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Historically, the first lady of the United States has served as a pillar of support and strength for the president and his administration. Oftentimes, these politically-savvy women advance public policy at the same time, with modern first ladies taking on large-scale initiatives of their own. Here, we take a look at back at all of the women who've ruled the White House, beginning with Martha Washington in 1789.
George and Martha Washington got married in 1759, years before George fought in the Revolutionary War or was named president. Even though Martha was technically the first woman to hold the first lady position (opens in new tab), she wasn't given the title until after she died.
Abigail Adams learned everything about being a first lady (opens in new tab) from Martha Washington since President John Adams served as George Washington's vice president. Abigail is remembered for being an astute political thinker and was considered her husband's closest adviser. Fun fact: She was also the mother of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams.
Martha was the love of President Thomas Jefferson's life (though he did father six children with Sally Hemmings (opens in new tab) after her death, which was very problematic). After she passed away in 1781 (opens in new tab), Thomas took a post with the Continental Congress abroad and was later elected as the third president of the United States.
It's reported that Dolley Madison's artful entertaining was an asset (opens in new tab) to her husband's political status. During Madison's presidency, she would frequently entertain visiting wives and became known for her hosting skills. She was also known for saving many of the White House artifacts and important files when a British invasion burnt it to the ground.
Elizabeth Monroe's husband began his political career as the American Minister in France. It was then that Elizabeth picked up a more European style of formal entertaining, which she brought to the White House (opens in new tab) when James Monroe became president in 1817.
London-born Louisa Adams had to fill her mother-in-law's shoes as first lady when her husband, John Quincy Adams, became president. She was also the first (but not the last!) first lady to be born outside of the United States (opens in new tab). By the time the couple moved into the White House, Louisa was suffering from depression (opens in new tab) and preferred a quieter life rather than the entertainment that came with her position.
Rachel Jackson was married and granted a divorce from her first husband before she wed Andrew Jackson in 1791—although years later it was revealed that the divorce was never finalized. The simple misunderstanding spurred horrid rumors (opens in new tab) that only gained momentum during Jackson's campaign. Rachel passed away just before her husband's inauguration, which the president blamed on the toll the rumors took on her. After Rachel's death, her niece, Emily Donelson, performed the first lady duties (opens in new tab).
Hannah Van Buren
Hannah Van Buren was the cousin of President Martin Van Buren and followed him throughout his political positions across New York. In 1819, she died of tuberculosis (opens in new tab), leaving behind her four children with Martin. The eighth President never remarried and moved into the White House as a widower.
Anna Harrison holds the title of the shortest term (opens in new tab) as first lady of the United States. Her husband, President William Henry Harrison, died just 31 days after he was sworn into office.
Unfortunately, Letitia Tyler was already sick and confined to a chair when her husband, John Tyler, became president after William Henry Harrison's death. She served as first lady for a year until her death in 1842 (opens in new tab), but was never well enough to entertain.
Julia Tyler married the 10th president of the United States in 1844. She was the first woman to marry a sitting president (opens in new tab) and served as first lady for eight months until his term ended. The public was very intrigued by their marriage and many criticized their 30-year age difference (opens in new tab).
Sarah Polk was a unique first lady for her time period. As a child, she received a formal education (opens in new tab) and therefore played an active role in the political career of her husband, President James K. Polk. Although she was known for her earnest manners, such as not dancing at the Inaugural Ball (opens in new tab), she was highly respected in Washington's social circle.
Margaret Taylor, seen here at the bedside of her husband President Zackary Taylor, did not wish to socially fulfill the role of first lady (opens in new tab) during her husband's term. Instead, she appointed her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Bliss (opens in new tab), to carry out social engagements on her behalf.
Before marrying President Millard Fillmore, Abigail Fillmore worked as a teacher. After her husband unexpectedly took office following President Taylor's death, Abigail made many renovations to the White House, including the addition of a music room (opens in new tab)with three pianos and new volumes in the library.
Jane Pierce fainted in 1852 when she heard that her husband was nominated as the nation's democratic candidate, and she reportedly did not want her husband to take the position (opens in new tab). On the way to his inauguration, the Pierces were in a train accident, which tragically killed their son (opens in new tab). Although Jane dutifully held the position of first lady, it's said that she never fully recovered from the loss.
President James Buchanan was the first president to never marry, so Harriet Lane stepped in as his acting first lady (opens in new tab). She was his beloved niece who served as a hostess for social events at the White House.
Mary Todd Lincoln
The wife of President Abraham Lincoln was no more than 5'2" compared to his 6'4" stature, but what she lacked in height she made up for in wit and spirit. Mary served as first lady from 1861 until her husband's assassination in 1865. She was born in the South, so holding the position during the Civil War was challenging (opens in new tab) and she faced lots of criticism from both sides.
Eliza McCardle Johnson
Eliza Johnson was first lady during her husband President Andrew Johnson's service from 1865 to 1869. Although her husband faced an impeachment trial, of which he was acquitted, she never doubted him (opens in new tab) and became known for ensuring that the White House's social calendar remained as busy as usual.
Julia Grant and her husband President Ulysses S. Grant were very prosperous from his success (opens in new tab) as a general during the war. When he was elected president in 1869, she was very confident in her role as first lady.
Lucy Webb Hayes
As a college graduate and former volunteer nurse, Lucy Hayes took a firm stance on public issues and was one of the first women in this position to do so (opens in new tab). She firmly believed in the Temperance Movement and banned liquor (opens in new tab)in the administration. Her political views even gained her a nickname (opens in new tab) amongst the public: Lemonade Lucy.
Lucretia Garfield held the position of first lady after her husband, James A. Garfield, was elected president in 1881. She was recovering from an illness at a facility in New Jersey when her husband was assassinated (opens in new tab)later that year.
Chester Arthur was mourning his wife, Ellen Arthur, when he was elected vice president alongside then-President Garfield in 1881. Later that year, he took office when Garfield was assassinated. Ellen, a.k.a. "Nell," died suddenly at 42 years old (opens in new tab)after catching a cold and Chester was so distraught over her death that he never formally appointed anyone in her place.
First Lady Frances Cleveland and President Grover Cleveland were the first couple to marry in the White House (opens in new tab). The lifelong family friends struck up a romantic connection after his inauguration and were married shortly after.
A former music teacher, Caroline Harrison strived to make her mark as first lady while her husband, President Benjamin Harrison, was in office. In 1890, she founded the Daughters of the American Revolution (opens in new tab)(DAR) and served as the organization's president.
Frances Cleveland (Again)
Frances served as both the 23rd and 25th First Lady (opens in new tab), due to her husband's unprecedented non-consecutive terms. In her second term as first lady, she was wildly popular and gave birth to two children.
Edith Roosevelt poses with her daughter, Ethel (right), at their home in Oyster Bay, New York. Although Edith was the 25th first lady, many do not know that she was the second wife to President Theodore Roosevelt. The childhood friends married after the death of Teddy's first wife and welcomed five children together. Their family piqued the public's interest and Edith made it a point to keep her children's personal lives private (opens in new tab) during his service.
Helen Herron Taft
First Lady Helen Herron Taft waits on the dock while accompanying her husband, President William Howard Taft, on an official trip. She had a strong love for travel (opens in new tab) and escorted her husband on a number of diplomatic visits to China and Japan.
Ellen Axson Wilson
Ellen Axson Wilson was the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson and served as first lady for the first year of his presidency. She passed away in 1914 (opens in new tab) after a long battle with Bright's disease.
Edith Wilson married the sitting 28th president in 1915 and served as first lady until 1921. When President Wilson suffered a stroke while in office, Edith handled his presidential duties (opens in new tab)until he was healed. Her hand in the presidency even earned her the nickname of "Secret President."
Florence Harding, known as "The Duchess," (opens in new tab) and her husband, President Warren Harding, greet the public on the front porch of their Ohio home after he was elected into office. Florence, who married Warren while he was the publisher of a newspaper, is known as the brains behind his businesses and the presidency was no exception. She reportedly said (opens in new tab)to her husband, "Well Warren Harding, I have got you the presidency. What are you going to do with it?"
Following the example of Florence Harding, first ladies began taking more of an interest in public policy campaigns during the 20th century. Here, Grace Coolidge receives flowers and kisses from three children during a "May Day Is Child Health Day" event in 1920. The wife of President Calvin Coolidge was voted one of America's greatest living women (opens in new tab) in 1931 for her work in office.
Lou Henry Hoover
President Herbert Hoover's wife, Lou Hoover, is seen studying chemistry at a lab at Stanford. Lou's impressive intellect made her a savvy first lady while she served from 1929 until 1933. She was also the first one to make a national radio broadcast (opens in new tab)to the public.
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most highly-regarded first ladies for diplomatic efforts and public policy advocacy (opens in new tab), was the longest serving first ladies due to her husband's unprecedented four-term presidency (from 1933 to 1945). Here, she's photographed next to the wife of Chiang Kai-shek—the former president of China—in 1933.
Mamie Eisenhower and her husband, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, pose with the front page announcing his election win at the Hotel Commodore. Mamie served as first lady from 1953 until 1961. With the rise of air travel during her term, the White House began hosting foreign heads of states more frequently (opens in new tab), including Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth, and the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Jacqueline Kennedy is one of the most notable women in history–mainly for her unwitting style and grace after her husband President John F. Kennedy's assassination (opens in new tab) in 1961. During her two years as first lady, Jackie accomplished a great deal, including numerous state visits (pictured here in India in 1962), extensive redecorations of the White House, and the first televised tour of the White House.
Lady Bird Johnson
Known as Lady Bird, Claudia Johnson took over Jacqueline Kennedy's first lady title when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Her biggest project during President Lyndon B. Johnson's term was creating the "First Lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capital" (opens in new tab) to beautify public parks and highways, which was later launched nationwide.
Patrica Nixon is seen here carrying out the formal duty of accepting a turkey from the National Turkey Federation on Thanksgiving. She served as first lady from 1969 until her husband President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974 (opens in new tab).
Betty Ford took on a more radical role as first lady during her husband President Gerald Ford's service from 1974 until 1977. Her liberal social views often caused friction with the Republican party, as Ford heavily advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment (opens in new tab)and candidly spoke about being pro-choice, gun control, feminism, and equal pay. She made history as the very first first lady to reveal her battle with alcohol and drug addiction (opens in new tab). After she left the White House, she founded the Betty Ford Center for Addiction. Here, she's photographed dancing with Tony Orlando on television in 1976.
First Lady Rosalynn Carter is photographed on the White House balcony for Vogue in 1977. A political thinker, she regularly sat in on cabinet meetings (opens in new tab) and supported causes like mental health and the Equal Rights Amendment during her husband President Jimmy Carter's time in office.
Formerly a film star, Nancy Reagan shined as first lady during her husband Ronald Reagan's presidency from 1981 until 1989. On a visit to the U.K., Nancy is pictured here with Prince Charles (far left) and dancers in the royal ballet. Her glamour was both adored and criticized by the public. Her biggest initiative as first lady was her Just Say No recreational drug campaign (opens in new tab).
Barbara Bush served as first lady during her husband President George H. W. Bush's time in office from 1989 to 1993, and was the mother to President George W. Bush (opens in new tab). Barbara was famous for launching the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy (opens in new tab)—as well as her signature pearls.
Hillary Clinton was the first woman to hold a postgraduate degree when she entered the White House (opens in new tab) as first lady. Here, she's pictured on a tour of central Asia, which she carried out solo. She took a strong role in her husband's administration and stood by his side throughout his public affair and impeachment trials.
After her time in the White House, she served as Secretary of State underneath President Barack Obama (opens in new tab). She attempted to reach the White House once again, this time as president, in both the 2008 and 2016 elections.
In this photo, Laura Bush gets comforting reassurance from outgoing first lady Hillary Clinton while touring the White House as first lady-elect before her husband President George W. Bush entered office. Laura held the position from 1995 until 2000. During her term, she focused mainly on initiatives in education and women's health (opens in new tab).
Michelle Obama met her husband President Barack Obama while working at a Chicago law firm. Following her career as a distinguished lawyer, she campaigned alongside her husband and entered the White House as first lady in 2008. Her main initiative was her Let's Move campaign (opens in new tab), which was aimed to target childhood obesity by getting children to be active and lead healthier lifestyles. She was also a champion of children's education, especially young women, through her Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn campaigns (opens in new tab).
The former model and third wife of President Donald Trump launched her Be Best campaign to combat cyberbullying (opens in new tab) in 2018. Here, she's seen watching ballerinas perform in the Grand Foyer as she reveals the White House's Christmas decorations during her first year as first lady.
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