They say behind every great man is a great woman, and these first ladies are the perfect example. The women below made revolutionary strides in government, social policy, and education that has made America a brighter and better place.
They also taught the country (and the world) powerful life lessons that would do us well in our current political climate. Plus, the one first lady whose legacy we’re still waiting to learn (page 15).
1. History is worth saving
- Dolley Madison
On August 23, 1814, Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth president James Madison, historically saved an important full-length portrait of first president George Washington.
According to both the White House Historical Society and Dolley’s own salvaged letters, her husband left the day before for the battlefield. He left Dolley to gather important state papers and “be prepared to abandon the White House” at a moment’s notice. When Dolley saw the British soldiers in the distance, she left her personal belongings and grabbed Washington’s portrait instead.
Next: She wasn’t afraid to take on different roles
2. Wearing multiple hats leads to great success
- Sara Childress Polk
Sara Polk, the wife of the 11th U.S. president James Polk, held many roles in the White House. She was extremely well-educated and notably worked on her husband’s speeches and correspondence.
Her husband addressed how significant Sarah’s roles were throughout his administration. “None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs … She was politician, counselor, nurse, and emotional resource.”
Next: She stood by her husband’s side and kept her autonomy
3. You can be a support system and remain individually powerful
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt is revered as one of the greatest first ladies in our nation’s history, but she wasn’t initially eager to step into the role. She was reportedly nervous she’d lose her hard-earned autonomy and would have to give up all of the roles she cared about outside of the White House.
She simply took her individual passions and transferred them to the white house, transforming the “conventional” first lady role (hostessing) into one of power and political participation. Eleanor was the first woman to hold a White House press conference for just female reporters.
Next: She wanted to positively impact American citizens’ quality of life
4. There shouldn’t be a stigma on mental health
- Rosalynn Carter
She was one of her husband, Jimmy Carter’s, closest advisors and sat in on cabinet meetings. While she supported Jimmy’s policies, Rosalynn took on causes of her own — specifically that of mental health. She became the honorary chair of the Commission on Mental Health, which aimed to support scientific research on the subject and helped pass the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.
Even after Jimmy’s administration came to an end, Rosalynn continued her work. She and her husband founded The Carter Center, “dedicated to improving the quality of life for people at home and in the developing world through programs in peace and health.”
Next: We only have one earth, and this first lady did all she could to protect it
5. We are responsible for protecting our earth
- Lady Bird Johnson
She may be most famous for her tireless pushing of “Lady Bird’s Bill,” or the Highway Beautification Act. However, it’s crucial to note that most of the environmentally-friendly legislation passed during her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson’s, term, was Lady Bird’s doing.
According to The New York Times, nearly all of the 200 environmental laws passed between 1963 and 1969 had Lady Bird’s mark; the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, to name a few.
Next: Her honesty inspired many to seek help
6. It’s OK to be open about your struggles
- Betty Ford
Wife of Gerald Ford, 34th President of the United States, Elizabeth “Betty” Ford was the first woman in the White House to speak openly and candidly about her experience with psychiatric treatment and alcoholism.
Betty had a mastectomy to treat her cancer in 1974 and proceeded to raise awareness for breast cancer. The pro-choice first lady advocated for abortion legalization and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Next: She proved you can make a career move, no matter what age
7. There’s nothing wrong with getting a job done in style
- Nancy Reagan
“Nancy Reagan’s early life foretold nothing of the woman she would become,” her biography reads, reflecting her early career as an actress and the legacy she’d leave on America.
She garnered both praise and criticism for her glamorous, high-fashion lifestyle. Her luxurious clothing became a trademark but didn’t detract from the causes she pioneered. She established the “Just Say No” drug-awareness campaign during her husband’s terms. She traveled to schools nationwide to introduce and enforce a drug-free America.
Next: She encouraged people of all ages to learn a crucial life skill.
8. You’re never too old to learn something new
- Barbara Bush
Barbara and George H.W. Bush’s fourth son, Neil, was dyslexic and struggled with reading. Inspired by his resilience despite the disorder, Barbara took it upon herself to travel the nation encouraging children and adults to learn crucial reading skills.
As the first lady, Barbara started the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. She continued her work with literacy projects out of the White House, as well. “If you help a person to read, then their opportunities in life will be endless,” she famously said.
Next: Historians argue she was the ‘first lady president.’
9. Just because it’s unconventional, doesn’t make it wrong
- Edith Wilson
Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith, saw him through his stroke. While she was responsible for caring for her husband, the first lady also took on a number of duties including filtering what her husband should and shouldn’t take care of.
To this day, no women have been elected President of the United States. However, some historians argue that Edith Wilson was the unofficial “First Lady President.” She dedicated herself to protecting her husband while volunteering at the Red Cross in the aftermath of World War I.
Next: She’s responsible for her entire family’s legacy
10. Sometimes you just need to put on a brave face
- Jackie Kennedy
Jackie may not have had as political a role as other distinguished first ladies, but she impacted society in a way that few can match. The stylish first lady was revered for her composure, grace, and dignity through hard times like her husband’s murder.
Jackie was popular with foreign dignitaries, the public adored her, and she utilized television to the administration’s advantage. “Jackie Kennedy is responsible for creating the Kennedy legacy,” Noah, executive producer of JFK: Fact and Fable, said. She devoted much of her life, he says, to “making [JFK] into the great president he so badly wanted to be.”
Next: We haven’t seen the last of her
11. If you care about something enough, you’ll never give up
- Hillary Clinton
The powerful first lady set a standard of intelligence and female empowerment that has not only inspired her successors but women nationwide. As the first lady, she helped direct policy, headed the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, and addressed significant women’s and children’s issues.
Hillary didn’t leave Washington D.C. just because her role as the first lady ended. She became the first first lady to hold public office as a junior U.S. senator of New York and later Secretary of State for President Barack Obama. In 2016 Hillary became the first and only woman thus far elected as a party’s presidential nominee.
Next: She handled trying times and serious change
12. Being adaptable is key
- Michelle Obama
It’s no secret that Michelle Obama was a remarkable first lady. Historians noted she left behind an “unprecedented legacy” as a champion for a healthier America and accessible education for all.
Her “Let’s Move!” campaign made our schools healthier, and she and husband Barack historically announced their support for same-sex marriage. She wasn’t just adaptable to policy, however. The first lady moved into the White House during a decade of great technological advancement and became the first “social media” wife to stand beside a “social media president.”
Next: She set the precedent for the rest of the first ladies to follow
13. It’s OK to not know what you’re doing
- Marsha Washington
The first ever first lady had no guidelines, no rule book, and no predecessor to look to. She set the standards and many customs reminiscent of those that first ladies still follow to this day.
Washington was remembered as “the worthy partner of the worthiest of men.” She was known for implementing weekly receptions and her “gracious presence” while married to President George Washington.
Next: You don’t need to have all the answers
14. Sometimes you should go it alone, and sometimes you should seek inspiration
- Laura Bush
The modern first lady followed in her mother-in-law’s footsteps to focus on education and literacy while her husband, George W. Bush, was in office. However, she made plenty of individual strides where Barbara Bush had not: Laura traveled solo to Europe, spoke on the radio in her husband’s place and testified before the Senate committee on education.
She started a foundation in her own name to raise money for public libraries and was dubbed an honorary ambassador for the United Nations Decade of Literacy. According to C-SPAN, she also made strides as the first presidential spouse to deliver the White House weekly address.
Next: Time will tell what this first lady’s legacy will be
15. To be determined…
- Melania Trump
Her husband, President Donald Trump, has dominated the media cycle for his unorthodox communication techniques, alleged infidelity, and ever-changing cabinet. His wife, Melania, is a former model who now finds herself in a position she reportedly never wanted.
What legacy will she leave? So far, Melania has made efforts to combat cyberbullying, discussed wanting to end the opioid crisis, and been compared to former first ladies Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan as a “style star.”
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