Attention to the spouse of the president of the United States has been a constant throughout American history, but the role of the first lady has changed over time. The first lady has always been an exemplar of idealized femininity and thus connected to expectations of the role women should play in society. While initially the first lady served primarily as the hostess of the White House, the role gradually expanded to include leading reforms and engaging with the public both domestically and abroad. With the 2020 election nearing and the potential for either a female president or a married gay male president, we’ve decided to take a look back at some past first ladies and their legacies.
Stylish Elizabeth Monroe, dubbed “la belle Américaine” in Paris, aroused considerable envy among her peers in Washington. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln wore an elaborate gown to her husband’s inauguration, and she continued to spend extravagantly on clothes. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Caroline Harrison, the second wife of a president to die in the White House, was noted for starting the White House china collection and for helping make a medical school coeducational. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Helen Taft raised many eyebrows when she broke precedent and rode with her husband to the White House after his inauguration. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Popular Grace Coolidge kept several pets and was often photographed with her dogs or her raccoon, Rebecca. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Lou Hoover, the first president’s wife to broadcast from the White House, was an enthusiastic promoter of the Girl Scouts and fitness training for young women. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Called “Our Flying First Lady,” Eleanor Roosevelt chose air travel when most Americans refused to try it. Here she is pictured in Dallas, Texas, just weeks after becoming First Lady. Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
Jacqueline Kennedy made a poignant appearance at the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One less than two hours after her husband’s death. Image courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.
Pat Nixon visited the Great Wall of China during the Nixons’ historic tour of China in 1972. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
After her first White House year, Nancy Reagan increased her involvement in programs to combat use of illegal drugs. Image courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library.
As First Lady, Michelle Obama billed herself as mom in chief to two young daughters, but many Americans focused on her fashionable wardrobe and her athleticism. Image courtesy of the White House.
As the first naturalized citizen to preside over the East Wing of the White House, Melania Trump aroused considerable interest in her wardrobe and style. Image courtesy of the White House.
Featured image: “Executive residence from the South lawn” by Daniel Schwen. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.