While presidents certainly leave their mark on the Oval Office, less talked about is the important role played by their first ladies. Many served as the closest advisor to the sitting commander-in-chief, and we can only imagine the kind of conversations they took part in within the walls of the White House.
Although an entire exhibit is dedicated to these fab females at the Smithsonian, we seem to know more about who wore what outfit at the inaugural ball and what china patterns were selected for state dinners than what platforms and advocacy issues these women championed. Below, discover the interesting platforms of 10 influential first ladies.
1. Ellen Wilson
Ellen Wilson was the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson and held the title of first lady from 1913 until she died in 1914. A champion of equality well before her time, Ellen worked to improve housing for Black Americans in Washington, D.C., a cause she was passionate about as a descendant of slave owners.
Related: You Know the Founding Fathers, Now Meet the Founding Mothers
2. Edith Wilson
After Ellen Wilson passed away, President Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, who was first lady from 1915 to 1921. She is best known for stepping in to assist her husband after he suffered a severe stroke; Edith has often been referred to as the “secret president.” Rather than initiating her own programs, Edith devoted herself to her husband's health and handled many routine matters of government before women even had the right to vote.
3. Lou Hoover
First lady from 1929 to 1933, Lou Hoover was a well-respected linguist and scholar. She was the first wife of a president to make national radio broadcasts. A fine horsewoman, Lou hunted and preserved animal specimens with the skill of a taxidermist; she also developed an enthusiasm for rocks, minerals, and mining.
Lou's love of the outdoors served her well; she was president of the Girl Scouts before she became first lady. During her time at the White House and throughout her lifetime, she advocated for volunteerism and was passionate about making education more accessible.
4. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving first lady, occupying the position throughout her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office (1933-1945). She was a politician, diplomat, and activist who later served as a United Nations spokeswoman.
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Eleanor broke precedent by holding press conferences and traveled all over the country, giving lectures and radio broadcasts. She expressed her opinions candidly in a daily syndicated newspaper column called “My Day.” As first lady, Eleanor was passionate about improving social conditions for people of all races and religions.
5. Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson
Thrust into the role of first lady as the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) after the assassination of President Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson broke ground for her role by interacting with Congress directly and advocating strongly for beautifying the nation’s cities and highways. She was also a shrewd investor and manager.
6. Betty Ford
In 1974, her first year in the White House, Betty Ford had to undergo radical surgery for breast cancer. She was noted for raising breast cancer awareness and being a passionate supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was frank about her successful battle against dependency on drugs and alcohol. She helped establish the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcohol abuse.
7. Rosalynn Carter
Eleanor Rosalynn Carter, wife of 39th president Jimmy Carter, was first lady from 1977 to 1981. As first lady, she focused national attention on the performing arts and programs to aid mental health, the elderly, and the community at large. Rosalynn served as honorary chairman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health in 1979, testifying before Congress about the importance of mental health care and treatment.
Related: 25 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard of
8. Nancy Reagan
From Broadway actress to first lady, Nancy Reagan is remembered for leading the fight against drug and alcohol abuse, especially among young people. She spent many hours visiting veterans, the elderly, and the disabled. With a lifelong interest in the arts, she used the White House to showcase talented young performers in the PBS television series “In Performance at the White House.”
9. Laura Bush
Laura Bush was first lady from 2001 to 2009, during which she advocated for historic education reform and the well-being of women and families worldwide. A former teacher and librarian, she focused on advancing education and promoting global literacy. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she was outspoken about the oppression of women in Afghanistan.
10. Michelle Obama
A lawyer, writer, and the wife of 44th president Barack Obama, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama was the first African-American first lady of the U.S. She was and continues to be an advocate for healthy families, service members and their families, higher education, and education for girls around the globe.
Related: 7 Facts About Black Women Who Shaped History
In 2011, Michelle helped launch Joining Forces with Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, a nationwide initiative calling all Americans to rally around service members, veterans, and their families and support them through wellness, education, and employment opportunities.
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Featured photo of Rosalynn Carter chairing a meeting for the President's Commission on Mental Health on April 20, 1977: Wikimedia Commons