First Ladies: Exceptions to the Rule

When the President's Wife Is Not First Lady

Rachel Donelson Jackson
Rachel Donelson Jackson. Keen Collection / Getty Images

Martha Washington, wife of America’s first president, established the custom of the president’s wife acting as a hostess for social events, and having a very public role. While the president’s wife was not called “First Lady” until the term was used for Dolley Madison

In the 20th century and later, most presidents were married at their inauguration and their wives served as First Lady during the president’s whole term of office. But until after Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, that was the model, but not necessarily how life worked out. 

Here are some exceptions to the "president’s wife as White House hostess" rule. After forty-five presidents, it shouldn’t be so unexpected that a president would have a daughter serve as White House hostess, even if few have also served the full modern role of a First Lady with a White House office and some official or unofficial expectations that she is a presidential advisor.

Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph

Thomas Jefferson was a widower when he was president from 1801 to 1809.  His wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, had died in 1782. Their daughter, Martha (called Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, was their only child who lived past age 25. Patsy Jefferson served at times as his presidential hostess when she was at the White House.  She and her growing family visited in 1802, a year after her sixth child was born (one had died in infancy in 1795).  She visited again in 1803, the year her daughter Mary was born.  She was at the White House for an extended visit over the winter of 1805-1806, during which her son, James Madison Randolph, became the first child born at the White House.

Emily Donelson & Sarah Yorke Jackson

Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, died in 1828 just after the election and before he could be inaugurated, so she never served as First Lady.  Rachel and Andrew Jackson had no biological children, but adopted a nephew and renamed him Andrew Jackson, Jr., and also adopted a boy of Creek heritage.

First her niece Emily Donelson took on White House duties.  Emily was the daughter of Rachel Donelson Jacson, and in 1824, married her first cousin Andrew Jackson Donelson. Emily had served as a hostess on the Jackson plantation in Tennessee, The Hermitage, and was likely expected to go to Washington in a similar role when Andrew Jackson became president.  After Rachel Jackson died, Emily, then 21 years old, moved to Washington, and her husband became Andrew Jackson’s secretary.  The first year in the White House was officially a mourning period for Rachel Jackson, and the first formal occasion that Emily Donelson was hostess for was a party on New Year’s Day, 1830. She differed with her uncle in his treatment of Peggy Eaton, subject of a scandal, and after a summer in Tennessee in 1830, refused to return to Washington as long as Peggy Eaton was welcomed at the White House.

Sarah Yorke married Andrew Jackson’s adopted son Andrew Jackson, Jr., in 1831. The couple lived at the White House for some time in 1831 as a honeymoon, then returned to manage The Hermitage. In 1834, after the main house there was largely destroyed in a fire, Sarah and Andrew and their two children moved back to the White House.  Emily Donelson had returned, so for some period, there were two acting White House hostesses.  After Emily Donelson became seriously ill with tuberculosis, and then died in 1836, Sarah filled the role herself until the end of Jackson’s term in 1837, with one absence to oversee rebuilding at The Hermitage.

Angelica Van Buren

The next president after Jackson also had a White House hostess who was not his wife. Martin Van Buren’s wife, Hannah Hoes Van Buren, died 17 years before her husband took office. Van Buren was thus a widower during his term from 1837 - 1841.

During Van Buren’s term in office, his son Abraham married (Sarah) Angelica Singleton.  They had been introduced by former First Lady Dolley Madison.  The new daughter-in-law Angelica Van Buren began serving as President Van Buren’s White House hostess. In 1839, Angelica and Abraham visited Europe, including visiting her uncle who was the United States minister to England. She brought back more formal European customs for greeting guests, but the formality did not sit well with Americans and the style was quickly dropped.  Angelica gave birth in 1840 in the White House, though the daughter died a few months later.  Angelica and Abraham had more children after Martin Van Buren left office, defeated for re-election, returning to Kinderhook to live with the former president for several years.

Jane Irwin Harrison

Jane Irwin Harrison, daughter-in-law of President William Henry Harrison, served briefly as White House hostess after her father-in-law’s inauguration. She expected to take these duties on only until her mother-in-law, Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison, could get to DC.

But President Harrison died before his wife could arrive in Washington, living for just 31 days after the inauguration. Harrison served from March 4 to April 4, 1841.

Jane Harrison’s sister Elizabeth married another of William Henry Harrison’s sons. Elizabeth was the mother of future president Benjamin Harrison.

Priscilla Cooper Tyler

Priscilla Cooper Tyler was married to Robert Tyler, a son of President John Tyler who served from 1841 to 1845, succeeding William Henry Harrison on his death.  President Tyler’s wife, Letitia Christian, was sickly, and could not carry out most of the duties that were by then expected of a First Lady.  Priscilla and Robert had lived with John and Letitia Tyler since the young couple were married, and she was well-liked and trusted by her father-in-law, and probably already was assisting her mother-in-law, who was sickly.

When John Tyler found himself President after Harrison’s death, he asked his daughter-in-law, Priscilla, to step in and assist Letitia in the White House.  Letitia died in September, 1842, as a result of a stroke.  Letitia Tyler was the first and one of only three First Ladies to die in the White House.

Priscilla carried out the hostess duties of a First Lady, even attending official functions, until the widower John Tyler married Julia Gardiner Tyler in June, 1844. Then Robert and Priscilla Tyler moved to Philadelphia, and President Tyler’s new wife assumed First Lady duties.

Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor

Margaret (Peggy) Mackall Smith Taylor, Zachary Taylor's First Lady, spent most of his short term of office in seclusion. She had apparently made promises to give up a social life if he returned from the Mexican-American War safely, and she had prayed for his defeat in the election of 1848.  She was also somewhat sickly.  She did not fulfill any First Lady hostess duties. Taylor was president 1849 until his sudden death in 1850.  She died only two years later.

Mary Taylor Bliss Dandridge

During the brief presidency of Zachary Taylor, when his wife was in seclusion, their daughter Mary Taylor Bliss Dandridge served as the First Lady at the White House.  Known as Betty Bliss during her time in the White House, she was quite popular with the public.  Her father, mother, and husband had both died by 1853, when Betsy was 29, and Betsy remarried, living to the age of 85.

Abigail Powers Fillmore

Abigail Powers Fillmore, wife of Millard Fillmore who was president form 1850 to 1853, moved with her husband to the White House in 1850 after the death of Zachary Taylor. The early months in the White House were a period of mourning.  She was more interested in her work creating a library in the White House than in her social duties, and often avoided those social duties. Abigail, who could not stand for long, had her younger daughter, Abby, fill in for her in some functions.   She died after catching a cold at her husband’s successor’s inauguration and developing pneumonia.

Jane Means Appleton Pierce

Jane Means Appleton Pierce was married to Franklin Pierce who was president from 1853 to 1857.  She had opposed her husband’s political career, and blamed his political and military service for the deaths of all their children. Jane refused to attend her husband’s inauguration, and spent her time alone in the White House living areas.  She made a few appearances as First Lady, including at a New Year’s reception in 1855.

Mostly, Jane Pierce left social duties to two other women.  One was her aunt, Abby Means.  The other was Varina Davis, the wife of Pierce’s Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis.  (Varina Davis’ experience would be applied when her husband became president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War.)

Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane (later Johnston), niece of James Buchanan, had been with her sister under the guardianship of her bachelor uncle since she was orphaned at the age of eleven.  She had accompanied her uncle to London when he was minister to the Court of St. James.

When James Buchanan took office in 1857, she became the First Lady, carrying out social duties, and also engaging in advocacy work. As the country polarized over the issue of slavery, her White House duties included figuring out how to sensitively seat for White House functions those who would be unale to peacefully sit near each other.  When her uncle and guardian left office in 1861, after seven states had already seceded, Harriet went to live with him in Pennsylvania.  She married Henry Elliott Johnston in 1866.

Eliza McCardle Johnson & Martha Johnson Patterson

Andrew Johnson's wife Eliza was ill with tuberculosis when her husband took office. He was president from 1865 to 1869. Eliza Johnson had avoided the public eye through most of his political and military career, and only served in a First Lady hostess capacity twice.  One was entertaining Hawaii’s Queen Emma (1866) and the other was to honor her husband’s 1867 birthday.  Substituting for her on many social occasions was her daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson.

Mary Arthur McElroy

Chester Arthur's wife, Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur, had died the year before Arthur succeeded the assassinated president James Garfield. Chester Arthur served from 1881 - 1885.

Arthur asked his sister to come to Washington to care for his daughter, also named Ellen, and to serve in the role he called “Mistress of the White House.” Mary McElroy, married to a New York businessman and mother of four children, took over some of the White House duties but the president was reluctant to have anyone publicly take on roles his wife would have fulfilled. She was only in Washington during winter, the busiest social time. She sometimes called on to help her two former First Ladies: Julia Tyler, wife of John Tyler, and Harriet Lane, niece of James Buchanan. For a major event at the end of her brother’s presidency, she had 48 daughters of other officials and the leaders of Washington society assist her.

Rose Cleveland & Frances Folsom Cleveland

Grover Cleveland was not married when he became president the first time in 1885, and he married while in office during his first term.  He served as president from 1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897. 

His sister, Rose (Libby) Cleveland, moved to the White House to live and carry out First Lady duties for his first fifteen months in office. She preferred intellectual pursuits to being a social hostess, but led the entertainment at the White House for the sake of her brother.

When Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom in 1886, Rose Cleveland retired to a career in education, and a long-term relationship and “Boston marriage” with Evangeline Marrs Simpson.

Frances Folsom Cleveland became the youngest sitting First Lady at age 21, married at the White House. She held many receptions and was subject to much press interest.  The Clevelands lived in New York City after the end of his first term, then moved back to the White House four years later.  She was also the first First Lady to give birth while her husband was president.

Mary Scott Harrison McKee

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison was the wife of Benjamin Harrison who was president from 1889 until 1893, between the two terms of Grover Cleveland. Caroline Harrison served as an active First Lady until her death in October 1892 after a year-long battle with tuberculosis. During her First Lady years she helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution.

When an official mourning period ended, the Harrison’s daughter Mary McKee stepped in as First Lady for the later months of his term.  McKee, married to a founder of the General Electric company, later became estranged from her father when he became involved with his wife’s niece, Mary Lord Dimmick. She did not attend their wedding and never spoke to her father again.

Ida Saxton McKinley & Jennie Tuttle Hobart

Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of William McKinley who was president from 1897 until his assassination in 1901, had developed depression, phlebitis, and epilepsy after the death, in a short span of time, of her mother and her only two children. She became a invalid, keeping herself private.

As First Lady, her condition made public appearances risky.  Her husband had her sit beside him at state dinners rather than at the other end of the table as protocol would demand. When there were receiving lines, she was seated while everyone else stood. He would place a napkin over her face if she had a seizure, acting nonchalant to avoid embarrassment for her.

Jennie Tuttle Hobart, “Second Lady” as the wife of Vice President Garret Hobart, carried out many of the White House hostess responsibilities until her husband’s death in 1899.  She was also a friend of Ida McKinley, and when the President was shot in 1901, Jennie Hobart traveled to Buffalo to be near her friend.

Helen Herron Taft

Helen Herron Taft was married to William Howard Taft when he was president from 1909 to 1913. She suffered a stroke less than two months after the inauguration, and four of her sisters filled in with her for White House duties.  She recovered sufficiently after a year to resume duties as First Lady. She is remembered for the cherry trees around the Capitol and Tidal Basin, and planted the first of the saplings with the Japanese ambassador’s wife.

Ellen Axson Wilson, Helen Woodrow Bones & Edith Bolling Galt Wilson

Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, was First Lady until her death in August, 1914.  Wilson served two terms as president, from 1911 to 1919.  Before her death, Ellen Wilson oversaw the weddings of two of their daughters.  Ellen died of Bright’s disease.  The president’s first cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones, stepped in as White House hostess.

Helen Bones introduced her cousin to Edith Bolling Galt, a widow, and Wilson and Galt were soon romantically linked.  He married her at her Washington home in December, 1915, and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson assumed the role of First Lady.

Some have proposed that, after Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in October 1919, her support of her husband amounted to her exercising some of his presidential powers for him. His term was from 1913 - 1921.

Melania Knauss Trump

While Melania Trump, the second foreign-born First Lady, officially took on that role on January 20, 2017, she did not move to the White House from her home in Trump Tower New York City until June 11, 2017, citing her desire to have her son Barron complete the school year in New York City. She did not host a White House event until March 8, 2017, on International Women’s Day.  President Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, occasionally served as social hostess for her father.