America's First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Today

Wives and Others in a Supportive Role to the Presidency

Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton
Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Betty Ford Center. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

The wives of American presidents haven't always been called "first ladies." Yet, the first wife of an American President, Martha Washington, went far in establishing a tradition somewhere between a democratic family and royalty.

Some of the women who followed have wielded political influence, some have helped with their husband's public image, and some stayed well out of the public eye. A few presidents have also called on other female relatives to carry on the more public roles of a First Lady. Learn more about the women who have filled these important roles.

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Martha Washington

Picture of First Lady Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington Martha Washington
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Martha Washington (June 2, 1732–May 22, 1802) was the wife of George Washington. She holds the honor of being America's first First Lady, though she was never known by that title. 

Martha did not enjoy her time (1789–1797) as First Lady, though she played her role as hostess with dignity. She had not supported her husband's candidacy for the presidency, and she would not attend his inauguration.

At the time, the temporary seat of government was in New York City where Martha presided over weekly receptions. It was later moved to Philadelphia, where the couple lived except for a return to Mount Vernon when a yellow fever epidemic swept Philadelphia. 

She also managed the estate of her first husband and, while George Washington was away, Mount Vernon.

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Abigail Adams

Picture of First Lady Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams Abigail Adams
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Abigail Adams (November 11, 1744–October 28, 1818) was the wife of John Adams, one of the founding revolutionaries and who served as the second President of the U.S. from 1797 through 1801. She was also the mother of President John Quincy Adams.

Abigail Adams is an example of one kind of life lived by women in colonial, Revolutionary, and early post-Revolutionary America. While she's perhaps best known simply as an early First Lady (again, before the term was used) and mother of another President, she also took a stance for women's rights in letters to her husband.

Abigail should also be remembered as a competent farm manager and financial manager. The circumstances of the war and her husband's political offices, which required him to be away quite often, forced her to run the family's home on her own.

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Martha Jefferson

Wife of Thomas Jefferson Martha Jefferson
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Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (October 19, 1748–September 6, 1782) married Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1772. Her father was an English immigrant and her mother the daughter of English immigrants.

The Jeffersons had only two children who survived more than four years. Martha died months after their last child was born, her health damaged from that last childbirth. Nineteen years later, Thomas Jefferson became America's third President (1801–1809).

Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, daughter of Thomas and Martha Jefferson, lived at the White House during the winters of 1802–1803 and 1805–1806, serving as hostess during those times. More often, however, he called upon Dolley Madison, the wife of Secretary of State James Madison, for such public duties. Vice President Aaron Burr was also a widower.

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Dolley Madison

Picture of First Lady Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison Dolley Madison
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Dorothea Payne Todd Madison (May 20, 1768–July 12, 1849) was better known as Dolley Madison. She was America's First Lady from 1809 through 1817 as the wife of James Madison, fourth President of the United States. 

Dolley is best known for her courageous response to the British burning of Washington when she saved priceless paintings and other items from the White House. Beyond that, she also spent years in the public eye after Madison's term was over.

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Elizabeth Monroe

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (June 30, 1768–September 23, 1830) was the wife of James Monroe, who served as the fifth President of the U.S. from 1817 through 1825.

Elizabeth was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and known for her fashion sense and her beauty. While her husband was U.S. Foreign Minister to France in the 1790s, they lived in Paris. Elizabeth played a dramatic role in freeing from the French Revolution Madame de Lafayette, wife of the French leader who assisted America in its war for independence.

Elizabeth Monroe was not very popular in America. She was more elitist than her predecessors had been and was known to be rather aloof when it came to playing hostess at the White House. Quite often, her daughter, Eliza Monroe Hay, would take over the role at public events.

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Louisa Adams

Picture of First Lady Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams Louisa Catherine Adams
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Louisa Johnson Adams (February 12, 1775–May 15, 1852) met her future husband, John Quincy Adams, during one of his trips to London. She was, until the 21st century, the only foreign-born First Lady.

Adams would serve as the sixth President of the United States from 1825 through 1829, following in his father's footsteps. Louisa wrote two unpublished books about her own life and life around her while in Europe and Washington: "Record of My Life" in 1825 and "The Adventures of a Nobody" in 1840.

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Rachel Jackson

Wife of Andrew Jackson Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson
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Rachel Jackson died before her husband, Andrew Jackson, took office as President (1829–1837). The couple had married in 1791, thinking that her first husband had divorced her. They had to remarry in 1794, giving rise to adultery and bigamy charges raised against Jackson during his presidential campaign. 

Rachel's niece, Emily Donelson, served as Andrew Jackson's White House hostess. When she died, that role went to Sarah Yorke Jackson, who was married to Andrew Jackson, Jr.

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Hannah Van Buren

A portrait of Hannah Van Buren, wife of President Martin Van Buren Hannah Hoes Van Buren
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Hannah Van Buren (March 18, 1783–February 5, 1819) died of tuberculosis in 1819, almost two decades before her husband, Martin Van Buren, became president (1837–1841). He never remarried and was single during his time in office.

In 1838, their son, Abraham, married Angelica Singleton. She served as the White House hostess during the remainder of Van Buren's presidency.

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Anna Harrison

A portrait of First Lady Anna Harrison, wife of President William Henry Harrison Anna Harrison
US Library of Congress

Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison (1775 - February 1864) was the wife of William Henry Harrison, who was elected in 1841. She was also the grandmother of Benjamin Harrison (president 1889–1893). 

Anna never even entered the White House. She had delayed coming to Washington and Jane Irwin Harrison, the widow of her son William, was to serve as White House hostess in the meantime. Just a month after his inauguration, Harrison died.

Though the time was short, Anna is also known as the last First Lady to be born before the United States won independence from Britain.

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Letitia Tyler

Wife of President John Tyler and first lady from 1841 until 1842, Letitia Christian Tyler (1790 - 1842), circa 1825. From an original engraving by J.C. Buttre.
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Letitia Christian Tyler (November 12, 1790–September 10, 1842), the wife of John Tyler, served as First Lady from 1841 until her death at the White House in 1842. She had suffered a stroke in 1839, and their daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler took on the duties of White House hostess.

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Julia Tyler

Portrait of Julia Tyler

Francesco Anelli / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

Julia Gardiner Tyler (1820–July 10, 1889) married the widowed president, John Tyler, in 1844. This was the first time a president married while in office. She served as First Lady until the end of his term in 1845.

During the Civil War, she lived in New York and worked to support the Confederacy. After she successfully persuaded Congress to grant her a pension, Congress passed a law giving pensions to other presidential widows.

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Sarah Polk

Sarah Childress Polk, Wife of President James K. Polk
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Sarah Childress Polk (September 4, 1803–August 14, 1891), First Lady to President James K. Polk (1845–1849), played an active role in her husband's political career. She was a popular hostess, though she ruled out dancing and music on Sundays at the White House for religious reasons.

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Margaret Taylor

Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor (September 21, 1788–August 18, 1852) was a reluctant First Lady. She spent most of her husband, Zachary Taylor's (1849–1850 presidency in relative seclusion, giving rise to many rumors. After her husband died in office of cholera, she refused to speak of her White House years.

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Abigail Fillmore

A portrait of First Lady Abigail Fillmore, wife of President Millard Fillmore Abigail Powers Fillmore
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Abigail Powers Fillmore (March 17, 1798–March 30, 1853) was a teacher and taught her future husband, Millard Fillmore (1850–1853). She also helped him develop his potential and enter politics.

She remained an advisor, resenting and avoiding the typical social duties of a First Lady. She preferred her books and music and discussions with her husband about the issues of the day, though she did fail to persuade her husband against signing the Fugitive Slave Act.

Abigail fell ill at the inauguration of her husband's successor and died soon after of pneumonia.

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Jane Pierce

A portrait of First Lady Jane M. Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce Jane Pierce
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Jane Means Appleton Pierce (March 12, 1806–December 2, 1863) married her husband, Franklin Pierce (1853–1857), despite her opposition to his already-fruitful political career.

Jane blamed the death of three of their children on his involvement in politics; the third died in a train wreck just before Pierce's inauguration. Abigail (Abby) Kent Means, her aunt, and Varina Davis, wife of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, largely handled the hostess responsibilities of the White House.

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Harriet Lane Johnston

James Buchanan (1857–1861) was not married. His niece, Harriet Lane Johnston (May 9, 1830–July 3, 1903), whom he adopted and raised after she was orphaned, carried out the hostess duties of a First Lady while he was president.

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Mary Todd Lincoln

Picture of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln Mary Todd Lincoln
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Mary Todd Lincoln (December 13, 1818–July 16, 1882) was a well-educated, fashionable young woman from a well-connected family when she met frontier lawyer Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865). Three of their four sons died before reaching adulthood.

Mary had a reputation for being unstable, spending uncontrollably, and interfering in politics. In later life, her surviving son had her committed briefly, and America's first woman lawyer, Myra Bradwell, helped get her released.

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Eliza McCardle Johnson

Wife of President Andrew Johnson Eliza McCardle Johnson
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Eliza McCardle Johnson (October 4, 1810–January 15, 1876) married Andrew Johnson (1865–1869) and encouraged his political ambitions. She largely preferred to stay out of public view.

Eliza shared hostess duties at the White House with her daughter, Martha Patterson. She also likely served informally as a political advisor to her husband during his political career. 

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Julia Grant

A portrait of First Lady Julia Dent Grant, wife of President Ulysses S. Grant Julia Dent Grant
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Julia Dent Grant (January 26, 1826–December 14, 1902) married Ulysses S. Grant and spent some years as an Army wife. When he left military service (1854–1861), the couple and their four children did not do particularly well.

Grant was called back to service for the Civil War, and when he was president (1869–1877), Julia enjoyed the social life and public appearances. After his presidency, they again fell on hard times, rescued by the financial success of her husband's autobiography. Her own memoir was not published until 1970.

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Lucy Hayes

A portrait of First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes Lucy Ware Webb Hayes
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Lucy Ware Webb Hayes (August 28, 1831 - June 25, 1889) was the first wife of an American president to have a college education, and she was generally well-liked as First Lady.

She was also known as Lemonade Lucy, for the decision she made with her husband Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881) to ban liquor from the White House. Lucy instituted the annual Easter egg roll on the lawn of the White House. 

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Lucretia Garfield

A portrait of First Lady Lucretia Garfield, wife of President James A. Garfield Lucretia Garfield
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Lucretia Randolph Garfield (April 19, 1832–March 14, 1918) was a devoutly religious, shy, intellectual woman who preferred a simpler life than the social life typical of the White House.

Her husband James Garfield (president 1881) who had many affairs, was an anti-slavery politician who became a war hero. In their brief time at the White House, she presided over a rambunctious family and advised her husband. She became seriously ill, and then her husband was shot, dying two months later. She lived quietly until her death in 1918. 

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Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur

A portrait of First Lady Ellen Arthur, wife of President Chester Alan Arthur Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur
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Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur (August 30, 1837–January 12, 1880),  the wife of Chester Arthur (1881–1885), died suddenly in 1880 at age 42 of pneumonia.

While Arthur permitted his sister to perform some of the duties of a First Lady and to help raise his daughter, he was reluctant to let it appear as if any woman could take his wife's place. He is known for placing fresh flowers in front of his wife's portrait every day of his presidency. He died the year after his term ended. 

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Frances Cleveland

Picture of First Lady Frances Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland Frances Cleveland
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Frances Clara Folsom (July 21, 1864–October 29, 1947) was the daughter of a law partner of Grover Cleveland. He had known her from her infancy and helped manage her mother's finances and Frances' education when her father died.

After Cleveland won the 1884 election, despite charges of having fathered an illegitimate child, he proposed to Frances. She accepted after she took a tour of Europe to have time to consider the proposal.

Frances was America's youngest First Lady and considerably popular. They had six children during, between, and after Grover Cleveland's two terms of office (1885–1889, 1893–1897). Grover Cleveland died in 1908 and Frances Folsom Cleveland married Thomas Jax Preston, Jr., in 1913. 

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Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

A portrait of First Lady Caroline Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison
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Caroline (Carrie) Lavinia Scott Harrison (October 1, 1832–October 25, 1892), wife of Benjamin Harrison (1885–1889) made a considerable mark on the country during her time as First Lady. Harrison, the grandson of President William Harrison, was a Civil War general and attorney. 

Carrie helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution and served as its first president general. She also helped open Johns Hopkins University to women students. She oversaw a considerable renovation of the White House as well. It was Carrie who established the custom of having special White House dinnerware. 

Carrie died of tuberculosis, which was first diagnosed in 1891. Her daughter, Mamie Harrison McKee, took over White House hostess duties for her father.

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Mary Lord Harrison

A portrait of Mary Lord Harrison, wife of former President Benjamin Harrison Mary Scott Lord Dimmick Harrison
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After the death of his first wife, and after he'd finished his presidency, Benjamin Harrison remarried in 1896. Mary Scott Lord Dimmick Harrison (April 30, 1858–January 5, 1948) never served as a First Lady.

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Ida McKinley

Portrait of Ida McKInley

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Ida Saxton McKinley (June 8, 1847–May 6, 1907) was the well-educated daughter of a wealthy family and had worked in her father's bank, beginning as a teller. Her husband, William McKinley (1897–1901), was a lawyer and later fought in the Civil War.

In quick succession, her mother died, then two daughters, and then she was stricken with phlebitis, epilepsy, and depression. In the White House, she often sat next to her husband at state dinners, and he covered her face with a handkerchief during what was called euphemistically "fainting spells."

When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, she gathered the strength to accompany her husband's body back to Ohio, and to see to the construction of a memorial.

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Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt

A portrait of First Lady Edith Roosevelt, wife of President Theodore Roosevelt Edith Roosevelt
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Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt (August 6, 1861–September 30, 1948) was a childhood friend of Theodore Roosevelt, then saw him marry Alice Hathaway Lee. When he was a widower with a young daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, they met again and were married in 1886.

They had five more children; Edith raised the six children while serving as First Lady when Theodore was president (1901–1909). She was the first First Lady to hire a social secretary. She helped manage the wedding of her stepdaughter to Nicholas Longworth.

After Roosevelt's death, she remained active in politics, wrote books, and read widely.

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Helen Taft

A portrait of First Lady Helen Herron Taft, wife of President William H. Taft Helen Herron Taft
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Helen Herron Taft (June 2, 1861–May 22, 1943) was the daughter of Rutherford B. Hayes' law partner and was impressed with the idea of being married to a president. She urged her husband, William Howard Taft (1909–1913), in his political career, and supported him and his programs with speeches and public appearances.

Soon after his inauguration, she suffered a stroke, and after a year of recovery threw herself into active interests including industrial safety and women's education.

Helen was the first First Lady to give interviews to the press. It was also her idea to bring cherry trees to Washington, DC, and the mayor of Tokyo then gave 3,000 saplings to the city. She is one of two First Ladies buried at Arlington Cemetery

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Ellen Wilson

A portrait of First Lady Ellen Wilson, first wife of President Woodrow Wilson Ellen Axson Wilson
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Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (May 15, 1860–August 6, 1914), the wife of Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), was a painter with a career in her own right. She was also an active supporter of her husband and his political career. She actively supported housing legislation while a presidential spouse.

Both Ellen and Woodrow Wilson had fathers who were Presbyterian ministers. Ellen's father and mother died when she was in her early twenties and she'd had to arrange for the care of her siblings. In the second year of her husband's first term, she succumbed to kidney disease. 

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Edith Wilson

A portrait of First Lady Edith Wilson, second wife of President Woodrow Wilson Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
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After mourning his wife, Ellen, Woodrow Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt (October 15, 1872–December 28, 1961) on December 18, 1915. Widow of Norman Galt, a jeweler, she met the widowed president while she was being courted by his physician. They married after a short courtship that was opposed by many of his advisors.

Edith actively worked for women's participation in the war effort. When her husband was paralyzed by a stroke for some months in 1919, she actively worked to keep his illness from public view and may have acted in his stead. Wilson did recover enough to work for his programs, notably the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations.

After his death in 1924, Edith promoted the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

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Florence Kling Harding

A portrait of First Lady Florence Harding, wife of President Warren G. Harding Florence Harding
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Florence Kling DeWolfe Harding (August 15, 1860–November 21, 1924) had a child when she was 20 and likely not legally married. After struggling to support her son by teaching music, she gave him to his father to raise.

Florence married the wealthy newspaper publisher, Warren G. Harding, when she was 31, working on the newspaper with him. She supported him in his political career. In the early "roaring twenties," she even served as White House bartender during his poker parties (it was Prohibition at the time).

Harding's presidency (1921–1923) was marked with corruption charges. On a trip that she had urged him to take in order to recover from stress, he suffered a stroke and died. She destroyed most of his papers in her attempt to preserve his reputation. 

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Grace Goodhue Coolidge

A portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge Grace Coolidge - about 1930
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Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge (January 3, 1879–July 8, 1957) was a teacher of the deaf when she married Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929). She focused her duties as First Lady on remodeling and charities, helping her husband establish a reputation for seriousness and frugality.

After leaving the White House and after her husband died, Grace Coolidge traveled and wrote magazine articles. 

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Lou Henry Hoover

A portrait of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover. Lou Henry Hoover
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Lou Henry Hoover (March 29, 1874–January 7, 1944) was raised in Iowa and California, loved the outdoors, and became a geologist. She married a fellow student, Herbert Hoover, who became a mining engineer, and they often lived abroad.

Lou used her talents in mineralogy and languages to translate a 16th-century manuscript by Agricola. While her husband was president (1929–1933), she redecorated the White House and became involved in charity work.

For a time, she led The Girl Scout organization and her charity work continued after her husband left office. During World War II, she headed England's American Women's Hospital until her death in 1944. 

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Eleanor Roosevelt

Official White House portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife.
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Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 6, 1962) was orphaned at the age of 10 and married her distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945). From 1910 on, Eleanor helped with Franklin's political career, despite her devastation in 1918 to discover that he had an affair with her social secretary.

Through the Depression, New Deal, and World War II, Eleanor traveled when her husband was less able to. Her daily column "My Day" in the newspaper broke with precedent, as did her press conferences and lectures. After FDR's death, Eleanor Roosevelt continued her political career, serving in the United Nations and helping create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She chaired the President's Commission on the Status of Women from 1961 until her death.

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Bess Truman

Photograph of First Lady Bess Truman, wife of President Harry S Truman Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman, about 1940
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Bess Wallace Truman (February 13, 1885–October 18, 1982), also from Independence, Missouri, had known Harry S Truman since childhood. After they married, she primarily remained a housewife through his political career.

Bess didn't like Washington, DC, and was quite angry with her husband for accepting the nomination as vice president. When her husband became president (1945–1953) only a few months after taking office as vice president, she took her duties as First Lady seriously. She did, however, avoid the practices of some of her predecessors, such as having press conferences. She also nursed her mother during her years in the White House.

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Mamie Doud Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower at the second inaugural ball honoring her husband, Dwight Eisenhower.
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Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower (November 14, 1896–November 1, 1979) was born in Iowa. She met her husband Dwight Eisenhower (1953–1961) in Texas when he was an army officer.

She lived the life of an army officer's wife, either living with "Ike" wherever he was stationed or raising their family without him. She was suspicious of his relationship during World War II with his military driver and aide Kay Summersby. He assured her that there was nothing to the rumors of a relationship.

Mamie made some public appearances during her husband's presidential campaigns and presidency. In 1974 she described herself in an interview: "I was Ike's wife, John's mother, the children's grandmother. That was all I ever wanted to be."

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Jackie Kennedy

John and Jackie Kennedy in Washington Parade
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Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (July 28, 1929 - May 19, 1994) was the young wife of the first president born in the 20th century, John F. Kennedy (1961–1963).

Jackie Kennedy, as she was known, became famous mostly for her fashion sense and for her redecoration of the White House. Her televised tour of the White House was the first glimpse many Americans had of the interior. After the assassination of her husband in Dallas on November 22, 1963, she was honored for her dignity in her time of grief.

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Lady Bird Johnson

Picture of Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson Lady Bird Johnson: Formal Portrait in White House, 1965
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Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson (December 22, 1912–July 11, 2007) was better known as Lady Bird Johnson. Using her inheritance, she financed her husband Lyndon Johnson's first campaign for Congress. She also maintained his congressional office back home while he served in the military.

Lady Bird took a public speaking course in 1959 and began to actively lobby for her husband during the 1960 campaign. Lady Bird became First Lady after Kennedy's assassination in 1963. She was active once again in Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign. Throughout his career, she was always known as a gracious hostess. 

During Johnson's presidency (1963–1969), Lady Bird supported highway beautification and Head Start. After his death in 1973, she continued to be active with her family and causes. 

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Pat Nixon

A portrait of First Lady Pat Nixon, wife of President Richard Nixon Pat Nixon, 1968
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Born Thelma Catherine Patricia Ryan, Pat Nixon (March 16, 1912–June 22, 1993) was a housewife when that was becoming a less popular vocation for women. She met Richard Milhous Nixon (1969–1974) at an audition for a local theatre group. While she supported his political career, she largely remained a private person, loyal to her husband despite his public scandals.

Pat was the first First Lady to declare herself pro-choice regarding abortion. She also urged the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. 

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Betty Ford

Portrait of First Lady Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald R. Ford Betty Ford, 1976
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Elizabeth Ann (Betty) Bloomer Ford (April 8, 1918–July 8, 2011) was the wife of Gerald Ford. He was the only U.S. President (1974–1977) who wasn't elected as President or Vice President, so Betty was an unexpected First Lady in many ways.

Betty made public her battle with breast cancer as well as chemical dependence. She founded the Betty Ford Center, which has become a well-known clinic for substance abuse treatment. As First Lady, she also endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and women's right to abortion.

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Rosalynn Carter

Portrait of First Lady Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter First Lady Rosalynn Carter
Adapted from an image courtesy of the White House

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter (August 18, 1927– ) knew Jimmy Carter from childhood, marrying him in 1946. After traveling with him during his naval service, she helped run his family's peanut and warehouse business.

When Jimmy Carter launched his political career, Rosalynn Carter took over managing the business during his absences for campaigning or at the state capital. She also assisted in his legislative office and developed her interest in mental health reform.

During Carter's presidency (1977–1981), Rosalynn eschewed traditional First Lady activities. Instead, she played an active role as her husband's advisor and partner, sometimes attending cabinet meetings. She also lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). 

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Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan Christening Combat Ship
Nancy Reagan Christening Combat Ship. Bettmann/Getty Images

Nancy Davis Reagan (July 6, 1921–March 6, 2016) and Ronald Reagan met when both were actors. She was stepmother to his two children from his first marriage as well as mother to their son and daughter.

During Ronald Reagan's time as California governor, Nancy was active in POW/MIA issues. As First Lady, she focused on a "Just Say No" campaign against drug and alcohol abuse. She played a strong behind-the-scenes role during her husband's presidency (1981–1989) and was often criticized for her "cronyism" and for consulting astrologers for advice about her husband's travels and work.

During her husband's long decline with Alzheimer's disease, she supported him and worked to protect his public memory through the Reagan Library. 

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Barbara Bush

A portrait of First Lady Barbara Bush, wife of President George H. W. Bush
Adapted from a portrait courtesy of the White House

Like Abigail Adams, Barbara Pierce Bush (June 8, 1925–April 17, 2018) was the wife of a Vice President, First Lady, and then the mother of a President. She met George H. W. Bush at a dance when she was just 17. She dropped out of college to marry him when he returned on leave from the Navy during World War II.

When her husband served as Vice President under Ronald Reagan, Barbara made literacy the cause on which she focused, and continued that interest in her role as First Lady (1989–1993).

She also spent much of her time raising money for many causes and charities. In 1984 and 1990, she wrote books attributed to family dogs, the proceeds of which were given to her literacy foundation.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton At White House Ceremony
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Hillary Rodham Clinton (October 26, 1947– ) was educated at Wellesley College and Yale Law School. In 1974, she served as counsel on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee which was considering impeachment of then-President Richard Nixon. She was First Lady during her husband Bill Clinton's presidency (1993–2001).

Her time as First Lady was not easy. Hillary managed the failed effort to seriously reform health care and was the target of investigations and rumors for her involvement in the Whitewater scandal. She also defended and stood by her husband when he was accused and impeached during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In 2001, Hillary was elected to the Senate from New York. She ran a presidential campaign in 2008 but failed to get past the primaries. Instead, she would serve as Barack Obama's Secretary of State. She ran another presidential campaign in 2016, this time against Donald Trump. Despite winning the popular vote, Hillary did not win the electoral college.

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Laura Bush

A portrait of First Lady Laura Bush, wife of President George W. Bush Laura Bush with her namesake rose, October 2, 2006
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Laura Lane Welch Bush (November 4, 1946– ) met George W. Bush (2001-2009) during his first campaign for Congress. He lost the race but won her hand and they were married three months later. She had been working as an elementary school teacher and librarian.

Uncomfortable with public speaking, Laura nevertheless used her popularity to promote her husband's candidacies. During her time as First Lady, she further promoted reading for children and worked on awareness of women's health problems including heart disease and breast cancer.

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Michelle Obama

White House Turnaround Arts Talent Show
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Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (January 17, 1964– ) was America's first Black First Lady. She is a lawyer who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She also worked on the staff of Mayor Richard M. Daley and for the University of Chicago doing community outreach.

Michelle met her future husband Barack Obama when she was an associate at a Chicago law firm where he worked for a brief amount of time. During his presidency (2009–2017), Michelle championed many causes, including support for military families and a campaign for healthy eating to fight the rise in childhood obesity.

During Obama's inauguration, Michelle held the Lincoln Bible. It had not been used for such an occasion since Abraham Lincoln used it for his swearing-in.

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Melania Trump

Melania Trump at her husband's 2017 inauguration
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The third wife of Donald J. Trump, Melanija Knavs Trump (April 26, 1970– ) is a former model and an immigrant from Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia. She is the second foreign-born First Lady and the first for whom English is not her native language.

Melania declared her intention to live in New York and not Washington, DC during the first few months of her husband's presidency. Because of this, Melania was expected to fulfill only some duties of a First Lady, with her stepdaughter, Ivanka Trump, filling in for others. After her son Barron's school was dismissed for the year, Melania moved into the White House and assumed a more traditional role.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "America's First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Today." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). America's First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Today. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "America's First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Today." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).