A President’s Day Look at the Most Influential First Ladies

It is said that behind every great man is a great woman. In the case of our nation’s history, sometimes there is an even greater woman behind the scenes. Today is President’s Day, a day in which Americans flock to department stores and online retailers for big discounts celebrate all the American Presidents, past and present. While I do not even want to think about the sporadic amount of presidential history that is actually taught in American public schools today, I know there is little to no focus on first ladies. So, we here  at Feminism & Football (and by that I mean me), want to celebrate four exemplary First Ladies of the United States.

1. Eleanor Roosevelt (March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945), wife to Franklin D. Roosevelt, was our longest serving first lady. While that may seem like an advantage in accomplishing things, America faced her darkest years. The Great Depression. World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt was quite controversial, but well behaved women rarely make history, and history she made. Outspoken on many issues, from civil rights for African Americans and Asian Americans, the rights of World War II refugees, and expanded workplace opportunities for women, many feared Roosevelt would lead women astray. Moreover, some saw her advocacy as detrimental to the war effort. She knew otherwise, and was the first FLOTUS to hold her own press conference. She maintained a syndicated newspaper column, and spoke at national conventions. What stands out to me as a feminist and historian is her public rejection of several of her husband’s policies. On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, she advised Americans against any, “great hysteria against minority groups.” She was also openly critical of her husband and others who were opposed to allowing refugees of Nazism into the United States. These are just some of her many accomplishments in the White House. For more on Eleanor Roosevelt, consider this monograph.

2. Betty Ford (August 9, 1974 – January 20, 1977), wife to Gerald Ford, became FLOTUS suddenly, after the resignation of Nixon. Dubbed “No Lady” by many conservatives, Ford was outspoken on many hot button issues, including drugs, sex, the ERA, equal pay, and abortion. In an interview with McCall’s Ford recalled she was asked everything except for how often she and President Ford had sex. Famously she continued, “And if they’d asked me that I would have told them,” she said, adding that her response would be, “As often as possible.” The mother of four, she openly spoke about the benefits of psychiatric treatment, marijuana use, and premarital sex. Ford strongly supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and went as far as personally lobbying state legislatures to ratify the amendment. Similarly, she was vocal about women’s abortion rights. Just weeks after becoming the FLOTUS, Ford underwent a mastectomy. Unsurprisingly, she was very open about her diagnosis and treatment, stating “There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration.” Her unwavering strength and openness raised the visibility of breast cancer nationally. Ford told Time, “When other women have this same operation, it doesn’t make any headlines.But the fact that I was the wife of the President put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I’m sure I’ve saved at least one person — maybe more.”  Her openness only continued after her time in the White House, as she sought treatment for alcohol and prescription addiction. Later, she opened the Betty Ford Center for the treatment of chemical dependency to continue to help others.

3. Lady Bird Johnson (November 22, 1963 – January 20, 1969), wife of (my favorite president of the second half of the twentieth century} Lyndon Baines Johnson, rose to become FLOTUS after the assassination of President Kennedy, and her husband’s assumption of the presidency. She was the first to have her own press secretary, chief of staff, and a congressional liaison. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Lady Bird traveled throughout the South, giving 45 speeches in 4 days, promoting the Civil Rights Act. This marked the first solo campaign trip for any first lady. She was a proud supporter of the Head Start Program, and served as an honorary chairperson for the National Head Start Program. Above all else, Lady Bird was an environmentalist. From her vast Society for a More Beautiful Capital, that planted trees and flowers throughout Washington, D.C., to her active lobbying for the passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, she sought to make the United States a more beautiful place. As she put it, “where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

4. Dolley Madison (March 4, 1809 – March 4, 1817) was our nation’s fourth FLOTUS, wife of James Madison. As a historian, I really appreciate Madison’s decision to pack and preserve many White House furnishings as Washington, D.C. was attacked during the War of 1812. Now, granted, this wouldn’t have happened if her husband were better at his job. Yet, her foresight in making sure some of these American treasures survived earns her a spot in my heart. Moreover, she served as a ceremonial First Lady for Thomas Jefferson, whose wife, Martha, had died prior to his term. A warm, welcoming hostess, and saver of timeless White House decor (including a classic portrait of George Washington), Dolley Madison may not have been as politically outspoken as the three previous first ladies, but for her time she was involved in two administrations and helped saved invaluable artifacts which always earns an A in my book.