10 Most Influential U.S. First Ladies and their Accomplishments
Some of America’s most intriguing, successful and popular women throughout history have served as First Ladies, a role originally designed to keep them busy in the background while their husbands took centerstage in government affairs. But many of these women sometimes ended up becoming more popular than their husbands and many Americans looked up to them for inspiration and hope, especially in times of difficulty.
This list of the most influential First Ladies to have ever served the United States shows how much this role has changed significantly over the years, from the first president till date. And shows how these women bravely used their power and influence to drive change in America and around the world.
Below, World History Edu presents the 10 most influential First Ladies of the United States:
Abigail Adams’ support of women’s rights and equality led her to caution the Founding Fathers to “remember the ladies” during the formation of the United States. Her husband, John Adams, was the second President of the United States. Adams was also the mother of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams.
She was married into a wealthy Massachusetts family and married John Adams in 1764. She was incredibly smart, often left to manage the affairs of her home while John was away and eventually she made good financial decisions that enhanced the family’s wealth. Because of her intellect, her husband sought her advice numerous times during his administration.
The Adams family became the first to live in the White House and during her term as First Lady, she supported all of her husband’s policies, including the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act, which was controversial.
After serving as First Lady, Adams was still active in politics. She sent letters to later presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and was instrumental in the election of her son, John Quincy although she did not live long enough to see him get elected.
Finally, Abigail Adams holds the remarkable record of being the wife of a U.S president (John Adams) and also a mother of a U.S. president (John Quincy Adams). The only other person to hold this enviable record is Barbara Bush, the wife of President George Bush Senior and a mother of President George Bush Junior.
Read More: Most Notable Achievements of Abigail Adams
Eleanor Roosevelt is regarded as perhaps the most influential former First Ladies in history. She was famous for her inspirational quotes, with her most popular being: “Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one. You cannot make any useful contribution in life unless you do this.” Roosevelt was also the longest-serving First Lady in history
She married Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1905 and in 1910, she began her career in assisting her husband in political affairs. After her husband became ill with poliomyelitis, she remained active in politics to keep him interested. Eventually, in 1933, she became First Lady and she used her new role to support civil and women’s rights activities. She strongly advocated for quality education and equal opportunities.
After Franklin’s death, Roosevelt remained active in politics and became a spokesperson for America in the United Nations. She died in November 1962 after a long battle with cancer.
Dolley Madison was married to James Madison, who served as the fourth President of the US. But there was more to her than just being a wife to one of the US’s most notable presidents. Madison played a key role in the birth of bipartisan relations, where members from different political parties could socialize and negotiate amicably. As a result, Madison became the blueprint for future first ladies, especially where it concerned their duties.
Born Dolley Payne to a Quaker family in Piedmont, North Carolina, Madison grew up with a strict upbringing. Nevertheless, she remained a warm and pleasant person. In 1790, she married her first husband, John Todd Jr and they welcomed two sons. Sadly, John and their younger son died during the yellow fever epidemic. She later married James Madison and the pair married in 1794.
Long before James became president, Madison was popular among social circles and she was known as a skilled negotiator. Under President Thomas Jefferson’s government, she served as hostess to the widowed Jefferson, who never remarried after the death of his spouse, Martha.
Madison is best known for reportedly saving the Lansdown portrait – a life-size portrait of George Washington –, as well as other national treasures during the British invasion of Washington DC in 1814. For this achievement, she was recognized as a national heroine. Had it not been for her efforts, much of the United States history would have been lost in the destruction of the White House. It’s no surprise that Madison is one of the best-loved first ladies to have ever served in the US.
Martha Washington was the wife of the first US President George Washington. However, at that time, the title “First Lady” did not exist. She was, however, called “Lady Washington.” She was extremely instrumental during the Revolutionary War, where she helped manage her husband’s estate at Mount Vernon and raised funds to support soldiers with supplies.
She was the eldest daughter born to John Dandridge and Frances Jones. She first married Daniel Parke Custis in 1750 and she inherited his wealth after his death seven years later. In 1759, she married George Washington and they lived comfortably at Mount Vernon. During the earlier years of the Revolutionary War, she visited her husband frequently.
Although she was initially against George’s decision to become the first president of the United States, she took her duties seriously and hosted many events. In 1776, the US Navy named a row galley USS Lady Washington in her honor, as well as the USS Martha Washington. Many other colleges such as the Martha Washington College for Women were named after her.
Read More: Martha Washington’s Greatest Accomplishments
Throughout her lifetime, Jacqueline Kennedy was known for many things, including being an international fashion icon. But she is most remembered for showing immense strength during a time when the US was shaken to its core following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.
In 1952, she met John F. Kennedy through a mutual friend. At that time, John was a member of the US House of Representatives. They got married the following year and had three children, Arabella (died at birth), Caroline, and John Jr. P
In 1961, she became First Lady when John won the 1960 presidential election. During her time, much of her work was dedicated towards the restoration of the White House and promoting the American creative industry. Kennedy founded the White House Historical Association and established the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and was the first to hire a White House Curator.
On November 21, 1963, Kennedy traveled to Texas with her husband. While driving down Elm Street, John was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. She refused to remove her bloodstained clothes while standing beside Vice President Lyndon Johnson when he was sworn into office.
In her later years, she retreated from the public and later married Aristotle Onassis. She died in 1993.
During President Jimmy Carter’s administration from 1977-1981, Rosalynn Carter spearheaded several mental health initiatives and served as one of her husband’s closest advisors.
As a young child, Carter had to assist her mother with work following the death of her father. She later attended Georgia Southwestern College and during that time, she met Jimmy Carter. The pair were wed in 1946. Jimmy was in the navy at that time and the young family, including their daughter, Amy, moved around a lot. After Jimmy’s father’s death, he left the Navy to run his family’s business.
Her husband entered politics in 1962 and won the Georgia Senate seat. Carter was extremely helpful during his campaign and when he was campaigning for president, she played a quiet role behind the scenes, a move that was effective in his success.
As First Lady, Carter worked extensively to rid the stigma surrounding mental health issues, serving as the Honorary Chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. She also supported the creative arts. After serving, she wrote her autobiography “First Lady from Plains.” In 1982, the Carter Center was established to promote human rights and global peace. As of 2022, 95-year-old Carter serves as the center’s vice president.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama’s ascension to First Lady of the US was monumental in American history in that she was the first African American to receive the appointment. She is married to Barack Obama, who served as our nation’s 44th president.
Growing up, Obama was taught by her parents to be hard-working and adopt a spirit of perseverance. She attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School. After becoming a lawyer, she returned to her hometown of Chicago, where she met Barack and the pair married in 1992.
Upon becoming First Lady in 2009, Obama worked tirelessly in several fields, but most of her activities and efforts were placed in the areas of education, family life, and supporting military officers and their families. She also created the “Let’s Move!” initiative to advocate for healthier food options in American public schools.
Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson was the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson and served as First Lady from 1963-1969. She was best known for her keen interest in environmental conservation and beautification projects. Lady Bird brought an air of peace and calmness following the events of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
She was born Claudia Alta Taylor and earned her nickname “Lady Bird” when she was a child. She graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in arts and journalism. She met Lyndon Johnson in 1934 and at that time he was a Congressional secretary and they got married later that same year.
Right from the start, Lady Bird helped her husband in his political career. While Lyndon was serving in the Navy during World War II, she kept his Congressional office open and continued to operate it even after he had suffered a heart attack. The couple had two daughters.
During her time as the First Lady, she traveled extensively, visiting over 33 countries on goodwill missions on behalf of the US government. Lady Bird took her work in environmentalism seriously and established the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital project. She also focused on initiatives designed to eradicate poverty and also give more access for children to attend preschool.
Following the death of her husband and in her later years, Lady Bird still supported numerous causes and founded the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982. She was also appointed trustee emeritus of the National Geographic Society.
In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first former First Lady and woman to contest in the presidential elections. She lost the elections but remains to be an influential figure in US politics. She is the wife of the 42nd president, Bill Clinton.
Growing up in Park Ridge, Illinois, Clinton’s parents encouraged her to follow her dreams. She attended Wellesley College and later enrolled at Yale Law School in 1969, where she met the future president. The couple married in 1975 and after graduating, Clinton taught at the University of Arkansas and also worked under then-president, Jimmy Carter’s administration.
As the First Lady, Clinton was very active in public service and advocated strongly for quality healthcare, especially for children. She was also a staunch women’s activist and wrote extensively about women’s issues. Following her term, she remained active in politics and was appointed Senator for New York in 2000, making her the first former First Lady to be elected into the US Senate.
In the 19th century, Sarah Childress Polk was one of the few educated women and she used her extensive knowledge to write some of her husband’s – James K. Polk – speeches and letters.
She met James at the start of his political career and they got married on New Year’s Day in 1824. She was unable to bear any children and spent most of her time accompanying her husband to Washington. Soon, they were known among Washington’s social circles and during that time, she started writing some of her husband’s speeches, albeit secretly.
Upon becoming the First Lady of the US in 1845, Polk took her duties seriously. She was skilled at entertaining and socializing and often sought advice from the former First Lady, Dolley Madison. She was extremely popular and was deeply respected in Washington.