Featured image from The Daily Beast.
By Maddie Sanders ‘18
Throughout our nation’s history, the role of the president has been widely known and popularized. Yet, working alongside the presidents are some of the most understated historical figures: the first ladies. From Martha Washington to Melania Trump, the first ladies have taken up nonpartisan causes that they believe will better the nation. While the decisions and contributions made by the presidents are very much defined by the time in which they serve, the causes of the first ladies are of their own choosing. During the early presidents’ administrations, such as that of George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, the role of the first ladies had not been molded. It was up to these “first” first ladies to set the precedent for their successors. Abigail Adams was known as a more outspoken first lady, known for critiquing her husband John Adams’ political opponents, such as Alexander Hamilton. Dolley Madison was known as more of a “people person”, often hosting events at the white house for the families of Washington legislators. In a larger sense, the first ladies serve as a model for American women in how to act, dress, and serve with dignity.
Not until after the Civil War did the role of the first ladies become publicly defined. In 1865, newspapers and magazines such as Godey’s Ladies Book and Frank Leslie’s Weekly brought public attention to the first ladies of the time, such as Rutherford B. Hayes’ wife, Lucy Hayes. When Lucy and her husband traveled the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, Americans began coining the term “first lady of the land”, popularizing Lucy and the first women to follow. Lucy lived up to her new title and worked on behalf of issues such as the temperance movement (movement to ban alcohol), earning her both admirers and critics. Her refusal to serve alcoholic beverages at the white house, led to her nickname “Lemonade Lucy”. President Hayes supported his wife’s efforts, arguing that she had helped bring votes to his Republican campaign by fighting on behalf of a cause that many Americans supported.
It was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century that the terms “first lady” and “national celebrity” became synonymous. President Grover Cleveland’s wife, Frances Cleveland became so popular that her picture was used to increase the sales of everyday products.
It was during these years also that Americans began to look to the first lady as someone who could provide advice or help if the President was not available. Caroline Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison, worked tirelessly to increase educational opportunities for women. Specifically, she helped to raise funds for a new medical school at Johns Hopkins University that would allow women to enroll. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, first ladies began to champion causes that still impact us today. Lou Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover, had an interest in athletics and founded the National Amateur Athletic Foundation. Furthermore, she became active in the Girl Scouts of America organization, eventually becoming the president after becoming first lady. Perhaps the best known lady of the twentieth century, Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated her life to serving as a humanitarian, fighting for equal rights and and equality for minority groups such as African-Americans. After serving as first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt helped establish the United Nations Charter on Human Rights. Lady Bird Johnson is known for both her Highway Beautification Act (1965) and her non-stop efforts to campaign for her husband, Lyndon Johnson, in places where she knew she would be met with resistance. Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, created the Betty Ford Clinic to help those struggling with drugs and alcohol addictions. Nancy Reagan is best known for establishing the “Just Say No” campaign against drugs. Michelle Obama has become synonymous with fighting against child obesity and promoting active lifestyles. Melania Trump has yet to decide on the cause she will champion, yet she has mentioned in the past that she cares deeply about issues such as cyberbullying and additional issues affecting children.