary recalled that the First Lady most frequently sent large gifts of cash to various free hospitals that treated the poor, instructing physicians to hand out cash sums to those being discharged.”
Next: She was a down-to-earth first lady.
14. Bess Truman
Harry S. Truman’s wife, Bess Truman, had a remarkable period as FLOTUS from 1945 to 1953. On top of being extremely hard-working, she was known as one of the most down-to-earth first ladies in history.
According to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum’s website, “[She] rode to her old beauty shop in her chauffeured limousine and continued to pay only $3.00 for her weekly manicure, shampoo and set because she ‘saw no reason to change.’”
The website also noted that over the years of her time in the White House, “Mrs. Truman’s name appeared on the Gallup Poll’s list of American women admired the most.”
Next: Americans admired her hard work.
13. Rosalynn Carter
The 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, once referred to his wife as “an equal extension” of himself. Rosalynn Carter took her duties as first lady seriously from 1977 to 1981, leading Americans to admire her hard work.
She was an advocate for the cause of mental health, pushed for support of the Equal Rights Amendment, and was supportive of the arts — to name a few areas of her passionate work.
It’s no surprise that in 2001, she was elected into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, according to the History Channel’s website.
Next: She truly left behind a legacy.
12. Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, truly left behind a legacy with her time as first lady from 1963 to 1969. Just a few of her accomplishments include “[supporting the ‘war on poverty,’ the Headstart Program, and [working] for the beautification of Washington, D.C.,” according to Biography.com.
She was also vocal about her support of women’s rights. As a result of all of her dedication, she was presented with the Medal of Freedom in 1977, which is America’s highest civilian award. Johnson was also awarded with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.
Next: The women of the era related to her.
11. Mamie Eisenhower
Mamie Eisenhower was a strong-minded first lady from 1953 to 1961, during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s time as president. However, what made her so beloved was just how much the women of the era related to her.
“Few First Ladies seemed to better reflect the general role, priorities, and values of most middle-aged middle class American women,” according to the National First Ladies’ Library.
Many women copied the first lady’s style, including her signature pink ensembles and short bang hairstyle. She connected with the general public over her love for TV shows such as I Love Lucy and The Milton Berle Show.
Next: Her accomplishments were truly groundbreaking.
10. Abigail Adams
As only the second first lady in all of history, Abigail Adams’ accomplishments were truly groundbreaking. She served in her role from 1797 to 1801 as the wife of John Adams, and was nicknamed “Mrs. President.”
She was an unofficial adviser to her husband, helping him make decisions on the XYZ Affair, Sedition Act, and Alien Act. As Study.com notes, “Abigail also advocated for the rights of women during a period where it really was not fashionable.”
Next: She was celebrated for her strength and power after her death.
9. Barbara Bush
When Barbara Bush passed away at the age of 92 in April 2018, Americans came together to celebrate the strength and power the beloved former first lady. She served as FLOTUS during George H.W. Bush’s presidency from 1989 to 1993, during which time she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
On their last day in the White House, the president wrote of his wife, “Barbara is wonderful. She’s strong, and what a First Lady she’s been — popular and wonderful.”
Next: She had a colorful personality — and Americans loved it.
8. Dolley Madison
The fourth first lady of the United States, Dolley Madison, was known and loved for her vivacious personality. She was the wife of James Madison, who served as president from 1809 to 1817.
According to the History Channel’s website, “One of Washington, D.C.’s most successful hostesses, Dolley Madison used her social skills, charm, and personal popularity to win over her husband’s political opponents and help advance his career.”
She even played a major part in establishing the role of the first lady, including “working with local charities and organizations on social issues important to her and overseeing the decoration of the executive mansion to reflect the importance of the presidency.”
Next: She had personal drive to make a difference.
7. Laura Bush
George W. Bush’s wife, Laura Bush, was determined to improve education and literacy across America. Before her time as first lady from 2001 to 2009, she was a public school teacher and library. According to the History Channel’s website, “Laura Bush championed the causes of education and literacy before and during her time in the White House.”
Not only did she help create the National Book Festival as first lady, but she founded to Laura Bush Foundation to financially support America’s libraries.
Next: She went from Broadway actress to first lady.
6. Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan may have started out her career as a Broadway actress, but she settled right in to her new role as the first lady from 1981 to 1989. While serving alongside her husband, Ronald Reagan, she was admired for her passionate work against drug and alcohol abuse.
She founded the Just Say No anti-drug campaign, and even supported stem cell research to help the cause for Alzheimer’s disease, according to ABC News.
Next: She was outspoken as a first lady.
5. Betty Ford
When Gerald Ford became president as a result of Richard Nixon’s resignation, Betty Ford stepped into her role as first lady seamlessly. Over her tenure from 1974 to 1977, she became notorious for her “openness” as first lady. According to Biography.com, she was outspoken on issues such as “equal rights for women, abortion, and divorce.”
While many conservative citizens weren’t fans of her vocal stance, her overall approval rating was still a solid 75 percent.
Next: She was one of the most involved and passionate first ladies ever.
4. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama was one of the most involved and passionate first ladies America has ever seen. Her drive to make a difference was unforgettable — and she had fun doing it.
She served as FLOTUS alongside President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, during which time she won the hearts of Americans while making a difference. Some of her most significant accomplishments include founding Let’s Move! to combat childhood obesity, creating the Reach Higher Initiative to “[expose] students to college and career opportunities,” and empowering young women to get an education with Let Girls Learn.
Next: She established what it meant to be a first lady.
3. Martha Washington
No one had more of a formative role as first lady than Martha Washington. After all, she was the very first woman to ever step into the role, alongside her husband, George Washington. From 1789 to 1797, she established what it meant to be the first lady of the United States.
According to the National First Ladies’ Library, “She remained beloved by Revolutionary War veterans, and was publicly known to provide financial support or to intercede on behalf of those among them in need.” They also noted, “Not only Americans, but Europeans responded to Martha Washington as something of an American heroine, sometimes sending her lavish gifts.”
Next: She refused to simply be a hostess.
2. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was an inspirational first lady, who refused to simply serve as a hostess in the White House. She first became first lady when her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, took office in 1933. She served until his death in 1945 — and over that time, she forged the path for powerful first ladies to come.
According to Biography.com, “She gave press conferences and spoke out for human rights, children’s causes, and women’s issues, working on behalf of the League of Women Voters.” She also worked to help poor americans and took a stance against racial discrimination.
Next: She was the most beloved first lady of all time.
1. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, or Jackie O, stands as the most beloved first lady in U.S. history. Not only were her style and grace admired, but she had incredible drive in her role in the White House.
She made major accomplishments during her short time as first lady. She took on the role when her husband, John F. Kennedy, became president in 1961. However, his shocking assassination took place just two years later.
According to Biography.com, “Onassis’ first mission as first lady was to transform the White House into a museum of American history and culture that would inspire patriotism and public service in those who visited.” She was also a patron of the arts and frequent traveler with her husband, which earned her admiration from Americans and foreign citizens alike.
Clark Clifford, a presidential adviser, wrote a special message to Onassis. “Once in a great while, an individual will capture the imagination of people all over the world,” he wrote. “You have done this; and what is more important, through your graciousness and tact, you have transformed this rare accomplishment into an incredibly important asset to this nation.”
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