Fabulous, Fascinating First Ladies

jkennedyWe’ve got no problem with President’s Day. George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? A day off? Awesome.  

But what about the First Ladies? Hillary Clinton wasn’t the first to take an active interest in her husband’s work -- she might as have well been taking a page from Abigail Smith Adams or Eleanor Roosevelt. And not every First Lady was married to a President -- James Buchanan took his niece, 27-year old Harriet Lane, to Washington as his First Lady. 

This week C-Span, working with the White House Historical Association, started airing a new 35-episode series about the women behind the men throughout 44 presidential administrations. “Every First Lady brings their unique perspective to this job,” said Mark Farkas, executive producer for the series. “If you didn’t, you couldn’t live through it.”

If you’ve got the time, why not tune in? In the meantime, here are a few of the highlights in the lives and careers of some of our fascinating and fabulous First Ladies.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. George was actually Martha’s second husband. She was married to a wealthy man named Daniel Parke Custis at the age of 18, but became a widower. She didn’t particularly enjoy being First Lady, writing that while many women might be “extremely pleased” with the role, she’d rather stay at home because she valued her privacy. "I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances." Wise words. Martha was also the first First Lady to appear on a U.S. postage stamp -- an eight-cent stamp in 1902.

Abigail Smith Adams. Abigail, the first First Lady to live in The White House, is known for being an unusual woman in her time. Intelligent, witty, and independent, she spoke out about the restrictions faced by women and was a vocal critic of slavery and racial discrimination. She is also notable because she was both the wife of a president and the mother of a president (her son was John Quincy Adams). In a letter to her husband in March 1776, she asked him and other members of Congress to “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Go Abigail!

Abigail Powers Fillmore. The wife of 13th president Millard Fillmore, a former school teacher, was the first First Lady to work and earn a salary before she was married. Abigail Fillmore also created the White House library.

Harriet Lane. James Buchanan, Harriet Lane’s guardian, never married, so when Buchanan was elected President, the beautiful Lane served as his hostess. “Hal” Lane, as she was known, served as his First Lady, bringing a happy atmosphere to Washington D.C. after the somberness of the prior Pierce administration (Franklin Pierce has the dubious distinction of being considered one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history). She invited artists and musicians to the White House, and also promoted important social causes, working to improve the living conditions of Native Americans on reservations. In her later years, she endowed a home for children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinic continues to serve children today.

Lucy Ware Webb Hayes. As an alumna of Delaware’s Wesleyan Women’s College (now Ohio Wesleyan University), she was the first First Lady to graduate from college. 

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. She’s known as the “secret president” and “the first female president of the United States,” because she basically ran the government after her second husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a stroke in office. All memos, correspondence, questions and requests from the Congress to the President went through her, and she made many decisions about what matters Wilson should review and what decisions could be made by others. She described her approach, in a later memoir, as “stewardship” of the government. She lived in Washington after her husband’s death and rode in President Kennedy’s inaugural parade in 1961.

Florence Kling Harding. Harding divorced her first husband after he abandoned her and her young son, and earned her own money by giving piano lessons to children. She is notable for being the first First Lady to vote in a presidential election.   

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the longest-serving First Lady (1933 to 1945), but was also the first First Lady to fly in an airplane (from Miami to Puerto Rico), the first to host a weekly radio show and the first to hold her own regular press conferences. She also wrote a syndicated daily newspaper column called “My Day.” She served notably as the chairperson for the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted after World War II to expressly define the rights to which all human beings are entitled. Not bad for a young girl who wrote, when she was 14, “No matter how plain a woman may be if truth & loyalty are stamped upon her face, all will be attracted to her.”

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy changed the image of First Ladies forever, bringing her personal style and taste to the White House. She led a major restoration of the White House and then invited the media in to show the world the changes she had made. She also oversaw the creation of the first White House guidebook, and used the money earned to help fund her restoration projects. She is the first First Lady to have a press secretary, and was a vocal advocate of the arts, inviting notable musicians, writers and artists to state dinners. She’ll probably always be remembered as being by her husband’s side, in her pink Chanel suit, as he was assassinated in Dallas. But her skills as a hostess were important in helping Kennedy with international dignitaries and in preservation and restoration efforts. The formation of the White House Historical Association, the White House Endowment Trust and the creation of a permanent Curator of the White House are due to her efforts.

-- Connie Guglielmo 


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10 Women We Should All Know

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Lilly Ledbetter, Equal Pay For Women and Toyo Tires


Photo of Jackie Kennedy courtesy of the JFK Presidential Library

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