First Lady of the United States

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Martha Washington, Original First Lady of the United States.
Laura Bush, First Lady of the United States (2001–2009).

First Lady of the United States is the unofficial title of the hostess of the White House. Because this position is traditionally filled by the wife of the president of the United States, the title is sometimes taken to apply only to the wife of a sitting president, however several women other than wives of presidents, have served as first lady. This situation has arisen due to the president being a bachelor or widower, or when the wife of the president is unable or unwilling to fulfill the duties of the first lady herself. In these cases, the position has been filled by a female relative or friend of the president.

As of 2006, no women have served as president of the United States. Presumably, a female president would serve as her own official hostess, and it is not known what title would be applied to a president's husband, who would presumably serve as the host of the White House. There have been many female state governors over the years: their spouses are typically referred to as "the first man" or "first gentleman."

Some famous former first ladies include Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The wife of the vice president of the United States is sometimes referred to as the Second Lady of the United States; however this title is much less common. The term "first lady" is also used to describe the wife of other government chief executives or a woman who has acted as a leading symbol for some activity; for example, referring to Maria Shriver as the "First Lady of California," or Mary J Blige as the "First Lady of Soul."


Contents

Origins of the title

Although the words first lady had previously been used in combination before, their use as a title to describe the spouse or hostess of an executive was initially an American invention.

In the early days of the republic, there was no generally agreed upon title for the wife of the president. Many early first ladies expressed their own preference for how they were addressed, including the use of such titles as "Lady," "Queen," "Mrs. President," and "Mrs. Presidentress." Martha Washington was often referred to as "Lady Washington."

According to legend, Dolley Madison was referred to as "first lady" in 1849 at her funeral in a eulogy delivered by President Zachary Taylor. However, no written record of this eulogy exists today.

Sometime between 1849 and 1877, the title began being used in social circles in Washington, D.C. The oldest known written use of the title is from the November 3, 1863, diary entry of William Howard Russell, when he referred to “gossip about ‘the first Lady in the Land.’”

The title first gained nationwide recognition in 1877, when newspaper journalist Mary Clemmer Ames referred to Lucy Webb Hayes as "the first lady of the land" while reporting on the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. Mrs. Hayes was a tremendously popular first lady, and the frequent reporting on her activities helped spread use of the title outside Washington.

A popular 1911 comedic play by playwright Charles Nirdlinger titled, The First Lady in the Land, cemented use of the title by the general public, and it first entered the dictionary in 1934.

Use of the title to refer to the wife or hostess of a chief executive later spread from the United States to other nations, often without translation of "first lady" into the native language of those nations.

In government jargon, "First Lady of the United States" is sometimes acronymized as "FLOTUS," similar to the President of the United States being referred to as "POTUS."

Role of the First Lady

From left to right, Nancy Reagan, Ladybird Johnson, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, and Barbara Bush in 1994

The first lady is not an elected position, carries no official duties, and brings no salary. Nonetheless, she attends many official ceremonies and functions of state either along with or in place of the president. The first lady also frequently participates in humanitarian and charitable work. Furthermore, many have taken an active role in campaigning for the president with whom they are associated. Hillary Rodham Clinton took the role one step further when she was, for a time, given a formal job in the Clinton administration to develop reforms to the health care system.

Two first ladies have held office in their own right. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a United States Senator since 2001: her service actually began a few days before her husband's second term as president ended. Eleanor Roosevelt was a member of the American delegation to the United Nations during the Truman administration. She was also briefly a deputy director of the Office of Civil Defense while her husband was president.

First Ladies of the United States

The following women have been recognized by The National First Ladies' Library as "First Lady":

First Lady Relation to President From To
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington wife of George Washington April 30, 1789 March 4, 1797
Abigail Adams wife of John Adams March 4, 1797 March 4, 1801
Martha Jefferson Randolph daughter of widower Thomas Jefferson March 4, 1801 March 4, 1809
Dolley Madison friend of widower Thomas Jefferson March 4, 1801 March 4, 1809
Dolley Madison wife of James Madison March 4, 1809 March 4, 1817
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe wife of James Monroe March 4, 1817 March 4, 1825
Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams wife of John Quincy Adams March 4, 1825 March 4, 1829
Emily Donelson niece of widower Andrew Jackson March 4, 1829 December 19, 1836
Sarah Yorke Jackson daughter-in-law of widower Andrew Jackson November 26, 1834 March 4, 1837
Angelica Van Buren daughter-in-law of widower Martin Van Buren March 4, 1837 March 4, 1841
Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison absent wife of William Henry Harrison March 4, 1841 April 4, 1841
Jane Irwin Harrison daughter-in-law of William Henry Harrison March 4, 1841 April 4, 1841
Letitia Christian Tyler first wife of John Tyler April 4, 1841 September 10, 1842
Priscilla Cooper Tyler daughter-in-law of widower John Tyler September 10, 1842 June 26, 1844
Julia Gardiner Tyler second wife of John Tyler June 26, 1844 March 4, 1845
Sarah Childress Polk wife of James K. Polk March 4, 1845 March 4, 1849
Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor wife of Zachary Taylor March 4, 1849 July 9, 1850
Abigail Powers Fillmore wife of Millard Fillmore July 9, 1850 March 4, 1853
Jane Means Appleton Pierce wife of Franklin Pierce March 4, 1853 March 4, 1857
Harriet Lane niece of bachelor James Buchanan March 4, 1857 March 4, 1861
Mary Todd Lincoln wife of Abraham Lincoln March 4, 1861 April 15, 1865
Eliza McCardle Johnson wife of Andrew Johnson April 15, 1865 March 4, 1869
Julia Dent Grant wife of Ulysses S. Grant March 4, 1869 March 4, 1877
Lucy Ware Webb Hayes wife of Rutherford B. Hayes March 4, 1877 March 4, 1881
Lucretia Rudolph Garfield wife of James A. Garfield March 4, 1881 September 19, 1881
Mary McElroy sister of widower Chester A. Arthur September 19, 1881 March 4, 1885
Rose Cleveland sister of bachelor Grover Cleveland March 4, 1885 June 2, 1886
Frances Folsom Cleveland wife of Grover Cleveland June 2, 1886 March 4, 1889
Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison wife of Benjamin Harrison March 4, 1889 October 25, 1892
Mary Harrison McKee daughter of widower Benjamin Harrison October 25, 1892 March 4, 1893
Frances Folsom Cleveland wife of Grover Cleveland March 4, 1893 March 4, 1897
Ida Saxton McKinley wife of William McKinley March 4, 1897 September 14, 1901
Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt wife of Theodore Roosevelt September 14, 1901 March 4, 1909
Helen Herron Taft wife of William Howard Taft March 4, 1909 March 4, 1913
Ellen Louise Axson Wilson first wife of Woodrow Wilson March 4, 1913 August 6, 1914
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson second wife of Woodrow Wilson December 18, 1915 March 4, 1921
Florence Kling Harding wife of Warren G. Harding March 4, 1921 August 3, 1923
Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge wife of Calvin Coolidge August 3, 1923 March 4, 1929
Lou Henry Hoover wife of Herbert Hoover March 4, 1929 March 4, 1933
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt March 4, 1933 April 12, 1945
Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman wife of Harry S. Truman April 12, 1945 January 20, 1953
Mamie Doud Eisenhower wife of Dwight D. Eisenhower January 20, 1953 January 20, 1961
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wife of John F. Kennedy January 20, 1961 November 22, 1963
Claudia Taylor Johnson wife of Lyndon B. Johnson November 22, 1963 January 20, 1969
Patricia Ryan Nixon wife of Richard Nixon January 20, 1969 August 9, 1974
Betty Bloomer Ford wife of Gerald Ford August 9, 1974 January 20, 1977
Rosalynn Smith Carter wife of Jimmy Carter January 20, 1977 January 20, 1981
Nancy Davis Reagan wife of Ronald Reagan January 20, 1981 January 20, 1989
Barbara Pierce Bush wife of George H. W. Bush January 20, 1989 January 20, 1993
Hillary Rodham Clinton wife of Bill Clinton January 20, 1993 January 20, 2001
Laura Welch Bush wife of George W. Bush January 20, 2001 January 20, 2009
Michelle Obama wife of Barack Obama January 20, 2009

Non-spouse "First Lady" or "White House hostess"

The following women are known to have acted as hostess on behalf of the first lady when she was otherwise unable or unwilling:

First Lady Relation to President
Maria Jefferson Eppes daughter of widower Thomas Jefferson
Eliza Monroe Hay daughter of James Monroe
Letitia Tyler Semple daughter of widower John Tyler
Mary Elizabeth Taylor Bliss daughter of Zachary Taylor
Mary Abigail Fillmore daughter of Millard Fillmore
Abby Kent Means aunt of Jane Means Appleton Pierce
Harriet Lane niece of James Buchanan
Martha Johnson Patterson daughter of Andrew Johnson
Jennie Hobart wife of William McKinley's vice president, Garret Hobart
Helen Taft Manning daughter of William Howard Taft
Margaret Woodrow Wilson daughter of widower Woodrow Wilson
Helen Woodrow Bones cousin of widower Woodrow Wilson
Susan Ford daughter of Gerald Ford
Chelsea Victoria Clinton daughter of Bill Clinton

References

  • Adler, Bill. America's First Ladies: Their Uncommon Wisdom from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1589792998
  • Gould, Lewis L. America's First Ladies: Their Lives and Legacies. New York: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0415930219
  • O’Brien, Cormac. Secret Lives of the First Ladies: What Your Teachers Never Told You about the Women of the White House. San Francisco, CA: Quirk Books, 2005. ISBN 1594740143


External links


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