Election years are notorious for bringing passion and controversy amidst the many campaigns and political debates. We get caught up in a whirlwind of educating ourselves on topics, picking our candidate and attempting to find clarity where there seems to be so much confusion.

To relieve some of this chaos, we decided to side step out of our current dilemmas to take a look back for some much needed political inspiration. What better place to find this inspiration than to brush up on the history of our First Ladies?

Throughout history, our First Ladies have stood by their presidential husbands through thick and thin, many times providing political and emotional direction and support behind the scenes. Their fashion choices make headlines and their grace and poise inspire us. However, there is so much more that these women have given us during their time in office. They were leaders, listeners, revolutionaries, teachers, and nurturers.

Here are some First Ladies who we find especially inspiring:

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National Portrait Gallery

1. Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams was First Lady to President John Adams during his time in office from 1797 to 1801. Although she had no formal education herself, Abigail was an advocate for making education in public schools equal for both boys and girls. She is famously remembered for her letters to President Adams, giving him her opinion on various political topics and advice that he greatly appreciated. One of her most famous letters included a plea for the president to “remember the ladies” as she motivated him to create a government where women were seen as more than strictly domestic.

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2. Dolley Madison

Known for her generosity, kindness, and great hostess skills, Dolley Madison remained the First Lady by which other presidential spouses were judged for more than 100 years after her time as First Lady to President James Madison.

Some say that her skill as a hostess is what increased her husband’s likeability and popularity among the members of Congress during times of intense partisan debate. Establishing herself as the first First Lady to formally attach herself to specific projects, Dolley worked to found a Washington, D.C. home for young orphaned girls, as well as befriending nuns from a local Catholic school, which led to her lifelong support for their organization. Her famous charm and warmth was not just a bonus at social events, but more importantly, a tool of policy that she and her husband used to defuse tension and create alliances.

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Portrait by Daniel Huntington, 1894

3. Caroline Harrison

First Lady to President Benjamin Harrison, Caroline Harrison served alongside her husband from 1889-1892. In 1890, she was appointed the president general of the newly formed Daughters of the American Revolution. She stood her ground in demanding that John Hopkins allow the admittance of women as students in their medical school. She refused to publicly support them unless they agreed, which they did. She was actively involved in her community, church, and charity in a way that many believe to be far ahead of her time.

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First lady Edith holding document steady for husband, Woodrow Wilson after his stroke | June 1920 | via Library of Congress

4. Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson, known by some as the most hands-on First Lady we have ever had, served alongside President Woodrow Wilson from 1915-1921. She had direct access to her husband’s private drawer, and he was known to share top secret wartime code with her as well as other important, classified information. When the president suffered from a massive stroke during his presidency, Edith single handedly took over the presidency, convincing Congress and the public that he was simply suffering from “temporary exhaustion.”

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Eleanor Roosevelt broadcasts on NBC Radio in 1948, picking up where her husband left off on his “Fireside Chats” | via The Associated Press

5. Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt served as First Lady to Franklin D. Roosevelt through both the Great Depression and WWII. During her 12 years in office from 1933-1945, she held over 350 press conferences, wrote numerous books and magazines, and actively voiced her opinion on various topics that she believed in. She was a huge advocate for giving women more recognition and participation in both business and politics, working with women’s groups around the world to help organize or motivate their efforts.

When the US went to war, Eleanor championed the movement to employ women in defense industries and volunteer for civil defense assignments. She was a voice for women who wanted to participate in war efforts by doing more than typing, filing, and cleaning. She even forged the path to providing on-site childcare for the women working in these jobs, making it possible for them to work and have quality care for their families. During Kennedy’s presidency, her consistent passion for the inclusion of more women in politics led him to create the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and appoint Eleanor as its chair.

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Fashion Icon Jackie Kennedy at work, 1977 | Harpers Bazaar

6. Jacqueline Kennedy

Perhaps one of our most famous first ladies, Jacqueline Kennedy served alongside her husband, John F. Kennedy, in the White House from 1961 to 1963. Her status as fashion icon was recognized as far back as 1951, when she was selected by the editor of Vogue magazine as the winner of their Prix de Paris contest, over 1,280 other entries. She was rewarded with the position of junior editor for the magazine, which required her to serve in both Paris and New York. However, her mother did not want her to leave the country, forcing her to turn down the position.

She met President Kennedy when she was working for the Washington Times-Herald as its Inquiring Camera Girl, where she interviewed and photographed local citizens. As First Lady, she provided numerous literary and historical examples and quotations that her husband used in his speeches. She also wrote a column called “Campaign Wife,” where she wrote both personal stories, as well as stories that shared the Democratic Party’s views on education and care for the elderly. In addition, she paved the way in the establishment of the National Cultural Center in the nation’s capital, using the White House to showcase the arts.

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National “Beautifier” Lady Bird Johnson in front of the South Lawn of the White House | via White House Press Office

7. Lady Bird Johnson

Claudia Alta Johnson, First Lady from 1963-1969 and fondly known as Lady Bird Johnson, served as a vital component in her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s path to office. Very well educated herself, she organized a small amount of money to successfully fund Johnson’s Congressional campaign, even running his office during his time in the Navy. Instead of taking an indirect approach to politics through her husband, she broke new ground by communicating with Congress directly, using her own press secretary and participating in her own electioneering tour.

Perhaps most famous for the Beautify America Campaign, Lady Bird Johnson took it upon herself to beautify the nation’s cities and highways, stating, “Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.” In addition, she remained a consistent advocate for women’s rights issues, calling the Equal Rights Amendment, “the right thing to do.”

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Betty Ford, “I always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table” | photo by David Hume Kennerly

8. Betty Ford

Gerald Ford served in office from 1974-1977. During this time, Betty Ford proved to be a different type of First Lady than the nation had experienced previously. She was one of our most candid First Ladies, speaking openly about issues formerly not addressed by someone in her position.

Not only did she speak about topics such as breast cancer, feminism, equal pay, the ERA, sex, drugs, abortion, and gun control, she openly shared the role these issues played in her personal life. She was very passionate about education surrounding breast cancer awareness after going through a mastectomy herself. She shared her own story to better connect with women on the subject, similar to the way she used her own struggle with psychiatric illness to work towards lessening the stigma surrounding psychiatric treatment. In the 1970s, she opened the door to discussion surrounding addiction when she publicly announced her long running battle with alcoholism. This unprecedented openness from such a public figure provided relatability and affirmation for a nation struggling with previously taboo or unspoken issues.

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Rosalynn Carter chairs mental health hearings | via Whitehouse Staff Photographers

9. Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter, became the first wife of a presidential candidate to declare her own campaign promise. She promised that if she became First Lady, she would assume the responsibility for creating legislative reform on behalf of the nation’s mentally ill. Picking up where previous First Lady Betty Ford left off, she used her time in office to focus on improving the nation’s mental health system. Her pursuit to truly listen to the American public led to her acting as a sort of liaison between the public she communicated with and the President, making sure he was kept abreast on important issues.

As a result, she had unprecedented attendance at Cabinet meetings, playing a part in policy discussion and taking note of important topics she felt would be important to carry to the public. During her tenure, the government also formally recognized the role of First Lady as a bona fide federal position, giving Rosalynn and future First Ladies even more opportunities while in office.

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10. Nancy Reagan

Actress turned First Lady Nancy Reagan served alongside her husband, President Ronald Reagan, from 1981 to 1989. “Ronnie,” as she called him, and Nancy are known for their romantic love story. They were famously inseparable, falling more and more in love everyday. One press secretary stated that within their relationship, “They never took each other for granted. They never stopped courting.”

Nancy had a passion for drug and alcohol abuse issues affecting the nation’s youth. In 1985, she held a conference at the White House where she invited First Ladies from 17 different countries to call international attention to the problem. After 40 years of marriage, Ronald was devastatingly diagnosed with Alzheimers, a relatively new term at the time. Thus started their famous “long goodbye” as Nancy called it, where her husband’s memory slowly started to deteriorate, despite her constant and loving care. In 1995, the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, an affiliate of the National Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago, Illinois, was founded to accelerate the progress of Alzheimer’s disease research.

Do you have a “favorite” First Lady?

Written by Darling Digital Media Intern Jessica Tomkins

6 comments

  1. Hillary truly should be on this list.. A great First Lady and now 15+ years later she is the FIRST Woman nominee for President of the USA!!! Now that’s inspiring!

  2. I can’t believe you left off Michelle Obama! Or Hillary Clinton! Two strong women who accomplished a lot during their time in the White House.

  3. I absolutely love Abigale Adams. I am far more impressed by her actions before becoming first lady. For many years leading up to, during, and post revolution she was on her own while John traveled. She singlehandedly ran their farm and was an enterprising woman. Her skill with a pen, progressive ideas, and self reliance all serve to make her my favorite first lady!

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