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First Ladies

The wives of U.S. Presidents have been a source of great fascination since the founding of the Republic. It took several years for the social and political role of the first lady to become cemented in tradition. The workload of the president has made it imperative to have a helpmate meet mounting social demands.

Edith Wilson, shown here with husband, President Woodrow Wilson, ca. 1915, was accused of running a “petticoat government” after President Wilson suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed during his second administration.

Many first ladies have chosen to take on a ceremonial role in the White House, but some have chosen to be an influence on their husbands. Abigail Adams, wife of the second president, John Adams, is widely accepted to have been his intellectual equal and is famous for trying to influence her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in the new nation’s code of laws. Although President Adams respected her opinions, they did not always translate into law.

Jacqueline Kennedy is shown here in her official White House photo. She was known for her intelligence, glamour, and sophistication, and women everywhere wanted to copy the “Jackie look.”

Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, is remembered as much for saving valuable documents and artwork from destruction during the War of 1812 as for her gracious personality. Among the artwork salvaged is the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington, now housed in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution .

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century, however, that the role of First Lady began to take a political bent. Nellie Taft, like Eleanor Roosevelt, was her husband's full political partner. Edith Wilson was accused of running a “petticoat government” after her husband President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed during his second administration. Mrs. Wilson decided which issues would be presented to the president during his illness in hopes of safeguarding his recovery.

First lady, Nancy Reagan speaks at a “Just Say No” rally in Los Angeles, California, 1987.

 

Similarly, Nancy Reagan guarded the affairs of her husband President Ronald Reagan, after an assassination attempt. Her role as presidential protector did not go unnoticed by critics who sarcastically referred to her as “Mrs. President.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Reagan found both her voice and her politics in promoting social issues. Her anti-drug abuse campaign remains a hallmark of her tenure in the White House. More recently, because of her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease, Mrs. Reagan has become an outspoken advocate of stem cell research.

The role and responsibilities of the first lady changes with each administration. Tradition dictates a public persona, yet the role of the first lady rests heavily on her own personality and relationship to her husband and the public. In an era when women now serve at the highest levels of government, the role of the first lady awaits a dramatic redefinition — and none more dramatic than when the first woman president is elected.



 

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