United States Notable First Ladies

It is unknown where the term first lady came from, though some believe it was what Zachary Taylor called the late Dolley Madison. The First Lady of the United States is the individual who serves as hostess of the White House. She also is expected to attend functions that the President cannot. First Ladies often select a cause to focus their efforts on by garnering media attention, encouraging support and raising funds. The position is always held by the President’s wife except for in the instance of a bachelor President such as James Buchanan. Outlined here are the most recent ten First Ladies and some information about what they used their position to do.  

Michelle Obama
Originally from Chicago, Michelle Obama became First Lady in 2009 when her husband Barack took office. She still holds the position. Prior to serving the presidential administration, Michelle Obama, then known as Michelle Robinson, majored in Sociology and African-American studies at Princeton University. She graduated from Harvard Law in 1988 and joined the Sidley & Austin law firm where she met Barack Obama. The two were wed, and Mrs. Obama held a series of public service jobs before she finally became the Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago. Since becoming First Lady, launched a campaign against childhood obesity known as Let’s Move!

Laura Welch Bush
Born in Midland, Texas in 1946, Laura Bush became First Lady when her husband George W. Bush took the oath of office in 2001. She held the position for eight years. She, like her mother-in-law whom we will read about momentarily, helmed a foundation in the interest of literacy. The Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries not only provided grant money to school libraries, but it also helped, and is still helping, to fund school libraries damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The cause interests her because she was a librarian prior to her marriage to George W. Bush. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Like the current First Lady, Michelle Obama, Mrs. Clinton was born in Chicago, Illinois. She attended and graduated from Wellesley College and Yale Law School where she met her husband. Hillary Clinton became First Lady in 1993 when her husband Bill took office. She was elected as a New York Senator in 2000, just as her stint as First Lady was coming to a close after eight years. The greatest focus of Hillary Clinton’s work both as First Lady and as Senator was Health Care. She lost the Democratic primary to Barack Obama in 2008, but was given the position Secretary of State for Obama’s administration.

Barbara Pierce Bush

Barbara Bush was first lady between 1989 and 1993 during the administration of her husband George H.W. Bush. She grew up in Rye, NY. She founded Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 1989. The organization aims to improve literacy in children by encouraging parents to read books with them. She and George also serve as Co-Chairs of C-Change, which represents individuals and groups that fight cancer.

Nancy Davis Reagan
Born in Queens, New York under the name Anne. She moved around a lot as a child, first to Washington D.C., then to Chicago, followed by Massachusetts (where she attended Smith College) and finally back to Chicago. At twenty-eight, she went to Hollywood to become a movie star. There, she met her husband Ronald Reagan, who was elected president in 1980, twenty-eight years after their marriage. As First Lady, she campaigned against drug use and trafficking and helped spawn the still-popular “just say no” phrase. She left the White House and the position of First Lady after eight years when Bush succeeded Reagan in 1989. Since her husband’s death in 2004, she has remained an activist. While maintaining a general Republican Party loyalty, she is very supportive of stem cell research. To preserve the legacy of the Reagan administration, The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library were founded.

Rosalynn Smith Carter
Rosalynn Smith grew up in Plains, Georgia, just down the street from her husband-to-be. She attended Georgia Southwestern College at Americus and after two years, she married Jimmy Carter. She helped her husband campaign for the Georgia Senate in 1962, and for Governor in 1970. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States. During this time she focuses her attentions on promoting mental health. After four years in the White House, Rosalynn’s run as First Lady ended. However, her advocacy did not. She founded The Carter Center with her husband in 1982.

Elizabeth Bloomer Ford
Betty Ford was born in Chicago, but grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan from the time she was two. She attended Bennington College School of Dance in Vermont. Though he was not her first husband, she married Gerald Ford in 1948. At the time, Gerald Ford was a lawyer and congressional candidate, though he did not reveal the latter until after she had agreed to marry him. He won the election and served Michigan’s 5th District for twenty-four years. He intended to retire, but when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, Richard Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to take his place. After only nine months as Second Lady, Nixon too resigned and Gerald Ford became president with Betty as his First Lady. While in the White House she campaigned against teen drug use and for abortion, but tragedy struck when in 1974 she was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer. She stayed very up-to-date on popular culture as well. She held the position only a short time, until 1976. Betty Ford lived a long life, but unfortunately passed away on July 8, 2011 at the age of 93.

Patricia Ryan Nixon
Pat Nixon was First Lady from Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969 until his resignation in the summer of 1974. While holding the position, she was very outspoken, providing support for the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision and the Equal Rights Amendment. She took on initiatives in both health and education, furthering the rest of the Nixon administration’s efforts by helping those with special needs. She worked to find the handicapped employment and also made the White House more accessible to those with various confinements. In 1976 she suffered a stroke, but made a full recovery before her death in 1993.

Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson’s birth name was Claudia Alta Taylor. While still an infant, her nursemaid compared her to a lady bird, and the idea developed into a nickname. As a child, she attended school mainly in Texas, but also briefly in Alabama as well. She studied at St Mary’s College for Girls at age fifteen, and then went to the University of Texas at Austin at seventeen and graduated with a degree in journalism. She assumed the role of First Lady when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in a 1963 motorcade. She was not in the same car as the Kennedys, but rather in the car immediately behind. Lady Bird Johnson set a precedent, being the one to hold the bible on which the president elect swears the oath of office. Lyndon Johnson was officially elected president in 1964, extending Lady Bird’s run as First Lady until 1969. She encouraged higher education and helmed programs that provided underprivileged children with academic skills and medical care. She also worked with Keep America Beautiful, Inc. ultimately passing the Highway Beautification Act. She died in 2007 at the age of 94. 

Jacquelin Lee Bouvier Kennedy
Born and raised in New York State as Jacquelin Lee Bouvier, she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. At the time he was a Massachusetts Senator, but he gave up that position when he was elected President in 1960. Becoming First Lady in 1961, she attracted an unprecedented amount of media attention because she was still so young and attractive. In 1962 she guided a CBS camera crew on a tour of the White House. Jackie Kennedy was also a fan of the arts and hosted countless performances in the White House. Even after her husband was assassinated in 1963, she continued to support the arts and led a campaign to save Grand Central Station. She died in her New York apartment in 1994.