The position of the first lady is largely an American phenomenon, as few other countries give so much prominence to the spouses of their political leaders. And when you look back over the women who have stood by the presidents of the United States, you’ll find many actually wielded a little soft power behind the scenes. Naturally, some have had more influence than others, though. Can you guess who?
41. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt called the White House home from 1933 until her husband, Franklin, died in 1945. That, of course, means she was in the first lady role for a greater period than any other woman who’s come before or since. And although she didn’t go to college, the wife of the then-president involved herself wholeheartedly in political life. Eleanor conducted press conferences, spoke on the radio and even wrote a daily newspaper column. After her husband died, the dedicated diplomat also became a United Nations delegate and a great contributor to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
40. Eliza Johnson
Eliza Johnson was first lady during President Andrew Johnson’s single term in office in the 1860s. And while little is known about her educational attainments, we can assume that her schooling in a single hut-like classroom in Greenville, Tennessee, was fairly basic. But don’t write Eliza off entirely. Despite the poor health that meant she took little part in public life, she provided her husband with important political advice. This was especially vital when the president went through the ordeal of impeachment, which he survived with Eliza’s seemingly unwavering encouragement.
39. Harriet Lane
Harriet Lane was a rather unorthodox first lady as she was not actually married to President James Buchanan – the sole U.S. president never to wed. Lane was instead Buchanan’s niece and was just 27 when she took on her role. She was a popular White House hostess, too, and her wide reading meant she had a thorough grasp of domestic and international affairs. Towards the end of Buchanan’s single term, Harriet is even said to have negotiated with the representatives of the southern states that had chosen to secede.
38. Patricia Nixon
Famously, Pat Nixon was wed to the only president ever to resign from office, as – in case you ever forgot – her husband, Richard, left the White House in disgrace in 1974. Way before the Watergate scandal, though, Pat was determined to get an education, and she was employed as a sales clerk and a movie extra while completing her studies at the University of Southern California. The future first lady had her own taste of power, too, as a government economist throughout WWII. During her husband’s presidency, Pat used her position to promote voluntary work, meaning she traveled widely with the formal designation of Personal Representative of the President.
37. Sarah Polk
Sarah Polk – the first lady from 1845 to 1849 – was fortunate enough to have been born to wealthy parents and to receive a first-class education at a time when few women were given that honor. She attended the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, which was a 500-mile horseback journey from her plantation home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It paid off, too, as Sarah was then able to help President Polk – both with his oratory and with political counsel.
36. Edith Roosevelt
Edith Roosevelt was married to Theodore – the first in his family to become president when he was elected to the office in 1901. She was also a member of New York’s wealthy elite and was instructed in high-society behavior and etiquette at the city’s Dodsworth School for Dancing and Deportment. That said, Edith likely engaged in more intellectual pursuits during her time at the Louise Comstock Private School, where she studied everything from Latin to zoology and philosophy. The first lady’s activities were mostly limited to private charity support, although she played some part in diplomatic relations with the British.
35. Jacqueline Kennedy
Jackie Kennedy’s appalling personal tragedy was in full public view when her husband was shot dead in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. A little while before that, though, she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated from George Washington University with a degree in French literature. And although Jackie largely concealed her involvement in day-to-day politics, there is little doubt that she was an extremely important source of support for President Kennedy. It’s even said that the first lady was privy to classified information as the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.
34. Caroline Harrison
Caroline Harrison entered the White House with her husband, Benjamin, back in 1889. And as her father, Dr. John Scott, founded the Oxford Female Institute in Ohio, it seemed only inevitable that Caroline would be educated through the institution. That was indeed the case, as she ultimately graduated from the institute with a music degree before going on to work as a teacher. The first lady also had strong views about education for women, helping to raise funds for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine on the express understanding that they accepted females. Sadly, though, she would succumb to tuberculosis not long before the end of Harrison’s single term in 1892.
33. Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison acted as first lady for her husband, James, who held office as the fourth U.S. president from 1809. And while, as far as we know, Dolley had little or no formal education, that didn’t stop her from successfully fulfilling her important role. During the 1812 war, for instance, she was forced to evacuate the White House when the British attacked Washington. Then, when she returned – much to her enduring anger – she found that both the building and the city itself had been wrecked. But Dolley quickly adapted to temporary accommodation and kept the presidential social round running smoothly nonetheless.
32. Helen Taft
Helen Taft – often known as Nellie – lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the four years of husband William’s presidency. And she had an all-round education, too, covering everything from Greek to math and English literature. Despite having suffered a stroke just a couple of months after moving into the White House, the first lady made a determined recovery and played an active part in presidential life. She took a lively interest in the welfare of the nation’s working people, for instance, and even opened up the White House to a much wider selection of visitors.
31. Betty Ford
Betty Ford had no plans of ever moving into the White House. But when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, her husband, Gerald, stepped up to take on the role. And undergoing treatment for breast cancer that same year gave Betty a cause for which to campaign – a task that she pursued with great dignity. She was also publicly frank about her own battles with addiction, and the rehab facility the Betty Ford Center is a lasting testament to her compassion and humanity.
30. Frances Cleveland
There are a couple of things that make Frances Cleveland’s time as first lady unique. For a start, she’s the only woman to have wed a president through a ceremony in the White House. She remains the youngest to have ever stepped into the position, too, at just 21 when she started. And that’s not even to mention the two non-consecutive terms she spent in the White House… The history-making Frances graduated from Wells College in Aurora, New York – appropriately with a particular taste for political science. In her role supporting the president, she also campaigned on the issue of women’s education, believing that it was the best route to female advancement.
29. Florence Harding
Before she married a commander-in-chief, Florence Harding spent an unhappy spell with one Henry De Wolfe. That union ultimately ended in divorce, and she went on to wed Warren in 1891 before he eventually became president in 1921. But Florence had thrived even before she tied the knot with such a powerful man. Her high school education in Marion, Ohio, had been supplemented by a year at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, which meant she could support herself as a piano instructor after splitting with De Wolfe. As first lady, she also paid close attention to politics and habitually offered advice to her husband on policy and appointments. Yet Florence’s time in the White House would sadly come to an early end when President Harding passed away in 1923.
28. Martha Washington
As the wife of the first U.S. president, Martha Washington was the inaugural first lady – although that particular term wasn’t used at the time. Born in 1731 on a Virginia plantation, like most girls of her era she received little formal education. But after becoming a young widow, Martha found her match in Founding Father George Washington. There was no White House in those days, and so her time as the president’s right-hand woman was spent in New York and Philadelphia. And while we have little evidence that Martha wielded any political influence during this period, she was revered for the support she gave to Revolutionary War veterans who had fallen on hard times.
27. Julia Dent Grant
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1826, Julia Dent Grant attended the Mauro Academy for Young Ladies from the age of ten and studied there for seven years. She was particularly keen on mythology, philosophy and history, it’s said, although she was reportedly less enthusiastic about other subjects. She was also apparently a perceptive judge of character and took an educated interest in the politics of the day. And then there was Julia’s strong belief in women’s rights. She certainly didn’t hesitate to show her displeasure when men were disrespectful, either.
26. Elizabeth Truman
Elizabeth Truman, usually known as “Bess,” went to public school in Independence, Missouri, alongside her future husband, Harry. They were in the same class, in fact, and Bess got to know Harry well when the two both had private schooling in Latin. She was a successful student, too, and would likely have gone on to college if her family hadn’t fallen on hard times. But fate had other plans in store for Bess when her vice president spouse took the top job in 1945. And while she was unenthusiastic about the White House social round, she still played an important role as her husband’s advisor.
25. Ida McKinley
First lady from 1897 to 1901, Ida McKinley was born into a prosperous family in Canton, Ohio. After attending high school in Canton, she then went on to college in Cleveland, where her subjects included advanced mathematics, Latin and history. Ida’s education was subsequently rounded off by a spell at finishing school in Pennsylvania. And although she suffered from poor health, she did her best to play a full role as a support to husband William. The first lady often advised her husband on policy, in fact, with temperance being one of her particular passions. But she wouldn’t get to wield her influence for long after William was elected to a second term. Tragically, the 25th president was assassinated in 1901.
24. Melania Trump
Melania Trump has the distinction of being the only first lady to become an American citizen by virtue of naturalization. She originates from Slovenia, which was part of Yugoslavia at the time of her birth, and went on to study at the country’s University of Ljubljana. But while Melania ultimately didn’t finish her degree – the modeling industry beckoned instead – it’s said that she speaks six languages. And as far as we know, her husband speaks just one – although we’re pretty sure “covfefe” isn’t in any dictionary yet.
23. Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams became the second first lady when John Adams was inaugurated president in 1797. Back in the 18th century, though, it was not customary for women to receive a formal education. And while that also held true for Abigail, she was nevertheless a keen reader – meaning she could intellectually hold her own with her lawyer husband John. In the White House, she continued with her firm belief in women’s equality and their right to education, and President Adams is said to have respected her advice and opinions.
22. Margaret Taylor
Margaret Taylor was born in 1788 into a plantation-owning family in Maryland. Her early life is largely unchronicled, although we can assume that she had the basic education offered to girls in her era. This would perhaps have included tuition in music, sewing and dancing as well as the proper management of servants. And when husband Zachary came to office in 1849, Margaret actually played little part in the life of the White House. Instead, her daughter Betty carried out the first lady’s social duties until the president died in July 1850.
21. Ellen Wilson
Ellen Wilson became first lady after her husband, Woodrow, won the presidential election of 1913. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1860, she was educated at the Rome Female College in subjects including French, English literature and algebra, although it was art that most captured her imagination. Still, it’s difficult to make an accurate assessment of her time at the White House, as it was all too brief. The first lady passed away from Bright’s disease in August 1914 – the year after her husband’s inauguration.
20. Lucy Hayes
Lucy Hayes’ strongly held views on temperance earned her the memorable – but perhaps not entirely respectful – nickname of “Lemonade Lucy.” She studied at the Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she took part in weekly debates on improving topics. Devoutly religious, Lucy was the first presidential spouse to have earned a degree. She entered the White House in 1877, and during her four years there she had, by President Hayes’ own account, considerable political influence.
19. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama made history as the first African-American woman to become first lady. Not only that, but she also holds a sociology degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard. A highly respected author, Michelle launched various community and educational schemes during her time at the White House. They included the Reach Higher Initiative – a campaign to persuade young people to stay in education after high school. All in all, the attorney used her time in the White House to push the issues that really mattered to her.
18. Lucretia Garfield
Lucretia Garfield was undoubtedly a learned woman, having received an education in classics, literature and French at Ohio’s Geauga Seminary and Hiram Eclectic Institute. It’s no surprise, then, that the future first lady went on to be a teacher herself. But that life was changed forever, of course, when her husband, James, took office in 1881. Then, not long after President Garfield’s inauguration, Lucretia fell ill with a debilitating bout of malaria – and was still recovering when her husband was shot in July. Sadly, he went on to pass away three months later, bringing Lucretia’s time in the White House and the opportunity to make her mark on the country to a premature and tragic end.
17. Elizabeth Monroe
As the keen historians among you may remember, Elizabeth Monroe was the fifth first lady and was a resident at the White House from 1817 to 1825. But although we know she was born in New York in 1768, her early life apart from that is not well recorded. At the most, we can assume that she was likely tutored in the skills thought seemly for a lady of her station – dancing, music and literature included. As for her time as first lady to James? Well, Elizabeth is said to have brought a formal, European sensibility to the White House. She’s also thought not to have asserted much influence on her husband’s political life.
16. Grace Coolidge
No shrinking violet, Grace Coolidge was voted one of the 12 greatest living American women in 1931. Quite an accolade! She had previously graduated from the University of Vermont in Burlington in 1902 before going on to train as a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. And when her husband, Calvin, became president in 1923, Grace seemingly took up good causes with gusto. Her time in the White House saw her notably wield her influence in support of people with disabilities – particularly those with hearing difficulties.
15. Julia Tyler
President John Tyler’s first wife, Letitia, died in September 1841 – just six months after he had risen to the highest office in the land. That tragedy left the position of first lady wide open, but it was ultimately filled by Julia Gardiner – a woman 30 years the commander-in-chief’s junior. But despite the age gap, the marriage seemed to work well for both parties. It made Julia popular, anyway, and it enabled her to work behind the scenes to promote her husband’s political aims. Likely privately tutored as a child, President Tyler’s second spouse also had a spell at finishing school in New York City.
14. Hillary Clinton
First Lady for eight years from 1993, Hillary Clinton remains arguably the most politically engaged woman ever to hold the position. After all, the former Secretary of State did go on to become a presidential candidate herself… The diplomat graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and then studied at Yale Law School – which explains why her husband, Bill, claimed that voters would get “two for the price of one” if he was elected. Hilary even had her own office in the White House West Wing and took a central role in policymaking during Bill’s administration.
13. Lou Hoover
Entering the world in 1874 in Iowa, Lou Hoover was a very public figure during her four years as first lady. She was a pioneer, too, as the first woman to study for a bachelor’s in geology at Stanford University. It was at Stanford, in fact, that she met her future husband, Herbert. And once Lou was in the White House, she made herself accessible by introducing regular first lady radio talks – another one of her many achievements. She also encouraged the president to hire women for public positions and abolished a peculiar rule outlawing pregnant women from attending White House receptions.
12. Angelica Van Buren
Martin Van Buren’s wife, Hannah, died nearly 20 years before he entered the White House. During his time in office, however, the president’s son Abraham married Angelica – and it would be she that took on the role of first lady. From a wealthy South Carolina plantation family, Angelica attended a boarding school where lessons were conducted in French. Yet while she hosted social events at the famous residence, she does not seem to have played an active role in presidential politics.
11. Laura Bush
Laura Bush entered the White House in 2001 after her husband, George, became commander-in-chief. And even today, the accomplished first lady is one of the most educated to have ever taken on the role, given her master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin. As the spouse of the president, she was also an active campaigner, concentrating on the subjects – such as education reform and family health – that were close to her heart.
10. Mary Lincoln
Mary Lincoln’s time as first lady started in 1861 – the same year, as you may remember, that the Civil War started. She had been born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1818 and learned French, grammar and dancing at the various schools she had attended. Perhaps nothing could have prepared her, however, for the reality of life as the president’s wife at such a turbulent time. The conflict put her in a difficult position: some Southerners thought she’d turned her back on them, while a number of Unionists suspected her loyalty. Still, Mary managed to navigate herself through the role, and she became a history maker as the first woman to invite African-Americans to White House events. Famously, her time there ended in tragedy when her husband was assassinated in 1865.
9. Nancy Reagan
Like her husband, Ronald, Nancy had been an actor – in her case on Broadway as well as in Hollywood movies. She had studied dramatic arts at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, but had ultimately given up her career after she married – devoting herself instead to her husband’s rise and to family. During her time in the White House from 1981 to 1989, Nancy famously campaigned on the issues of drug and alcohol addiction. In the political realm, meanwhile, she played a key role in her husband’s staff choices and was active in supporting him in his bid to achieve detente with the Soviets.
8. Edith Wilson
Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died the year after he was inaugurated in 1914. But the president eventually found a very able first lady in Edith, who was aged 43 to his 59 at the time of their wedding. And while Edith’s formal education had been somewhat sporadic, she actually ended up taking on an immense amount of responsibility during her husband’s presidency. Yes, following Woodrow’s devastating stroke in October 1919, it was the first lady who stepped in to deal with the administrative duties of the office – although she generally avoided the political aspects of White House affairs.
7. Abigail Fillmore
Rather scandalously, Abigail Fillmore’s first meeting with future husband Millard came when she was a teacher and he a student. Mind you, the two weren’t all that far apart in age, with Abigail being just two years Millard’s senior. And she broke new ground in other ways. For instance, she was the first person to take on the role of first lady while also carrying on her career. Yet it’s said that Abigail had little taste for the social whirl of the White House, leaving her daughter, Mary, to sometimes deputize for her at formal occasions. She seemed to prefer to engage in political matters instead, apparently once persuading the president to end flogging in the U.S. Navy.
6. Mamie Eisenhower
Born in Boone, Iowa, Mamie Eisenhower was just 19 when she married future president Dwight in 1916. Her education seems to have been a fitful affair, and instead of attending college she followed her husband during his military career. Still, this didn’t mean Mamie was an intellectual slouch. Although she made no political pronouncements in public, she had much influence on her spouse during her eight years as first lady from 1953. The president’s right-hand woman disapproved strongly of Senator McCarthy’s browbeating way of exposing alleged communists, for instance, and so the controversial congressman was never invited to the White House during the Eisenhower administration.
5. Barbara Bush
George H.W. Bush had already spent eight years as vice president before scooping the top job, meaning his wife, Barbara, was already well-versed in the world of politics upon her debut as first lady. And despite only completing one year at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, she was an active campaigner from the White House. Barbara spoke out about AIDS, for example, and championed the promotion of literacy during her husband’s term in office.
4. Louisa Adams
Along with Melania Trump, Louisa Adams is one of only two First Ladies not to have been born in the U.S. Adams was actually welcomed into the world in London and didn’t set foot on American soil until four years after marrying John Quincy Adams. Instead, she had gone to school in France and England, completing her education with a private tutor. Louisa then took up her position as First Lady in 1825, although her time in the White House was blighted by the depression from which she suffered.
3. Rosalynn Carter
As legend had it, Jimmy Carter told his mother that he wanted to marry Rosalynn after only their first outing together. Awww… And as his wife, she actually played a very active role as first lady, attending important briefings and cabinet meetings. Rosalynn also served as an official emissary to Latin American nations and campaigned on various issues including mental health and elderly care. But she made a particular cause of the performing arts, inviting many prominent creatives to the White House during her husband’s term in office.
2. Jane Pierce
The young Jane Pierce had been educated at home and was apparently a talented pianist. This didn’t prepare her for political life, though, or so we can assume from one story. You see, it’s said that when the future first lady learned that Franklin had been nominated as the Democrats’ presidential candidate, she fainted – with horror rather than joy. Then, after that inauspicious start, her husband duly won the 1852 election, leaving Jane with little choice but to step into her role as his right-hand woman. But tragedy was to follow. As the couple prepared to move to Washington, they were in a railroad accident that killed their 11-year-old son, Bennie. The first lady was understandably paralyzed by grief and took little part in the social or political life of the White House after that.
1. Lady Bird Johnson
Claudia Johnson – better known by her nickname of “Lady Bird” – knew exactly what was required to be first lady. And she was happy to give away her recipe for success, claiming that the president’s spouse should be “[a] showman and a salesman, a clothes horse and a publicity sounding board with a good heart and a real interest in the folks.” She very much saw herself as a partner to President Lyndon Johnson, with a duty to play her part in the formulation of his policies. During her time in Washington, Lady Bird also took a particular interest in the environment and the careful conservation of natural resources.