Category:  Politics

Evolving Position of the First Lady



As America is preparing for a new president, it is also awaiting a new first lady. Or first man. The term “first lady” was first used during Dolly Madison’s funeral by then President Zachary Taylor. The term became more popular after the 1911 production of “First Lady in the Land,” a play about Dolly Madison.

The role of first lady has evolved greatly over time. When the United State gained its independence in 1776, George Washington was experimenting with the role of American President, as Martha Washington was exploring the role of wife to the president. Both titles came without a handbook. It was a unique task for Martha Washington to distance her position from that of European royalty.

The first ladies of the 20th century can be broken down into four different leadership styles. From 1900 to 1929, the first lady was a public woman. Martha Washington spent her time as the first, first lady abiding by many strict social do’s and don’ts put in place by Washington’s cabinet. Martha was to be in charge of official events. Mrs. Washington was responsible for entertaining any high-ranking elites in town to meet with her husband.  Any invitations for unofficial events had to be rejected.

From 1932 until 1961, the first lady was viewed as a political celebrity. The biggest political celebrity was Jackie Kennedy. To this day many people admire Jackie Kennedy. Jackie was a style icon. Mrs. Kennedy had a sense of glamour about her. Women all across the country followed her the way women all across the globe today adore Princess Kate. Jackie was the empathetic and composed face of the Kennedy administration.

During the mid 1960’s until late 1970’s, the first lady played the role of political activist. Dolly Madison broke the mold of her time being the first to dedicate her time to a cause, assisting women and orphans. This was taboo for the time. Lady Bird Johnson was the first to strengthen the voice of the first lady again. She used her platform to advocate for environmental protection and beautification.

After Johnson’s term in the White House, First Lady Pat Nixon used her position to encourage volunteerism across the country. Next, Betty Ford pushed for women’s rights.

First ladies Rosalynn Carter through Michelle Obama, with the exception of Hillary Clinton, were considered political interlopers. The women who lived in the White House between 1980 and 2001 preferred to stay out of the limelight.

The first ladies during the later years of the 20th century to the current day preferred to support their husbands and children, rather than make a name for themselves.  Some have referred to Michelle Obama as Mom in Chief.  However, these women were some of the first to fill in for their husbands on trips the president was unable to attend. Laura Bush was titled a goodwill ambassador.

The most famous first lady remains Eleanor Roosevelt. She truly redefined the role of first lady. Eleanor was the longest presidential spouse. Before entering the White House, Eleanor feared that her family’s new title would take her life away from her. It had the opposite effect. Eleanor Roosevelt’s role as first lady gave her the ability to make her voice heard. She changed the responsibilities of first lady from official hostess to spokesperson, often giving speeches in place of her sick husband.

The first lady speaking on her own was frowned upon before Eleanor Roosevelt. During her husband’s time in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt held 348 press conferences. Mrs. Roosevelt stood up for issues such as women’s rights, racial equality, education, and children. Eleanor was a strong supporter of women making lives for themselves outside of their husbands. She proudly made her own money. Most of that money was donated to the many issues she supported.

Eleanor Roosevelt to this day is regarded as one of the most powerful women in American history. She is responsible for one of the more important documents in history, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Act  of 1948.

Exit polls from Franklin Roosevelt’s last term as president showed that American citizens loved Eleanor, maybe more than Franklin. Eleanor had a 67% approval rating, while Franklin was liked by 58% of the population. When she died, former U.S. President Harry Truman regarded Eleanor as “first lady to the world.”

It is interesting to think about how the role of first spouse may change in the future. With Hillary Clinton still in the running for the United States presidency, America could see its first, first man. If presidential hopeful Donald Trump is elected, America could have its first foreign first lady.

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