The 10 Most Influential First Ladies

Over the years, the role of first lady has been filled by a range of personalities. Some of these women stayed in the background while others used their position to advocate for specific issues. A few first ladies even played an important role in their husband's administration, working alongside the president to help enact policies. As a result, the role of first lady has evolved over the years. Each first lady chosen for this list used their position and influence to institute changes in our nation.

Dolley Madison

circa 1830: First Lady Dolley Madison (1768 - 1849), nee Payne, the wife of American president James Madison and a renowned Washington socialite.
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Born Dolley Payne Todd, Dolley Madison was 17 years younger than her husband, James Madison. She was one of the most well-loved first ladies. After serving as Thomas Jefferson's White House hostess after his wife died, she became the first lady when her husband won the presidency. She was active in creating weekly social events and entertaining dignitaries and society. During the War of 1812 as the British were bearing down on Washington, Dolley Madison understood the significance of the national treasures housed in the White House and refused to leave without saving as much as she could. Through her efforts, many items were saved that would have most probably been destroyed when the British captured and burned the White House.

Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk
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Sara Childress Polk was notably well-educated, attending one of the few higher learning institutions available to women at the time. As first lady, she used her education to help her husband, James K. Polk. She was known to craft speeches and write correspondence for him. Further, she took her duties as first lady seriously, consulting Dolley Madison for advice. She entertained officials of both parties and was well-respected throughout Washington.

Abigail Fillmore

Abigail Powers Filmore
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Born Abigail Powers, Abigail Fillmore was one of Millard Fillmore's teachers at New Hope Academy even though she was only two years older than him. She shared a love of learning with her husband which she turned into the creation of the White House library. She helped select books for inclusion as the library was being designed. As a side note, the reason there was no White House library up to this point was that Congress feared it would make the president too powerful. They relented in 1850 when Fillmore took office and appropriated $2000 for its creation.

Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson
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Edith Wilson was actually Woodrow Wilson's second wife while president. His first wife, Ellen Louise Axton, died in 1914. Wilson then married Edith Bolling Galt on December 18, 1915. In 1919, President Wilson suffered a stroke. Edith Wilson basically took control of the presidency. She made daily decisions about what items should or should not be taken to her husband for input. If it was not important in her eyes, then she would not pass it on to the president, a style for which she was widely criticized. It is still not completely known how much power Edith Wilson truly wielded.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt
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Eleanor Roosevelt is considered by many to be America's most inspiring and influential first lady. She married Franklin Roosevelt in 1905 and was one of the first to use her role as first lady to advance causes she found significant. She fought for New Deal proposals, civil rights, and the rights of women. She believed education and equal opportunities should be guaranteed for all. After her husband died, Eleanor Roosevelt was on the board of directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was a leader in the formation of the United Nations at the end of World War II. She helped draft the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and was the first chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission.

Jacqueline Kennedy

Jacqueline Kennedy
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Jackie Kennedy was born Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in 1929. She attended Vassar and then George Washington University, graduating with a degree in French literature. Jackie Kennedy married John F. Kennedy in 1953. Jackie Kennedy spent much of her time as first lady working to restore and refurnish the White House. Once complete, she took America on a televised tour of the White House. She was revered as first lady for her poise and dignity.

Betty Ford

First Lady Betty Ford at a Press Conference
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Betty Ford was born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer. She married Gerald Ford in 1948. Betty Ford was willing as first lady to openly discuss her experiences with psychiatric treatment. She was also a major advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and the legalization of abortion. She went through a mastectomy and spoke out about breast cancer awareness. Her candor and openness about her private life was virtually unprecedented for such a high profile public figure.

Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter
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Rosalynn Carter was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in 1927. She married Jimmy Carter in 1946. Throughout his term as president, Rosalynn Carter was one of his closest advisers. Unlike previous first ladies, she actually sat in on many cabinet meetings. She was an advocate for mental health issues and became the honorary chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton
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Hillary Rodham was born in 1947 and married Bill Clinton in 1975. Hillary Clinton was an extremely powerful first lady. She was involved in directing policy, especially in the realm of health care. She was appointed the head of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. Further, she spoke out on women's and children's issues. She espoused important legislation like the Adoption and Safe Families Act. After President Clinton's second term, Hillary Clinton became the junior senator from New York. She also ran a strong campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2008 election and was selected to be Barack Obama's Secretary of State. In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee of a major party. ​

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama greets supporters in Chicago.
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In 1992, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, born 1964, married Barack Obama, the first African American to become president of the United States. Together they served in the White House between 2008–2016. Obama was a lawyer, businesswoman, and philanthropist, who currently works primarily in the public sphere. As a First Lady, she focused on the "Let's Move!" program to help reduce childhood obesity, a program that led to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutritional standards for all food in schools. Her second initiative, the "Reach Higher Initiative," continues to provide students with the guidance and resources to go on to post-high school educations and professional careers. 

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Kelly, Martin. "The 10 Most Influential First Ladies." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, September 7). The 10 Most Influential First Ladies. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The 10 Most Influential First Ladies." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).