On October 7, 1964, First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson took the stage before an angry crowd in Columbia, South Carolina. She was there to promote the Civil Rights Act, a new law pushed forward by her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson, that made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their race, sex, ethnicity, or religion. However, many people opposed the law—and they were trying to prevent her from speaking.
The people running the event couldn’t calm the audience, but that didn’t stop Johnson. She held up her hand. "This is a country of many viewpoints," she said. "I respect your right to express your own. Now it is my turn to express mine." The crown quieted, and Johnson continued her important campaign to support civil rights.
The first lady is usually the wife of the president of the United States, and they have played many different roles since Martha Washington became the first one in 1789. Even before women had the right to vote, these women wielded great power—and often the public didn’t even know it.
Whether at the president’s side, behind the scenes, or promoting their own ideas in public, first ladies have influenced the country’s values, policies, and laws for nearly 250 years. Sometimes, they even changed history.
Early roles of first ladies
The position of first lady was not always a powerful role with official duties. Just like most women across the United States, the wives of the country’s earliest presidents were expected to take care of their home and family. Those first ladies managed the White House household and hosted important guests; their main job was making sure their husbands could succeed.
In the late 1880s, the title “First Lady of the Land” began to appear, probably referring to the lords and ladies of Europe. Eventually, it was shortened to “first lady.”
As the public began to recognize the role of the first ladies, these women became some of the country’s first “social influencers.” People read about and saw photos of dinners they hosted, clothes they wore, and furnishings they picked out—and they often wanted to imitate what these women were doing.
Women at that time were mostly barred from politics—they didn’t even have the right to vote until 1920. But many first ladies still found ways to influence the country. And as women’s power grew, so did the role of the first ladies.
First ladies behind the scenes
The person a president most often relied on was the first lady. Because of that, many of these women skillfully used their close access to the president to influence causes and events.
One such woman was Sarah Polk, who became first lady after her husband, James K. Polk, was elected president in 1844. In private, Sarah Polk gave the president advice on important political matters, like who to appoint to government roles. She even wrote speeches for her husband. “None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs,” President Polk wrote. “She was politician, counselor, nurse, and emotional resource.”
On October 2, 1919, Edith Wilson took an even bigger behind-the-scenes role after President Woodrow Wilson, had a stroke, a brain injury that left him barely able to work. Usually the vice president would take over for a sick president. But Edith Wilson and the president’s doctor worried that the stress would make Wilson sicker.
They decided that the first lady—who didn’t even believe women should have the right to vote—would secretly step in for the president. Reviewing her husband’s work, she decided which matters should be brought to the president and which could be assigned to other people. She herself managed the daily duties, such as writing out orders and reporting President Wilson’s decisions to his advisers and congressional representatives, and helped run the government until Woodrow Wilson left office in 1921.
But it was Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who quietly used her influence to make historic change. The Great Depression—a time when many people struggled to find jobs, food, and housing—had been going on for three years before the Roosevelts entered the White House in 1933. Soon after, Eleanor Roosevelt began visiting some of the poorest areas in the country to talk to citizens.
President Roosevelt knew he needed a plan to end the Great Depression, and Eleanor Roosevelt suggested many ideas based on what she learned during her travels. Thanks to her, Roosevelt’s plan, called the New Deal, included many programs to provide jobs and housing to struggling people—including people of color and women.
First ladies influencing the public
Until very recently, many people didn’t believe women were smart enough to make tough decisions or run businesses or governments. So early first ladies often didn’t make it known how involved they really were in the presidency.
But other women understood that because of their position, people would listen to them. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt was a behind-the-scenes advisor to her husband, but she also influenced the public through her actions.
In 1933, she helped gain people’s support for the New Deal by giving radio speeches, writing newspaper articles, and talking to reporters. Then in 1939, the first lady learned that the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to allow singer Marian Anderson to perform at their concert hall because she was Black. Roosevelt not only quit the group, but she invited Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Mamie Eisenhower, the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also helped bring attention to racial inequality through her actions. In 1953, she noticed Black children watching the White House’s annual Easter Egg Roll from outside the gates. When she learned that they had not been allowed to attend because of their skin color, the first lady insisted that children of all races be invited to the event from then on.
But it was Lady Bird Johnson who might have been the most influential first lady when it came to civil rights. Early in her role, she privately encouraged her husband to pass the Civil Rights Act. But later she decided that it was important to speak out in public.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed in part because many places in the United States—especially in the South—had laws that allowed white people to treat Black people unequally. The new law made many white people angry. The Johnsons were from Texas, so the first lady thought that since she was a Southerner, she could help change people’s minds.
She began a tour across the South by train, stopping to speak in smaller cities that usually didn’t get much attention from national politicians. Johnson’s tour made many Southerners feel represented and helped changed their opinions on the Civil Rights Act. In fact, many newspapers credited the first lady’s tour as a major reason that President Johnson was reelected.
In 1961, during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy organized a project to help restore the White House and its many historical artifacts. After that, it became tradition for a first lady to spearhead at least one public service project, called a platform.
For instance, Laura Bush, wife of President George W. Bush, started the Ready to Read, Ready to Learn initiative in 2001 to improve early reading programs for kids. More recently, Michelle Obama, first lady to President Barack Obama, introduced the Let’s Move! program in 2010 to encourage healthier eating and exercise habits to children.
First ladies influencing policy
Recently, first ladies have become more directly involved with politics and policy. For instance, during the early 1970s, Betty Ford, wife to President Gerald Ford, championed women’s rights—especially health care and protection in the workplace—by campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. This amendment to the U.S. Constitution would have made it illegal to discriminate against anyone because of their gender, specifically guaranteeing legal protection for women. (In 1972, the amendment was passed by Congress but wasn’t ratified by enough states to become law. Supporters are still trying to pass it.)
In the late 1970s, Rosalynn Carter attended cabinet meetings and important briefings with President Jimmy Carter, where she took part in discussions about policy issues. She also acted as the president’s representative to Latin American countries, where she met with local leaders and created reports for the U.S. government. Then in 1993, Hillary Clinton, first lady to President Bill Clinton, led a task force to create a congressional bill meant to improve health-care access for all Americans.
But even though these first ladies had more power than ever before, they faced backlash. Betty Ford received angry letters and faced protesters outside the White House. One U.S. diplomat said that Rosalynn Carter should stay “at home, and that’s all.” Lawmakers who didn’t like Hillary Clinton’s health-care bill focused on her involvement, calling the bill “Hillarycare” and saying she had overstepped her place. The bill didn’t pass.
But first ladies continue to make their permanent mark; Michelle Obama used the popularity of Let’s Move! to help pass new laws. For instance, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act increased funding for school lunches and updated the health requirements for school meals and snacks.
The future of first ladies
The role of first lady has been directly shaped by the country’s views toward women—and by the women themselves. Lately, the role has become a position of leadership that affects not just the United States but the entire world.
As women continue to gain power and leadership roles, the position of first lady will continue to change. For instance, more first ladies might help enact new laws, take charge of presidential duties, or deal more with international leaders.
And soon, as more women run for president, the title itself might change … to “first gentleman”!
• During the 1860s, Mary Lincoln, first lady to President Abraham Lincoln, sometimes held séances to “talk” with ghosts in the White House.
• In the 1970s, Pat Nixon, married to President Richard Nixon, became the first presidential wife to wear pants in public.
• Not all first ladies were wives—six have been family members such as daughters or nieces.
• Early nicknames for the wife of the president included “Presidentress” and “Mrs. President.”
• Louisa Adams, married to President John Quincy Adams, raised pet silkworms.