The role of the first lady has changed dramatically over the years. In the early days of our country, the first lady was just expected to host lavish parties in the White House and support her husband's policies and beliefs; she was not expected to voice her political opinions. However, our fourth first lady, Dolley Madison, was a catalyst for change in the role the first lady. She was the first one to take on an agenda that addressed ways to work on social issues facing the country. While all of our first ladies have made a positive impact in some way, there are certainly a few that stand out because of the active role they have played alongside their husband in the political arena. Here are the achievements of seven of our most politically active first ladies.
1. Abigail Adams: First Lady from 1797 — 1801
Although Abigail Adams became first lady 12 years before Dolley Madison revolutionized the role, it's important to include Adams on this list. As the second Continental Congress began to draft the Declaration of Independence, she sent multiple letters to her husband, President John Adams, arguing for equality between men and women under the law. Though she was unsuccessful in persuading her husband, her letters are some of the earliest writing our country has that call for equal rights for women. She was extremely outspoken in her political beliefs and was very involved in the country's political arena compared to other women of the time period.
2. Dolley Madison: First Lady from 1809 — 1817
As mentioned before, Dolley Madison is often credited as forging the philanthropic role the first lady plays today. She set the precedent when she worked with underprivileged girls, later even funding an orphanage specifically for them. She also actively worked to provide young girls with educational opportunities. Like Abigail Adams, Madison was very outspoken and would sit down with critics of her husband's administration to explain his political positions. Additionally, after the White House was burned to the ground by British troops during the War of 1812, she advocated for it to be rebuilt to its original glory, so as to remain a symbol of the republic.
3. Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady from 1933 — 1945
Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for more female journalists to be given jobs in the White House press corps and became the first wife of any sitting president to regularly write newspaper and magazine columns. These columns generally focused on her political opinions and she donated any money she made off her writing to charity. Also, Roosevelt acted as a liaison between citizens and the New Deal programs, playing a large role in their effectiveness. She worked to ensure fair and equal treatment for women, African Americans, children and coal miners within these programs. She would even make surprise trips to inspect New Deal programs to see how the citizens were benefiting from them. Roosevelt spoke candidly about her objection to segregation and pressed her husband to support anti-segregation laws. She was the first white resident of Washington D.C. to become a member of the local chapter of the NAACP. Finally, during World War II, Roosevelt advocated for women and African Americans to be given the same opportunities and pay to their white male counterparts.
4. Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson: First Lady from 1963 — 1969
Lady Bird Johnson is most well known for her interest in preserving the environment. Through her environmental committee, she pushed the jobs corps to include landscaping in their job training programs and worked to preserve national parks and forests. Also, her committee also went into low-income communities throughout D.C. and employed high school and college students in the area to install recreation areas, conduct huge trash cleanups in housing projects and renovate decaying buildings. These students were also involved with neighborhood tree planting and conservation efforts, as well as pest control. She set the tone for future environmental legislation when President Johnson's administration proposed "Lady Bird's Bill," which delegated that twenty percent of federal highway grants would be refused to states which did not clear junkyards and remove or reduce billboards from interstate and major highways. Though met with strong opposition in the beginning, it did pass.
Additionally, Lady Bird Johnson also advocated for early education programs for underprivileged children. Project Head Start was an 8 week summer program designed to meet the needs of underprivileged children that focused on establishing an environment to develop strong cognitive skills in order to successfully adjust to kindergarten. A year later, Head Start became a year round program out of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
5. Hillary Clinton: First Lady from 1992 - 2000
Days after President Bill Clinton was inaugurated, Hillary Clinton was made head of a task force to bring forth health care reform. Clinton oversaw research, investigatory trips and various committees composed of medical and insurance professionals, lawmakers and other government officials. She went on to testify before Congress in 1993, advocating for a single-payer health care system. However, Congress deemed this change too complicated and it was never brought to a vote. This did not stop Clinton from continuing to reform various aspects of our healthcare system. In 1997, she established the the Children's Health Insurance Program, which continues to support children whose parents are unable to provide them with health coverage. She also advocated for equality in women's health, hosting an annual drive that encouraged older women to seek mammograms and successfully fought to increase research funding for illnesses related to women's and children's health. She also provided a voice to the mental health issues of veterans of the Gulf War.
6. Michelle Obama: First Lady from 2008 - 2016
Michelle Obama is widely known for her work on the Let's Move initiative, which works to reverse childhood obesity. As part of this initiative, she pushed the president to create the Task Force on Childhood Obesity. The task force reviews policy and programs related to child nutrition and physical activity. The task force is known best for bringing healthy food options to public schools. In the end, Let's Move hopes to decrease childhood obesity by five percent by the year 2030. She later went on to announce a fitness program that works to get children involved with a new sport or activity.
Obama has also played an active role in promoting the importance of education. She visited schools across D.C. and spoke to students about staying in school, and often promoted volunteerism. Later on in her husband's presidency, she became an active member in promoting educational opportunities for women. Subsequently, in 2014, she joined the campaign to bring back school girls who had been kidnapped in Nigeria.
The biggest mark that First Ladies have left on society is the way they impact the young women of today. They serve as role models with their powerful rhetoric, philanthropic ideals and wisdom, and have become examples of how to succeed and bring on change. As cultural icons and strong women, they have undeniably made a large impact on the history of the U.S.
Lead Image Credit: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library