A history of accomplishments from every first lady

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August 18, 2020
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A history of accomplishments from every first lady

Washington. Lincoln. Roosevelt. Kennedy. These iconic surnames don’t solely belong to the men who have held served America in the nation’s highest office. 47 first ladies have served over 45 U.S. presidencies: an all-star lineup of women who continue to shift the course of history.

At Stacker, we’re celebrating these extraordinary women with a list highlighting their accomplishments. Included are the wives of the presidents, and the women who occasionally filled in for them: nieces, daughters, and family friends. The women listed here fought for and with their husbands. Many did so amid unimaginable loss and suffering, especially before the advent of modern medicine and technology. Although they receive recognition as first ladies, a few never lived to serve in the role—dying before their presidential husbands took office.

According to many accounts, the term “first lady” didn’t surface until 1849, when Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, is said to have used it to eulogize Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison. Today, the term is as American as the White House. “First lady” has come to symbolize strength, stature and service.

Click through our gallery to read more about these irreplaceable women in history.

#1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

The nation’s original first lady made perhaps her biggest and bravest accomplishment before her husband became president. For much of the Revolutionary War, she stayed with George Washington for long periods over the winter in brutal encampments. For that reason, that he asked Congress to reimburse expenses for his wife’s travel to and from the encampments. As first lady, she initiated a weekly reception where politicians and dignitaries mingled with citizens. But also she once bemoaned the limitations of her responsibilities, calling herself a “state prisoner.


#2. Abigail Smith Adams

The wife and third cousin of President John Adams was also the mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president. She was an early champion of women’s causes, expressing concern to her husband while he was a member of the Continental Congress about how women would be treated in the new republic. In one letter, she wrote: “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” She advised her husband frequently, and also advocated for the abolition of slavery.


#3. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

The only wife of Thomas Jefferson never saw him become president. She died in 1782, two decades before her husband took office, though organizations and historians saw it fit to posthumously give her the title of first lady. Many accounts say that the president would call on Dolley Madison, wife of future president James Madison, to help with social matters. Others say that his daughter, pictured here, served as an informal first lady since she often lived at the White House. Jefferson kept records that call that into question, according to the White House Historical Association. 



#4. Dolley Payne Todd Madison

Dolley Madison remains among the most celebrated first ladies—so significant of a culinary icon that she later inspired a dessert brand. She championed social issues, had the executive mansion redecorated to emphasize the importance of the presidency and—through her charm and popularity—helped win over many of President James Madison’s foes. During the War of 1812, she saved a historic White House portrait from destruction as British troops advanced. Anthony S. Pitch, author of “Exclusively First Ladies Trivia,” calls Dolley Madison “the most beloved woman ever to occupy the White House.”


#5. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe

An enthusiastic hostess, the wife of President James Monroe brought increased formality to the White House. She allegedly burned her correspondence prior to her death, with only two of her letters known to exist. For much of her husband’s presidency, Elizabeth Monroe curtailed her activities due to poor health, often shunning dignitaries’ visits. Earlier, while her husband was a diplomat, the Monroes moved to France, where she visited the imprisoned wife of the Marquis de Lafayette near the end of the French Revolution. The visit is said to have earned the release of the French aristocrat's wife. 


#6. Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams

The wife of John Quincy Adams wasn’t born in the U.S. Born in London, Louisa Adams came to the U.S. four years after she married the future president, according to the White House Historical Association. She was a prolific writer, as the New York Times pointed out in a review of the 2016 book “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams.” “She left behind not only an abundant correspondence, but also a diary, poetry, plays, fiction and—remarkably—three fragmentary autobiographical accounts.”


#7. Rachel Donelson Jackson

The wife of President Andrew Jackson died before his inauguration, so her niece, Emily Donelson, took on the duties of first lady. Accounts show that Rachel Jackson could tame her husband’s famous temper, according to The National First Ladies’ Library. Emily Donelson was 21 when she entered the White House, where she cared for her uncle, her husband and her children. She died of tuberculosis in 1936, before Jackson left office. The role of first lady then fell to Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of the president’s son Andrew Jackson, Jr.

#8. Hannah Hoes Van Buren

Related through her mother to former first lady Elizabeth Monroe, Hannah Van Buren died of tuberculosis long before the election of her husband, who never remarried. President Martin Van Buren omitted her name from his autobiography, apparently in standing with a tradition of making no public references to women, supposedly to prevent shaming. A niece remembered “her modest, even timid manner.” Dolley Madison—who else?—played a key part in finding a replacement to serve as first lady. She introduced a relative by marriage, Angelica Singleton, to Van Buren’s eldest son, Abraham. The two married, and Singleton took on the role.


#9. Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison

The wife of William Henry Harrison earned a sorrowful distinction: the first to be widowed as first lady. Anna Harrison also was the first woman to become wife of a president and grandmother of a president: Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president. Anna Harrison found herself hardly eager to become the wife of a president, saying, according to C-SPAN: “I wish that my husband’s friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement.” William Henry Harrison hadn’t been in office a month when a cold developed into pneumonia, and he died at age 68. She never made the journey from Ohio to Washington, D.C.


#10. Letitia Christian Tyler

At age 51, the first wife of President John Tyler—the man who served as President Harrison’s vice president and successor—became the youngest first lady to die in the White House. Because of poor health, Letitia Tyler didn’t take part in the administration’s social affairs, yet she directed White House entertaining and household management. She attended the wedding of her daughter Elizabeth, but otherwise made no public appearances. She informally received visitors like authors Charles Dickens and Washington Irving.

#11. Julia Gardiner Tyler

After Letitia Tyler’s death, President John Tyler would remarry—making him the first president to marry while in office—and 21-year-old Julia Tyler, 30 years his junior, would become the youngest first lady. Julia Tyler established a key presidential tradition, insisting that “Hail to the Chief” be played at her husband’s entrance to every official event. She relished her role and emphasized formality. Joined by maids of honor dressed in white, she would welcome guests with plumes in her hair.

#12. Sarah Childress Polk

The wife of 11th President James Polk played an important but private role in her husband’s career, providing advice, helping him with his speeches and cautioning him about working too much. President Polk’s biographer called Sarah Polk “indispensable” as a “secretary, political counselor, nurse and emotional resource,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. She hosted White House receptions twice a week, but, because of her religious views, wouldn’t allow dancing and music on Sundays. In terms of mid-1800s technology, she ushered in a new era at the White House, overseeing the installation of gas lighting.


#13. Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor

The wife of Zachary Taylor had wanted no part of the White House. Margaret Taylor apparently saw the Whig Party’s nomination of her husband for president as “a plot to deprive her of a peaceful retirement with her husband.” Because of her poor health, few saw the first lady in public, and she handed responsibility for social activities to her young daughter, Betty. In July 1850, her husband suffered a gastric attack and died days later, leaving the first lady unable to accept his death and too distraught to attend his funeral.

#14. Abigail Powers Fillmore

President Taylor’s death handed Vice President Millard Fillmore the presidency, and his wife became the first president's wife to have held a job after marriage. Abigail Fillmore had been a teacher, and as first lady, she continued to learn and teach others. Owing to her interests, the White House had a music room and three pianos. The first lady would often attend state dinners and receptions before an ankle injury prompted her appoint her daughter Abby to handle routine social duties. During the inauguration of her husband’s successor, Franklin Pierce, Abigail Fillmore became ill and died 26 days after leaving the White House.


#15. Jane Means Appleton Pierce

The wife of President Franklin Pierce fainted out of grief at the news in 1852 that the Democratic Party had nominated her husband for president. He convinced Jane Pierce that their son, Benny, would benefit from the prestige of his father’s job. But Benny would lose his life before the inauguration, killed in a train crash—their third son to die. The new first lady didn’t attend the inauguration. In time, Jane Pierce took on her role as first lady and, according to the National First Ladies’ Library, persuaded her husband to release abolitionist Charles Robinson from a Kansas prison.

#16. Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane served as hostess for bachelor James Buchanan, the only president to never marry. Buchanan became her guardian after Harriet was orphaned at age 11. She was the first woman to receive the title of first lady and the first to have her image distributed throughout the country. As war loomed, Lane became a popular national figure as she guided White House social life with enthusiasm and discretion. At White House dinner parties, she managed to keep politicians away from their foes, as well. 

#17. Mary Todd Lincoln

Personal and national tragedy marked Mary Lincoln’s controversial time as first lady. As the Civil War waged, she lost a son and then her husband, Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president. Critics accused her of extravagance when she entertained at the White House. After the death of her son Willie, she cut back on entertaining, and critics charged her with falling short on her duties. At hospitals, the first lady brought food to the Civil War wounded and held the hands of the dying


#18. Eliza McCardle Johnson

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln landed Andrew Johnson, his vice president, in the White House. Observers saw first lady Eliza Johnson as a gracious host, even as her husband endured impeachment proceedings. She saw to it that White House social events continued. But the first lady suffered from tuberculosis and had trouble with mobility, prompting the president to ask two daughters to serve as official hostesses. The first lady would watch from the South Portico as family members participated in Easter “egg roll” events—perhaps the first such events.

#19. Julia Dent Grant

The wife of President Ulysses S. Grant saw her time as first lady as “the happiest period” of her life. She was the first first president's wife to write memoirs, which went unpublished until decades after her death. Before reaching the White House, she made several trips to join her husband at his Civil War postings. As first lady, she was a popular hostess who entertained lavishly. She remained conscious of her crossed eyes and saw to it that photographers took her picture in a way that wouldn’t draw attention to her condition.

#20. Lucy Ware Webb Hayes

The wife of Rutherford B. Hayes enjoyed wide popularity and represented, according to one admirer, the era of “the new woman.” She attended Wesleyan Female College and became the first president's wife to receive a college degree. The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library touts her as the first president’s wife to be called "first lady," emphasizing a distinction from Harriet Lane, who wasn’t married to President Buchanan. She worked and lobbied on behalf of the poor, and sponsored a scholarship for an African-American student. She also is credited with formalizing the annual Easter egg roll as a public event.

#21. Lucretia Rudolph Garfield

She preferred learning and reading to politics and once refused to pose for a campaign photograph. First Lady Lucretia Garfield would read with President James Garfield, joined him at meetings of a local literary society. The first lady stood firmly when it came to the so-called temperance movement, refusing to continue a ban on alcoholic beverages in the White House, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. Weeks after her husband took office, the first lady became ill. She was still recovering on July 2, 1881, when her husband was shot by an assassin. He died that September.



#22. Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur

Turbulence, sadness and mourning in the White House continued as Chester Arthur, James Garfield’s vice president, took office as a widower. His wife, Ellen Arthur, had died the previous year of pneumonia at age 42. The president asked his sister, Mary McElroy, to help care for his daughter and take on some White House duties. Arthur posted a portrait of his wife in the White House and often left flowers by the painting, according to The History Channel. Ellen Arthur was the daughter of explorer William Lewis Herndon, who help found the Naval Observatory.


#23. Frances Folsom Cleveland

Her marriage to President Grover Cleveland made Frances Cleveland, at age 21, the youngest first lady in American history. She also became the first woman to marry an incumbent president at the White House and the first first lady to give birth in the White House. A public appearance in May 1886 revealed Frances Cleveland as “a statuesque, poised, and self-possessed woman with an eye for fashion.” Her low necklines promoted a conservative women’s group to ask her to dress more modestly. She won immediate popularity, nevertheless, and women adapted her fashionable hair style.


#24. Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

The wife of 23rd President Benjamin Harrison made social issues and White House renovations among her key causes. Caroline Harrison, who had been a music teacher, worked with other women to raise funds for the Johns Hopkins University medical school on the condition that it admit women. She was a founding member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a nonprofit women's organization. She also oversaw the White House transition to electricity and started the tradition of a lighting a decorative Christmas tree. She died of tuberculosis in October 1892, months before the end of her husband’s term.

#25. Frances Folsom Cleveland

Indeed, here she was again—the return of the fashionable first lady—thanks to Grover Cleveland’s regaining of the presidency. Frances Cleveland had two children during her second residence in the White House. “When the family left the White House,” the White House Historical Association says, “Mrs. Cleveland had become one of the most popular women ever to serve as hostess for the nation.”


#26. Ida Saxton McKinley

Poor health plagued the wife of 25th President William McKinley during her time as first lady, from 1897 to 1901. Ida McKinley had lost her mother and two young daughters and suffered from epilepsy. Nevertheless, she did her best to carry out her duties, receiving guests while seated and while holding a bouquet, which suggested that she wouldn’t be shaking hands. At state dinners, the president kept close watch for seizures. Her “fainting spells” stayed out of the newspapers. 


#27. Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt

As first lady, the wife of Theodore Roosevelt set precedents. Edith Roosevelt joined her husband in the White House after the death of William McKinley, and hired a social secretary to answer mail and share news with the media. She also hung portraits of former first ladies. She maintained correspondence with a British ambassador about the Russo-Japanese War and provided updates to her husband, who negotiated an end to the conflict in 1905 and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. One aide described the first lady as happy in appearance and “never critical of the ignorant.”

#28. Helen Herron Taft

The new first lady suffered a stroke after only two months in the White House. But Helen Taft’s condition improved, and the wife of William Howard Taft made her mark as a promoter of women’s suffrage and factory workers’ rights. She maintained an interest in politics and became known for her White House social events. Perhaps her greatest legacy, according to A&E’s “Biography,” “was arranging the planting of 3,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin, south and west of Independence Mall, in Washington, D.C.” After leaving the White House, Helen Taft would go on to support moderate Republican causes.

#29. Ellen Axson Wilson

The first wife of President Woodrow Wilson hosted more than 400 White House receptions in her first three months as first lady. She also created the White House Rose Garden, which stands today in the same place, though in different form. Observers referred to her as “calm and sweet, a motherly woman, pretty and refined,” according to the White House Historical Association. Ellen Wilson died from Bright’s disease on August 6, 1914. On the day before her death, she expressed hope that her husband would marry again


#30. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson

The next year, as World War I raged, Edith Wilson became the new first lady and de-facto commander in chief. President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, midway through his second term, prompting the first lady to discreetly pre-screen “all matters of state, functionally running the Executive branch of government,” according to the White House Historical Association. The first lady insisted that the president continued to perform all of his duties, making decisions only on what matters to present to him.


#31. Florence Kling Harding

The wife of 29th President Warren G. Harding put energy into her position as first lady and perhaps even revolutionized the role, despite a chronic kidney ailment. Florence Harding opened the White House to the public after its closure during President Woodrow Wilson’s illness, and threw parties for veterans. She would speak to the press during Warren Harding’s Republican campaign for president and maintained a strong influence on her husband. The president died in the summer of 1923, before scandals in his administration surfaced, and the first lady died the following year.

#32. Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge

The wife of Calvin Coolidge hiked and swam and reigned as “The First Lady of Baseball.” One account called Grace Coolidge “the most popular woman in the capital.” The first lady would invite carolers to the White House, and, via an activation button, she and her husband became the first couple to light the community Christmas tree. Grace Coolidge invited Helen Keller and others with disabilities to visit the White House. As for her love of baseball, she said to friends: “You may not give a hoot for baseball, but to me it is my very life.”


#33. Lou Henry Hoover

This first lady made waves, so to speak, doing regular radio broadcasts—a first among first ladies. The wife of Herbert Hoover, who served during the Depression, even had a White House recording system that let her test her voice, though she preferred not to give interviews. According to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, Lou Hoover once invited Jessie DePriest, wife of African-American congressman Oscar DePriest, to the White House for tea, causing an uproar in southern newspapers and making the first lady even more cautious about speaking to the press. She restored President Lincoln’s study, among other White House renovations.


#34. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt

The longest-serving first lady was among the most outspoken, and would become among the most revered women in history. Eleanor Roosevelt served with her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from 1933 to 1945, Roosevelt worked on behalf of the poor, and drafted a U.N. bill on human rights. She also held news conferences, gave lectures and wrote a newspaper column. After leaving the White House House, she continued to advocate for causes like child welfare and women's rights.


#35. Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman

To President Harry S. Truman, she reigned as “the boss.” First Lady Bess Truman, wife of the 33rd president, served as honorary chair of the American Red Cross and as honorary president of the Girl Scouts, the Woman’s National Democratic Club and the Washington Animal Rescue League. But as first lady, she kept social obligations to a minimum and was reluctant to give interviews or do press conferences. Harry Truman declared that his wife was “not especially interested” in the “formalities and pomp or the artificiality which, as we had learned...inevitably surround the family of the President.”  


#36. Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower

The wife of Dwight D. Eisenhower took on her role as first lady with enthusiasm, and with her trademark bangs and fashion. Mamie Eisenhower hosted numerous heads of state in those postwar years, and closely supervised White House employees. Eisenhower's outgoing manner helped make her a popular first lady. Underscoring her lack of partisanship, she wrote a magazine article entitled: “Vote for My Husband or for Governor Stevenson, But Please Vote.”


#37. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy

An icon for, among other things, her pillbox hats and grace and courage after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy embraced fashion and the arts, expressed interest in other cultures, spoke French, Spanish, and Italian, and garnered global admiration. She took on the major task of restoring and preserving the White House, and created the post of White House curator. She won an honorary Emmy award for a television broadcast in which she gave viewers a tour of the restored mansion. Later in life, Jacqueline Kennedy worked in New York City as an editor for Doubleday.



#38. Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson

The wife of Lyndon B. Johnson made her mark as a campaigner, mediator, nature-lover, money manager and groundbreaker—interacting with Congress in her work to beautify the nation’s cities and highways. As the Vietnam War sparked unrest and the nation mourned President Kennedy’s assassination, Lady Bird Johnson played an active role in her husband’s "Great Society" programs to alleviate poverty. A 2007 New York Times obituary described her as “a calm and steadying influence on her often moody and volatile husband...she softened hurts, mediated quarrels, and won over many political opponents.” She died at age 94.

#39. Patricia Ryan Nixon

As first lady in an administration steeped in scandal, Pat Nixon championed charitable causes and volunteer service. The wife of Richard M. Nixon traveled extensively, leading a U.N. delegation to Liberia for the inauguration of President William Tolbert. She visited earthquake victims in Peru, and as the Vietnam War dragged on, she became the first president's wife to visit a combat zone. She opened the White House property to evening tours, and led the purchase of more than 600 paintings and pieces of furniture for the mansion in what is regarded to be “the largest acquisition ever for a presidential administration.”


#40. Elizabeth Bloomer Ford

Betty Ford brought candor and compassion for breast cancer to the public after she underwent a mastectomy in 1974, her first year as first lady. The wife of Gerald Ford—the man who served as Nixon’s vice president and successor—also emerged as an outspoken supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1982, she co-founded the Betty Ford Center for addiction treatment following a battle against drug and alcohol dependency, about which she also spoke openly. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her leadership. She died in 2011 at age 93.


#41. Rosalynn Smith Carter

The wife of 39th President Jimmy Carter became and remains a leading advocate for mental health research and numerous other causes, including quality of life for the elderly. Rosalynn Carter emerged as an engaged and active first lady, attending cabinet meetings and serving as the President’s emissary to Latin American countries. In 1982, she and her husband launched The Carter Center, which boasts a mission to "wage peace, fight disease, and build hope." She remains board president at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving. At age 91, Rosalynn Carter is the oldest living first lady.

#42. Nancy Davis Reagan

Just say no” summed up First Lady Nancy Reagan’s focus during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. This served as the slogan for her vigorous campaign to decrease school-age drug and alcohol abuse. The campaign took her to 33 states and nine foreign countries. “A little girl raised her hand and said, ’Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ‘well, you just say no.’ And there it was born,” the first lady said, according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. She also took on the cause of promoting foster grandparents. She died in 2016 and is buried beside her husband, a fellow former actor, in Simi Valley, California.

#43. Barbara Pierce Bush

Known for her white hair,  ake pearls, direct manner and keen wit, the wife of George H.W. Bush projected authenticity. Barbara Bush “understood that first ladies can wield enormous power...and she used her visibility and influence to encourage other Americans to empathize beyond their own experiences,” wrote CNN’s Kate Brower. Bush promoted literacy as her signature cause. She worked on many other causes, including volunteerism and homelessness. She was the mother of President George W. Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. She died in April 2018 at age 92.


#44. Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton emerged from the White House as a highly accomplished first lady and then as a global diplomatic force and an increasingly controversial political figure. The wife of Bill Clinton spoke strongly and worked on behalf of women, families, and health care reform, and continued to trumpet those causes in later political endeavors. Hillary Clinton became the first president's wife elected to the U.S. Senate and served as secretary of state for President Barack Obama. She twice ran for president, including in 2016, when she made history in winning the Democratic nomination. Despite winning the popular vote, she lost to Donald Trump in the general election.



#45. Laura Welch Bush

A former teacher and librarian, First Lady Laura Bush put education reform and literacy at the top of an ambitious agenda that included the Reading First program of No Child Left Behind, one of her husband’s initiatives. The wife of 43rd President George W. Bush founded the National Book Festival, and in 2006, hosted the White House Conference on Global Literacy. After the September 11th attacks, she became an outspoken supporter of the women of Afghanistan. She visited more than 75 countries, and supported other causes including AIDS relief and breast cancer awareness. 


#46. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama

Harvard-educated lawyer Michelle Obama, the nation’s first African American first lady, made healthy foods and childhood exercise among her many causes. She worked with fifth-graders from Washington D.C. to plant a 1,100-square-foot garden of fresh vegetables and installed beehives at the White House. She helped launch the Let’s Move! campaign to address childhood obesity; Joining Forces, for service members; and the Reach Higher Initiative, for education. Alongside President Barack Obama, she volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The first lady also stayed busy in fashion, appearing three times in eight years on the cover of Vogue magazine.


#47. Melania Trump

The wife of President Donald Trump began a modeling career at age 16, and is the only first lady whose first language wasn’t English. Melania Trump has said she can speak six languages, including her native Slovenian. She joined the wife of John Quincy Adams as the only first ladies born outside the United States. In May, she revealed a children’s program that focuses on well-being, reducing opioid abuse, and encouraging social media positivity. As investigations and turmoil plague the White House, the first lady maintained a low-key profile, yet her approval ratings have far exceeded those of the president.

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