A Look Back at First Ladies Throughout History

All hail these powerful women.

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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.

Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.
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Martha Washington

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, she wasn't given the title until after she died.

Portrait Of Abigail Adams
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Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams learned everything about being a first lady 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 Jefferson, Seated
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Martha Jefferson

Martha was the love of President Thomas Jefferson's life (though he did father six children with Sally Hemmings after her death, which was very problematic). After she passed away in 1781, Thomas took a post with the Continental Congress abroad and was later elected as the third president of the United States.

Dolley Madison Saves The Declaration Of Independence
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Dolley Madison

It's reported that Dolley Madison's artful entertaining was an asset 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 Kortright Monroe, 1768-1830, Wife of US President James Monroe, Head and Shoulders Portrait from Original Painting by John Vanderlyn, 1820s
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Elizabeth Monroe

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 when James Monroe became president in 1817.

Mrs. John Quincy Adams.
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Louisa Adams

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. By the time the couple moved into the White House, Louisa was suffering from depression and preferred a quieter life rather than the entertainment that came with her position.

Painting of Rachel Jackson
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Rachel Jackson

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 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.

Portrait Of Hannah Van Buren
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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, leaving behind her four children with Martin. The eighth President never remarried and moved into the White House as a widower.

Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison, 1775-1864, Wife of US President William Henry Harrison, Head and Shoulders Portrait
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Anna Harrison

Anna Harrison holds the title of the shortest term as first lady of the United States. Her husband, President William Henry Harrison, died just 31 days after he was sworn into office.

Letitia Christian Tyler
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Letitia Tyler

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, but was never well enough to entertain.

Portrait Of Julia Gardiner Tyler
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Julia Tyler

Julia Tyler married the 10th president of the United States in 1844. She was the first woman to marry a sitting president 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.

Portrait Of Sarah Polk
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Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk was a unique first lady for her time period. As a child, she received a formal education 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, she was highly respected in Washington's social circle.

Death Of A President
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Margaret Taylor

Margaret Taylor, seen here at the bedside of her husband President Zackary Taylor, did not wish to socially fulfill the role of first lady during her husband's term. Instead, she appointed her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Bliss, to carry out social engagements on her behalf.

Abigail Powers Fillmore, First Lady
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Abigail Fillmore

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 with three pianos and new volumes in the library.

Jane Pierce
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Jane Pierce

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. On the way to his inauguration, the Pierces were in a train accident, which tragically killed their son. Although Jane dutifully held the position of first lady, it's said that she never fully recovered from the loss.

Harriet Lane
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Harriet Lane

President James Buchanan was the first president to never marry, so Harriet Lane stepped in as his acting first lady. She was his beloved niece who served as a hostess for social events at the White House.

Mary Todd Lincoln, Full-Length Portrait wearing Inaugural Ball Gown, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, 1861
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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 and she faced lots of criticism from both sides.

Eliza McCardle Johnson
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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 and became known for ensuring that the White House's social calendar remained as busy as usual.

First Lady Julia Dent Grant in the White House
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Julia Grant

Julia Grant and her husband President Ulysses S. Grant were very prosperous from his success as a general during the war. When he was elected president in 1869, she was very confident in her role as first lady.

President Rutherford Hayes
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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. She firmly believed in the Temperance Movement and banned liquor in the administration. Her political views even gained her a nickname amongst the public: Lemonade Lucy.

First Lady Lucretia Garfield
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Lucretia Garfield

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 later that year.

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur
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Ellen Arthur

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 after catching a cold and Chester was so distraught over her death that he never formally appointed anyone in her place.

The Wedding at the White House Illustration
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Frances Cleveland

First Lady Frances Cleveland and President Grover Cleveland were the first couple to marry in the White House. The lifelong family friends struck up a romantic connection after his inauguration and were married shortly after.

Mrs. Benjamin Harrison and her Daughter
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Caroline Harrison

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 (DAR) and served as the organization's president.

Mrs. Grover Cleveland In A Formal Dress
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Frances Cleveland (Again)

Frances served as both the 23rd and 25th First Lady, 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.

Portrait Of Ida McKinley
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Ida Saxton McKinley

While acting as first lady, Ida McKinley and her husband, President William McKinley, went to great lengths to conceal her poor health. Many protocols were breached to prevent over-exerting Ida, who was prone to seizures and fainting.

Ethel Roosevelt and Edith Roosevelt
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Edith Roosevelt

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 during his service.

Helen Taft Standing On Dock
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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 and escorted her husband on a number of diplomatic visits to China and Japan.

Mrs. Ellen Wilson Sitting at Horseraces
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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 after a long battle with Bright's disease.

Woodrow & Edith Wilson
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Edith Wilson

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 until he was healed. Her hand in the presidency even earned her the nickname of "Secret President."

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