The position of First Lady is a particularly American phenomenon. Few other countries give so much prominence to the spouses of their political leaders. And looking back over the roll call of First Ladies, we find many that were key participants in the governance of America. Read on to find out how so many Presidents’ wives exerted so much influence over the direction of the United States.
41. Melania Trump
Melania Trump has the distinction of being the only First Lady to be an American citizen by virtue of naturalization. Born in 1970 in Slovenia, part of communist Yugoslavia at the time, Trump studied at the University of Ljubljana in that country. But a career in modeling beckoned and she didn’t finish her degree. Despite that early end to her education, it’s said that she speaks six languages. As far as we know, her husband speaks just the one language. More or less, anyway. Let’s not cause a covfefe.
40. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt called the White House home from 1933 until her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945, and she is the longest-serving First Lady. Although she didn’t go to college, she was extremely active in the role and involved herself wholeheartedly in political life. She conducted press conferences, spoke on radio and wrote a daily newspaper column. After her husband died, she became a United Nations delegate and a major contributor to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
39. Eliza Johnson
Eliza Johnson was First Lady from 1865 to 1869 during President Andrew Johnson’s single term. Little is known about her educational attainments but we can assume that her schooling at the Rhea Academy in Greenville, Tennessee in a single log-cabin classroom was probably fairly basic. Nevertheless, despite the poor health that meant she took little part in public life, she provided her husband with important political advice. This was especially vital when the President went through the ordeal of impeachment, which he survived with Johnson’s unwavering support.
38. Harriet Lane
Harriet Lane was an unorthodox First Lady in that she was not married to President James Buchanan, the only U.S. president never to wed. Lane was actually Buchanan’s niece and fulfilled the role of First Lady during his single term from 1857 when she was just 27. She was a popular White House hostess, but she was no mere socialite. Her wide reading meant she had a thorough grasp of domestic and international affairs. Towards the end of Buchanan’s administration Southern states began to secede, and Lane is said to have negotiated with their representatives in a bid to change their minds.
37. Patricia Nixon
Pat Nixon was unlucky enough to be married to the only president ever to resign from office. Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. Nixon worked her way through University of Southern California with jobs as diverse as sales clerk and movie extra, before graduating summa cum laude. She was a government economist during WWII and afterwards helped Richard to win a seat in Congress. During her husband’s presidency, Nixon used her position to promote voluntary work and traveled widely with the formal designation of Personal Representative of the President.
36. Sarah Polk
Sarah Polk, First Lady from 1845 to 1849, was fortunate enough to be born to wealthy parents and to receive a first-class education at a time when few women did. She attended the Moravian Female Academy, Salem, North Carolina, a 500-mile horseback journey from her plantation home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her education meant she was able to help President Polk with his oratory and with political counsel, too.
35. Edith Roosevelt
Edith was married to the first Roosevelt to be president, Theodore, who held office from 1901 to 1909. As a member of New York’s wealthy elite, she was instructed in high-society behavior and etiquette at the city’s Dodsworth School for Dancing and Deportment. It’s a solid guess that she learnt much more of intellectual worth at the Louise Comstock Private School, which she later attended. There, she studied everything from Latin to zoology and philosophy. Her activities as First Lady were mostly limited to private charity support, although she played some part in diplomatic relations with the British.
34. Jacqueline Kennedy
Jackie Kennedy’s appalling personal tragedy came in full public view when her husband was shot dead in Dallas, Texas in 1963. Kennedy studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France for a time and graduated from George Washington University with a degree in French literature. Although she largely concealed her involvement in day-to-day politics, there is little doubt that she was an extremely important source of support for President Kennedy. For example, she was fully involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the world came close to nuclear war. Her husband shared classified information with her as events unfolded.
33. Caroline Harrison
Caroline entered the White House with her husband President Benjamin Harrison in 1889 at the age of 66. Her father, Dr. John Scott, founded the Oxford Female Institute in Ohio, and Harrison graduated from there with a music degree in 1859. She went on to work as a teacher. It seems clear she had strong views about education for women since she raised funds for the Johns Hopkins University medical school on the express understanding that they accepted females. Sadly, tuberculosis killed her not long before the end of Harrison’s single term in 1892.
32. Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison occupied the White House with her husband James Madison who held office as the fourth U.S. President for two terms from 1809. As far as we know, Madison had little or no formal education, but that did not stop her from successfully fulfilling the role of First Lady. During the 1812 War, she was forced to evacuate the White House when the British attacked Washington. When she returned, much to her enduring anger, the building and the city were wrecked. But she quickly adapted to temporary accommodation, keeping the presidential social round running smoothly.
31. Helen Taft
Helen, often known as Nellie, lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with William Howard Taft for the four years of his presidency from 1909. She had an all-round education covering a range of subjects including Greek, math and English Literature. Despite suffering a stroke just two months after moving into the White House, Taft made a determined recovery and played an active part in presidential life. She opened the White House to a much wider selection of visitors rather than just the great and the good of former years. She also took a lively interest in the welfare of the nation’s working people.
30. Betty Ford
Betty Ford had no expectation of ever moving into the White House but when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, her husband Gerald stepped up from the position of Vice President. A surgical intervention for breast cancer in 1974 gave Ford a cause for which to campaign, a task which she pursued with great dignity. She was also publically frank about her own battles with addiction and rehab facility the Betty Ford Center is a lasting testament to her compassion and humanity.
29. Frances Cleveland
There are a couple of things that make Frances Cleveland’s time as First Lady unique. For a start, she is the only woman to have married a President with a ceremony in the White House. And secondly, aged just 21 when she wed Grover Cleveland, she remains the youngest-ever First Lady. On top of that, she’s the only First Lady to serve for two non-consecutive terms, as her husband did. Cleveland graduated from Wells College in Aurora, New York in 1885, appropriately with a particular taste for political science. In her role as First Lady, she campaigned on the issue of women’s education, believing that was the best route to female advancement.
28. Florence Harding
Before she married President Warren G. Harding, at age 19 Florence had an earlier but unhappy union with one Henry De Wolfe. That ended in divorce and she married Harding in 1891. He became President in 1921. Florence’s high school education in Marion, Ohio was supplemented by a year at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After her divorce, supported herself as a piano instructor. As First Lady, she took a close interest in politics and habitually offered advice to her husband on policy and appointments. Her time in the White House came to a tragic early end when President Harding died in 1923.
27. Martha Washington
As the wife of the first U.S. president, Martha Washington was the inaugural First Lady, although the term was not then used. Born in 1731 on a Virginia plantation, like most girls of her era she received little formal education. She married early, aged 18, but this first husband died in 1757. She wed George Washington a couple of years later. There was no White House in those days, and her time as First Lady was spent in New York and Philadelphia. We have little evidence that she wielded any political influence but she was revered for the support she gave to Revolutionary War veterans who had fallen on hard times.
26. Julia Dent Grant
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1826, at the age of ten Grant started at the Mauro Academy for Young Ladies in her home town and studied there for seven years. She was keen on mythology, philosophy and history but was less enthusiastic about other subjects. Grant is said to have been a perceptive judge of character and took an educated interest in the politics of the day. She was a strong believer in women’s rights and didn’t hesitate to show her displeasure when men were disrespectful.
25. Elizabeth Truman
Elizabeth Truman, usually known as “Bess,” went to public school in Independence, Missouri alongside her future husband, Harry Truman. They were in the same class, and she got to know him well when the two both had private schooling in Latin. She was a successful student and would likely have gone on to college but for the fact that her family fell on hard times. Vice President Truman became President in 1945 when Roosevelt died in office. Bess was unenthusiastic about the White House social round but she played an important role as her husband’s advisor.
24. Ida McKinley
First Lady from 1897 to 1901, Ida McKinley was born into a prosperous family in Canton, Ohio. After high school in Canton, she went on to college in Cleveland, OH where her subjects included advanced mathematics, Latin and history. Her education was rounded off by a spell at finishing school in Pennsylvania. Although she suffered from poor health, she did her best to play a full role as First Lady, despite her illness sometimes hampering her. She often advised her husband on policy, with temperance being one of her particular hobby horses. Tragedy struck early in her husband’s second term when he was assassinated.
23. Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams had been the first Second Lady and went on to become the second First Lady when John Adams became President in 1797. In the 18th century it was not customary for women to receive formal education and that held true for Adams. Even so, she was a keen reader which meant she could intellectually hold her own with her lawyer husband. In the White House she continued with her firm belief in women’s equality and their right to education. President Adams is said to have respected her advice and opinions.
22. Margaret Taylor
Margaret Taylor was born in 1788 into a plantation-owning family in Maryland. Her early life is largely unchronicled but we can assume that she had the basic education offered to girls in her era. This would perhaps have included music, sewing and dancing plus the proper management of servants. When President Taylor came to office in 1849, Margaret played little part in the life of the White House. Her daughter Betty carried out the First Lady’s social duties. Taylor’ spell as First Lady lasted only 18 months as her husband died in July 1850.
21. Ellen Wilson
Ellen became First Lady after Woodrow Wilson won the presidential election of 1912. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1860, Wilson was educated at the Rome Female College. Her studies there included French, English Literature and algebra although it was art that most captured her imagination. It’s difficult to make an accurate assessment of her time at the White House as it was all too brief. She died from Bright’s disease in August 1914, the year after her husband’s inauguration.
20. Lucy Hayes
Lucy Hayes’ strongly-held temperance views earned her the memorable, but perhaps not entirely respectful, nickname of “Lemonade Lucy.” She studied at the Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, Ohio where she took part in weekly debates on improving topics. Devoutly religious, she was the first presidential spouse to have earned a degree. She entered the White House in 1877 and during her four years there she had, by President Hayes’ own account, considerable political influence.
19. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama made history as the first African-American woman to become First Lady. She holds a sociology degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard. A highly respected author, she also launched various community and educational initiatives during her time as First Lady, including the Reach Higher Initiative, a campaign to persuade young people to stay in education after high school. Obama used her time in the White House to push the issues that really mattered to her.
18. Lucretia Garfield
Lucretia Garfield was educated at the Geauga Seminary and then the Hiram Eclectic Institute, both in Ohio. She studied classics, literature and French and after school she went on to become a teacher. President James A. Garfield took office in 1881, yet during her time as First Lady, circumstances meant that Garfield had little opportunity to stamp her personality on the position. In May 1881 she fell ill with a debilitating bout of malaria. She was still recovering when her husband was shot in July; he died three months later, bringing her time in the White House to a premature and tragic end.
17. Elizabeth Monroe
Elizabeth Monroe was the fifth First Lady, resident at the White House from 1817 to 1825. We know she was born in New York in 1768, but other than that her early life is not well recorded. Since she was from a wealthy background, she was likely tutored in the skills thought seemly for a lady such as dancing, music and literature. Married to James Monroe before her 18th birthday, she is said to have brought a formal, European sensibility to the White House. She seems not to have asserted much influence on her husband’s political life.
16. Grace Coolidge
No shrinking violet, Grace Coolidge was voted one of the 12 greatest living American women in 1931, according to the White House website. She graduated from the University of Vermont in Burlington in 1902 and went on to train as a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. Calvin Coolidge became President in 1923 when Warren Harding died in office. Grace’s time in the White House saw her wield influence in areas close to her heart such as support for people with disabilities, particularly those with hearing difficulties.
15. Julia Tyler
President John Tyler’s first wife, Letitia, died in September 1841, just six months after he succeeded to the presidency when Henry Harrison died in office. Julia met the President, 30 years her senior, some months after Letitia’s death, and they entered into a secret engagement. They finally married in June 1844, and Tyler was First Lady for the next eight months. Probably privately tutored as a child, Tyler had a spell at finishing school in New York City. Tyler was a popular First Lady who’s said to have used her position to promote her husband’s political aims.
14. Hillary Clinton
First Lady for eight years from 1993, Hillary Clinton was arguably the most overtly political woman ever to hold the position. After all, she went on to become a presidential candidate herself in 2016. Clinton graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and then studied at Yale Law School. According to the Miller Center website, during his first presidential election campaign, Bill Clinton told electors that voting for him they’d get “two for the price of one.” And so Clinton had her own office in the White House West Wing and took a central role in policy-making during her husband’s administration.
13. Lou Hoover
Born in 1874 in Iowa, Lou Hoover was a very public figure during her four years as First Lady from 1929. She took a B.A. in geology at Stanford University, the first woman to do so. It was there that she met her future husband, Herbert. Once in the White House, she made herself accessible by introducing regular First Lady’s radio talks, another one of her pioneering achievements. She encouraged the President to hire women for public positions and abolished a peculiar rule saying pregnant women could not attend White House receptions.
12. Angelica Van Buren
President Martin Van Buren’s wife Hannah died nearly 20 years before he entered the White House for his single term in 1837. But during his term of office, his son Abraham married Angelica. In 1839 the couple moved into the White House and from then Van Buren took on the role of First Lady. From a wealthy South Carolina plantation family, she attended boarding school where lessons were conducted in French. She hosted social events at the White House but does not seem to have played an active role in presidential politics.
11. Laura Bush
Laura Bush entered the White House in 2001 with the second of the Bush family to take the presidency, George W. She attended the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, graduating with a degree in elementary education. She went on to take a Masters in library science at the University of Texas at Austin. Bush was an active campaigner as First Lady, concentrating on subjects close to her heart such as education reform and family health.
10. Mary Lincoln
Mary Lincoln’s time as First Lady started in 1861, the year her husband Abraham was inaugurated and the Civil War started. Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1818 and attended various schools where her studies included French, grammar and dancing. With the Civil War raging, Lincoln was in a difficult position. Some Southerners regarded her as a traitor, while there were Unionists who suspected her loyalty. As the White House hostess, she was the first to invite African-Americans to events there. Her time as First Lady ended in tragedy with her husband’s assassination in 1865.
9. Nancy Reagan
Like her husband Ronald, Nancy had been an actor – in her case on Broadway as well as in Hollywood movies. She had studied dramatic arts at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts and earned a bachelor’s degree. She gave up her stage career when she married, devoting herself to her husband’s career and to family. As First Lady from 1981 to 1989, she campaigned on the issue of drug and alcohol addiction, making her cause an international one. In the political realm, she played a key role in her husband’s staff choices and was active in supporting him in his bid to achieve detente with the Soviets.
8. Edith Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, had died in 1914, the year after he had been inaugurated. Sixteen months after her death, Wilson married Edith, then aged 43 to his 59. Her education was somewhat sporadic and included a couple of terms at Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia. Despite that, she took on an immense amount of responsibility during her husband’s presidency. That was because he suffered a devastating stroke in October 1919. She almost entirely took over the president’s administrative duties after that, although she avoided the political aspects of White House affairs.
7. Abigail Fillmore
Abigail’s first meeting with Millard Fillmore was when they were 21 and 19, respectively, while she was a teacher and he student. She was the first First Lady to carry on her career while living in the White House. Her husband became President in 1850 when the incumbent, Zachary Taylor, died in office. It’s said she had little taste for the social whirl of the White House; sometimes, her daughter Mary deputized for her at formal occasions. Fillmore had an undoubted influence on the President, apparently persuading him, for example, to end flogging in the U.S. Navy.
6. Mamie Eisenhower
Born in Boone, Iowa, Mamie was just 19 when she married the future president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1916. Her education seems to have been a fitful affair, and she didn’t attend college. For much of her marriage she followed her husband on his military career, calculating this had meant 27 house moves in 37 years. Although she made no political pronouncements in public, she had much influence on her husband in the background during her eight years as First Lady from 1953. For example, she disapproved strongly of Senator McCarthy’s browbeating methods of exposing alleged communists. He was never invited to the White House.
5. Barbara Bush
Barbara Bush was not only the husband of President George H.W. Bush, but also the mother of one: George W. Barbara Bush had been steeped in the world of politics before her four years as First Lady from 1989 since her husband had spent the previous eight years as vice president. Although she went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, she only completed one year there. From her position in the White House she campaigned on issues such as AIDS, and a particular cause for her was the promotion of literacy.
4. Louisa Adams
Louisa Adams is one of only two First Ladies not born in the U.S. – the other is Melania Trump. Adams was born in London, England and did not actually set foot on American soil until four years after marrying John Quincy Adams in 1797. Adams went to school in France and England, completing her education with a private tutor. She took up her position as First Lady in 1825, but her time in the White House was blighted by the depression from which she suffered. This could hardly have been helped by the fact that her husband apparently paid her little attention much of the time.
3. Rosalynn Carter
The story has it that Jimmy Carter told his mother that he wanted to marry Rosalynn after their first date when she was only 17. Carter played a very active role as First Lady from 1977 to 1981, attending important briefings and cabinet meetings. She also acted as an official emissary to Latin American nations. She campaigned on various issues including mental health and elderly care. Carter also made a special cause of the performing arts, inviting many prominent artists to the White House.
2. Jane Pierce
What education the young Jane Pierce had came at home, although she was apparently a talented pianist. It’s said that when Jane learnt that her husband Franklin Pierce had been nominated as the Democrat’s presidential candidate, she fainted – with horror rather than joy. After that inauspicious start, her partner duly won the 1852 election and Pierce became First Lady. As the couple prepared to move to Washington, they were in a railroad accident that killed their 11-year-old son, Bennie. Pierce was paralyzed by grief and took little part in the social or political life of the White House.
1. Lady Bird Johnson
Claudia Johnson got her “Lady Bird” nickname as a child in Texas and it stuck with her for the rest of her life. The Miller Center website quotes her recipe for the role of First Lady. She said the job required, “[a] showman and a salesman, a clothes horse and a publicity sounding board, with a good heart, and a real interest in the folks.” She very much saw herself as a partner to President Lyndon Johnson, with a duty to play her part in the formulation of his policies. She took a particular interest in the environment and the careful husbanding of natural resources.