First Ladies: The Wives of the U.S. Presidents
What is the Origin of the Term “First Lady"?
The term “First Lady” was first used it 1860 during the term of James Buchanan. President Buchanan, (the 15th president) was unmarried, so his niece, Harriet Lane, assumed the duties of presidential hostess. She was first referred to as the first lady on March 31,1860 in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Maiden Name: Martha Dandridge
Born: June 2, 1731, New Kent County VA
Died: May 22, 1802 at the age of 70
Married George: May 15, 1750 at the age of 27
Term as First Lady: 1789 – 1897, beginning at age 58
When George Washington became president of the United States, his wife, Martha, became known as “Lady Washington.” Just as George Washington had to establish the protocols for future U.S. presidents, Martha defined the role of first lady for future first ladies.
She was a petite, vivacious woman who was always fashionably dressed. She took on a public role and was a gracious hostess at public events. Her duties as first lady included managing the presidential household, paying social calls to the wives of important members of society, and hosting a weekly reception at the presidential mansion for ordinary citizens. However, she much preferred to live a quiet private life.
Martha was born to John and Frances Dandridge, a well-to-do planter family situated in New Kent County, Virginia. She married a wealthy plantation owner, Daniel Custis, at the age of 18. He was 20 years her senior; she was widowed at age 25.
Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington on May 15, 1750 at the age of 27. By all accounts, Martha was devoted to George. She joined him at his encampments for extended periods of time during the Revolutionary War.
Martha did not have any children with George, but she had four children with her first husband. Two of her children died in childhood; the other two were raised by her and George, but died as young adults.
I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from...”— Martha Washington
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln
Maiden Name: Mary Todd
Born: December 13, 1818, Lexington KY
Died: July 16, 1882 at the age of 63
Married Abraham: November 4, 1842 at the age of 23
Term as First Lady: 1861 to 1865, beginning at age 43
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln was born into a wealthy family. (Her father was a merchant, lawyer. and politician.) Her mother died when she was six and her step-mother had no love for her. She was brought up with privilege and comfort, and was exceptionally well-educated for a woman of her time. She was a petite, witty, gregarious, and popular in society. She was very interested in politics.
She married Abraham at the age of 23. She bore him four sons, but only one son survived to adulthood. She was a loving mother and was devoted to her husband. Although her family supported the South, she ardently supported The Union and abolition.
Mary had a difficult time in the White House primarily because she was First Lady during the tempestuous time of the Civil War. She found her social responsibilities and public criticism in the newspapers of the day to be burdensome. Mary suffered from migraines and depression and was known for mood swings, public outbursts, and fierce temper. Perhaps her problems were due to the stress of her responsibilities and her personal tragedies, or perhaps, as some suggest today, she suffered from bi-polar disorder.
Mary refurbished the White House and was criticized for her lavish spending. She justified the expense as being important to maintain the prestige of the presidency and the Union. She was also active visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital and writing letters of condolence to the families of soldiers who were killed in action.
I would rather marry a good man, a man of mind, with a hope and bright prospects ahead for position, fame and power than to marry all the houses, gold and bones in the world.— Mary Todd Lincoln
Maiden Name: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
Born: October 11, 1884, New York, NY
Died: November 7, 1962 at the age of 78
Married: March 17, 1905 at the age of 20
Term as First Lady: 1933 to 1945, beginning at age 48
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first activist First Lady and was very controversial during her tenure. She wasn’t just a help-mate to the president; she became a political figure in her own right. She held press conferences, gave speeches, wrote a newspaper column, and was very outspoken on issues. She traveled extensively and was described as her husband’s “eyes, ears, and legs.” (Franklin Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair.)
She was a feminist who was an advocate for civil rights and for the disadvantaged. During WW II she visited the troops to boost morale, advocated for broader immigration laws (to help save European Jews). When her time as First Lady was over, she continued to be active in politics and world affairs. She became known as “First Lady of the World” for her work with The United Nations and her work with various Commissions.
Eleanor (as she preferred to be called) married Franklin Delano Roosevelt (her fifth cousin) on March 17, 1905 at the age of 20. She gave birth to six children, one of whom died in infancy.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a prominent wealthy family. She was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She was 5’ 11’’ tall, making her the tallest First Lady (The title of tallest first lady must now be shared with Michelle Obama, who is also 5’ 11" tall.) She also has the title of “longest serving first lady” since her husband served 3 ½ terms as president. (This title will be hers forever because of the 22 Amendment to the Constitution ratified in 1951 that limits presidents to two terms.)
Eleanor was educated by private tutors and later at private schools for girls. She did not attend college, and in her later years, she called that her “greatest regret.” Prior to her marriage, her occupation could be best described as “social worker.” She worked, as a volunteer, to better the living conditions of the poor of New York City.
Campaign behavior for wives: Always be on time. Do as little talking as humanly possible. Lean back in the parade car so everybody can see the president.— Eleanor Roosevelt
Maiden Name: Jacqueline Bouvoir
Born: July 28, 1929, Southampton NY
Died: May 19, 1994 at age 64
Married: Sept 12, 1953 at age 24.
Term as First Lady: 1961 to 1963 beginning at age 32.
While all First Ladies influenced the fashion of their day, Jacqueline Kennedy was the first to become a true “fashion icon.” As First Lady, she was praised for her style, elegance, and grace. She undertook the task of renovating the White House with the aim of historical preservation.
Jacqueline was famous for her White House dinner parties and other social events. She invited an eclectic mix of guests that included—writers, artists, musicians, scientists—to mingle with politicians and foreign dignitaries. The whole world fell in love with her, and she is considered one of the most popular first ladies in U.S. history.
Jacqueline Kennedy was born into a socially-prominent wealthy family. She was educated in private schools. She was a debutante in 1947. She attended Vassar College for two years and did her junior year abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris. She graduated from George Washington University in 1951 with a BA in French literature.
After graduation, Jacqueline worked as an “inquiring photographer.” Her job as to ask witty questions of the-man-on-the-street and photograph them. Their pictures and quotes would then appear in the newspaper.
When Jacqueline married John Kennedy on September 12, 1953, the wedding was called the “social event of the season." The wedding mass was celebrated by Archbishop Robert Cushing. About 700 were in attendance for the wedding ceremony and 1200 at the reception. Jacqueline’s wedding dress can now be seen at the Kennedy Library in Boston Massachusetts.
Jacqueline Kennedy bore four children, but one was still born and her last child was born pre-term while she was First Lady and died a few days after his birth.
About five years after the assassination of John Kennedy, Jacqueline remarried. She married Aristotle Onassis, a fabulously-wealthy Greek shipping magnate. Their marriage was not a happy one, but they remained married until his death in 1975.
The one thing I do not want to be called is First Lady. It sounds like a saddle horse.— Jacqueline Kennedy
Maiden Name: Hillary Rodham
Born: October 26, 1947 in Chicago IL
Married: October 11, 1975 at age 24.
Term as First Lady: 1992 to 2000, beginning at age 45
Hillary Clinton followed in the footsteps of Eleanor Roosevelt--she was actively involved in her husband’s presidency and had a career or her own both before and after her years as First Lady. She was a law professor and lawyer before her husband, Bill Clinton, was elected to the presidency.
Hillary was a Republican during her teen-aged years, but was influenced by her religious beliefs and the civil rights movement to join the Democratic Party. She graduated from Yale law school and worked as a law professor and as a lawyer. She was especially interested in children’s issues.
Hillary married bill Clinton in 1975 and moved from Washington to Arkansas to support her husband’s political ambitions. She served as First Lady of Arkansas when her husband was Governor of the state while continuing her career as a lawyer. During this time she gave birth to a daughter, Chelsea Clinton.
Hillary, like Mary Lincoln before her, had the misfortune to be first lady during a time of extreme political division, and like Eleanor Roosevelt before her she was actively involved in politics. Like her predecessors, she was vilified by political opponents and like her predecessors she did not let her detractors deter her from doing what she thought she needed to do to serve her country.
When Bill Clinton’s term as president was over in 2000, the couple moved to New York and Hillary was elected Senator of the state becoming the first First Lady to win a term to elected office. She was re-elected for a second term with an astounding 67% of the vote. In 2008, she ran for the Democratic nomination, but lost to Barack Obama. In 2009, she accepted a position as Secretary of State in the Obama administration and served until early 2013.
Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination for president for the 2016 election making her the first woman ever nominated by a major party in the history of the United States. However, she did not break the ultimate glass ceiling by winning the presidency. She lost in the electoral college, although she did win in the popular vote, obtaining a quarter of a million votes more than her opponent, Donald Trump.
Our lives are a mixture of different roles. Most of us are doing the best we can to find whatever the right balance is . . . For me, that balance is family, work, and service.— Hillary Clinton
Maiden Name: Michelle Robinson
Born: January 16, 1964 in Chicago IL
Married: October 3, 1992 at the age of 28
Term as First Lady: 2009 (scheduled to end 2016) beginning at age 45
Barack Obama, elected president in 2008, brought his wife Michelle to the White House when he was sworn-in in January 2009. He is the first African-American president and she is the first African American First Lady. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, she is 5’11’ tall. Like Jacqueline Kennedy, she is a fashion icon, admired for her elegance and charm. Like Hillary Clinton she is a lawyer and is involved with politics. (However, unlike Hillary, she is not expected to seek public office after her husband’s term is over. If she did decide to run for office, she would be a very strong candidate.)
She was born in 1964 to a working class family on the South Side of Chicago. Her father worked as a water plant employee and her mother was a homemaker. She is the descendent of slaves. She excelled at school and graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
After obtaining her legal degree, she worked at a law firm where she met Barack Obama. (He was doing an internship at the firm.) They married in 1992 and they have two daughters, currently teenagers.)
Michelle later worked on the staff of Chicago mayor, Richard M Daley. She was employed at the University of Chicago Medical Center just prior to her husband’s run for president.
As First Lady, she is an advocate for poverty awareness, civil rights (for the LGBT community and others) and healthy living (promoting good nutrition and exercise, especially for children.) She is also in great demand to give political speeches. She enjoys very high popularity among the U.S. public.
In my own small way, I've tried to give back to this country that has given me so much.— Michelle Obama
This documentary about the history and restoration of the White House, narrated by Jacqueline Kennedy, appeared on television in 1962.
Do you think we will have a First Gentleman sometime soon?
- 64% Yes
- 9% No, but I wish we would
- 23% No
- 5% No opinion
This poll is now closed to voting.
A New Poll
The previous poll was mostly about Hillary Clinton becoming our first woman president. Now that the election is over, it seemed prudent to close out that poll. I am replacing it with a new poll about Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama has been widely praised for the speeches she gave on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Many are saying that she should run for office herself.
Use the poll below to give your opinion on this question. You can use the comments if you want to explain your answer.
Michelle Obama's Future
Should Michelle Obama run for public office?See results without voting
Get the Inside Scoop on the First Ladies of the U.S.
Kate Anderson Brower weaves together history, journalism, and a bit of gossip to create this very readable book about the first ladies of the United States. Her primary focus is the ten most recent first ladies--from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. She takes us behind the scenes to reveal the powerful role these women played in their husband’s administrations and the relationships—sometimes friendly and sometimes not-- they had with each other. This book did not read like a straight-forward biography; reading this book was more like sitting down for coffee with a charming and very talkative insider who knows how to tell a good story as she reveals the personal side (as opposed to the public role) of the recent first ladies.
© 2014 Catherine Giordano
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