10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes

Larry Holzwarth - December 27, 2017

It might be surprising to learn that not every woman to act as First Lady in American history has been married to the President. Daughters have performed the duties of First Lady, acting as the hostess at White House events. So has a least one niece. But the list of official First Ladies of the United States recognizes only one non-spouse as the First Lady of the United States. That distinction belongs to Harriet Lane, the niece of President James Buchanan, who never married. In other cases, president’s wives who died before their husbands took the oath of office are still officially recognized as the First Lady for their corresponding husband’s administration at the time he assumed office. Woodrow Wilson remarried as President, thus he had two official First Ladies and one unofficial, his daughter Margaret.

The office of First Lady of the United States has no officially-described duties and no salary, but has a budget for its staff, which includes the Executive Chef of the White House. Many Americans are also surprised to learn that the president pays for the food consumed by himself, his family, and personal guests. These bills traditionally have been handled by the First Lady, whose function has changed dramatically since the first to occupy the White House, Abigail Adams, used the East Room to hang out laundry to dry.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Martha Washington’s duties as First Lady included hostessing levees which became derided by critic’s as the Republican Court. The White House

Here are ten First Ladies who left their imprint on the Office of the Presidency and the history of the nation they served.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Peppery and ouspoken, Abigail Adams left behind a rich collection of correspondence with the leaders of the age. National Gallery of Art

Abigail Smith Adams

John Adams’ and his wife Abigail’s relationship is one of the best documented between a president and spouse, thanks in large part to their extensive correspondence maintained during his many extended absences, and her correspondence with many contemporaries. Abigail was present, through their letters, at most of the seminal events which led to the founding of the United States, and her letters are peppered with her opinions and advice to the founders.

She was the first First Lady to reside in the White House, then known as the President’s House, when it was still unfinished and largely unfurnished. Her residency was only for the last four months of John Adams’ only term. Abigail also has the distinction of being the first presidential spouse to exit the mansion because of her husband’s failure to win re-election.

Martha Washington had established the role of the First Lady by entertaining guests at the President’s House. Abigail continued in this role, but added to it a degree of political activity which her predecessor avoided. Abigail was known to use the press, planting stories with publishers which were favorable to her husband or unfavorable to his opponents. As the emergent Federalist Party stood in opposition to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, Abigail was so involved in explaining Federalist goals, such as the building of a Navy and the Alien and Sedition Acts, that many supporters of Jefferson and Madison referred to her as Mrs. President.

Abigail used her influence with her husband to argue for women’s rights, including property rights. She was a passionate proponent of women’s education, and she argued for women to be liberally educated, not merely prepared for domestic responsibilities or the education of children. The terms women’s liberation or sexual equality had yet to be coined, but Abigail espoused both, in her private diaries and in her letters to her husband, Thomas Jefferson, several of the men who would later become president, and through her estate, with posterity.

It would be many years before another openly outspoken and influential First Lady would appear on the Washington scene. The amount of direct influence Abigail Adams had on the Office of the Presidency remains a subject of conjecture among historians, but it was clearly she who recognized the inherent power of the office of First Lady, and the many means available to wield it in the halls of the President’s House.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Harriet Lane dedicated much of her adult life to the care of her uncle, President James Buchanan. Wikimedia

Harriet Lane

No fewer than thirteen women have served in the capacity of First Lady of the United States while not the spouse of the president. Only one of them is recognized officially as the First Lady by the White House and the National First Ladies Library (a National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio considered the authority on the history of the office). That one is Harriet Lane, who served as First Lady during the administration of the United States’ only bachelor president, James Buchanan.

Harriet Lane has been compared to a First Lady of many years later – Jacqueline Kennedy – for several of the traits they shared. She altered the appearance of her dress by lowering its neckline, leading the women of Washington and later the rest of the country to follow suit. She was dedicated to the advancement of the arts in the White House, making sure that artists, musicians, poets, and novelists were invited to White House dinners and receptions.

The Buchanan presidency was the last preceding the Civil War and the sectional tensions in the capital reached their peak during its term. Harriet used considerable skill to ensure that these tensions did not disrupt White House functions involving Americans from North and South with foreign dignitaries and representatives.

Harriet was well prepared for her position as First Lady, having previously accompanied Buchanan to England when he was assigned there as the Ambassador to the Court of St. James. She so impressed Queen Victoria that Her Majesty granted her the rank of Ambassador’s Wife, an important diplomatic distinction regarding protocol in the more class conscious British system.

Harriet was involved in social issues as well, as an advocate for the rights and living conditions of Native Americans on reservations, and for educational rights of children. She also advocated for the improvement of sanitary conditions in American cities. By the time the Buchanan Administration came to an end the first seven states which would form the Confederacy had seceded, and her legacy is largely overlooked by history. Like Abigail, she recognized the power of her position, although not with a spouse, but with a largely adoring public.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Lucy Hayes did not ban alcohol from the White House – her husband did – but she was still derided as Lemonade Lucy after leaving the Mansion. The White House

Lucy Webb Hayes

Lucy Hayes was the first of the president’s wives to be routinely referred to as the First Lady, and while history books sometimes refer to her as Lemonade Lucy – due to the temperance practiced in the Hayes White House – she was not referred to by that name in her lifetime. Well educated and a published writer in her college days she was a staunch supporter of the suffragist movement. In one essay she wrote that a woman’s mind was as strong as a man’s, and that women were man’s “… equal in all things, and his superior in some.”

During the Hayes’ presidency reconstruction of the South came to an end, and the position of newspaper reporter began to be occupied by more and more women, many of whom focused their attention on the activities and opinions of the First Lady. The Hayes’ came into a White House which was deteriorated and damaged; during the Lincoln administration years before visitors often cut patches from drapes and carpets for souvenirs, yet to be repaired or replaced. Lucy took what steps she could to preserve the mansion’s heritage, hampered by inadequate funds from a penurious Congress.

Although she was the first to be referred to as the First Lady as a matter of routine, Lucy had no official staff to assist her in her duties, nor had any of the First Ladies who preceded her. By that time the White House had developed a considerable staff to run the mansion, and the domestic staff was generally considered to be under her purview. As First Lady she oversaw the installation of hot and cold running water in the White House.

Lucy strongly pushed for the completion of the Washington Monument, work on which had been suspended since the Civil War. When construction began again it was no longer possible to quarry marble which matched that already present in the obelisk; the line of the color change is clearly visible today when viewing the completed monument.

It was also Lucy Hayes who introduced the tradition of the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House Lawns. Although the White House was a temperance house while she and her husband were its tenants, the decision to ban alcohol was actually her husband’s and Lucy went on record as an opponent of national prohibition. Lucy joined neither temperance groups nor suffragist organizations as First Lady, believing it may harm her husband politically. Whatever her personal views may have been, her role as First Lady was as a moderate.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Lucretia’s efforts led to the Garfield home in Mentor Ohio becoming the first presidential library. Wikimedia

Lucretia Garfield

Lucretia Garfield was the second First Lady to see her husband murdered while in office, an event which took place while she was recovering from malaria. Her tenure as an active First Lady was relatively short as a result, but her activities were important for what she did both in the office and afterwards.

She actively advised Garfield regarding the appointments he made to his cabinet, using her considerable interest in history and political acumen to point out the potential impact of each appointee on the opposing party. She developed plans for a complete restoration of the White House, with a focus on the building’s history and its changes over the time it had been in place. Her plans were unfortunately overturned by her husband’s assassination.

They included the manner in which each president lived and worked in the house being preserved for posterity for study by future historians and visitors. She went to the Library of Congress to obtain records from each of the previous administrations housed there, where she learned that many presidential records were scattered and that there was little formal preservation of papers. Many weren’t even in the possession of the government.

Garfield lived for three months after being shot, in continual agony as the doctors strove to find a way to save the president’s life to no avail. When Lucretia learned that one of the doctors’ in attendance, a woman named Susan Edson, was being paid at a rate which was approximately half that being paid the male doctors in attendance, her outrage led her to demand the woman be paid at the same rate as the others. She won.

After her husband’s death Lucretia returned to what had been their Ohio home. She dedicated the remainder of her life to gathering, cataloging, and editing her husband’s personal, private, and professional papers, letters, notes, speeches, and other materials from his career in the military and politics. These were preserved and made available to scholars and historians.

In preserving and gathering her husband’s papers and supporting materials in one place, Lucretia in effect established the first presidential library. Because of her efforts the records of the Garfield Administration and the era in which it occurred are available today, at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
The Roosevelt family in 1903. Library of Congress

Edith Carow Roosevelt

Edith Roosevelt was the second wife of the widower Theodore Roosevelt. They would have five children together, in addition to Teddy’s daughter Alice from his first marriage. Edith served as the First Lady of New York while her husband was Governor and in order to avoid shaking hands with strangers in receiving lines – an act which she found tiresome – she began to carry a bouquet of flowers in each hand, a habit which she brought with her to the White House.

Her first official act upon entering the White House was dismissing the housekeeper, a role which she assumed herself. Edith also hired a social secretary and thus became the first First Lady to hire a staff member tasked with planning the agenda of the First Lady. It was the beginning of the First Lady’s staff, which has evolved ever since.

When President Roosevelt became the first president to leave the country while in office Edith when with him, establishing another precedent which has continued since, as the President seldom leaves the country without his wife at his side. Edith also established the White House as the pinnacle of Washington society, both for social events such as the wedding of Alice Roosevelt, and for parties and levees for the Washington elite.

Edith used her influence with her husband to persuade him to lobby Congress for the funds to establish the National Portrait Gallery, acted as a go between for Roosevelt during the negotiations which ended the Russo-Japanese War, and worked to stay up to date on the political and international atmosphere in support of her husband. But her greatest contribution as First Lady was in her renovation of the White House. Edith wanted the living quarters for the President’s family separated from the working and public spaces of the mansion.

Her renovations, which were designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, led to the construction of the West Wing. The public spaces were redecorated as well as refurbished and Edith interposed to save much of the historical furnishings, some of which are in display in today’s Lincoln Bedroom, which Lincoln had used as an office rather than a sleeping room. Much of the layout and décor of today’s White House dates from Edith’s tenure, including the White House China display.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Edith Galt Wilson, second wife of Woodrow Wilson, ran the presidency following her husband’s stroke. Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library

Edith Galt Wilson

Edith Galt was a widow when she was introduced to widower President Woodrow Wilson by Helen Bones, who was serving as the unofficial First Lady at the time. The introduction occurred during the official mourning period over the death of the President’s first wife, and the rapidly blossoming romance between Wilson and Galt set Washington tongues wagging, including a pernicious rumor that the pair had conspired to kill Wilson’s first wife. Nonetheless the pair were married in December 1915, and Edith Wilson became the second official First Lady of the Wilson Administration.

During the First World War, Edith had sheep purchased and let out to graze on the White House lawns to keep the grass clipped, saving on both the use of fuel and manpower. She scheduled Mondays to be meatless days, and on Wednesdays banned the consumption of wheat products. Both were established to be examples to the home front on ways the public could support the war effort. When the United States formally entered the war in 1917 she was extended Secret Service protection, the first person besides the president to be so afforded.

When Wilson went to France to attend the Versailles conference she went with him, solicitous of him due to his failing health and strenuous schedule. Upon his return he undertook an ambitious schedule lobbying for entry into his proposed League of Nations. His work schedule overwhelmed him and Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. He was partially paralyzed, and full recovery was deemed unlikely. Edith took steps to protect the president from overwork.

There was at the time no recognized position of the President’s Chief of Staff. Edith undertook a role very much like that of the modern Chief of Staff. She screened applicants for the president’s time, determining whether there was a need for the president to be involved or whether another officer of the government would suffice. She did the same with documents and briefs routed to the president’s desk, delegating the paperwork wherever possible. At times she made requisite decisions herself.

Edith Wilson later claimed that the only decisions she made were whether or not an issue was worthy of the president’s attention. For the remainder of Wilson’s term she served in the role of screening what did or did not received the attention of the nation’s Chief Executive. Nobody got to President Wilson but through her, making her the most powerful woman – if not person – in Washington until the pair retired in 1921. Forty years later the still spry Edith Wilson attended the inauguration of another Democratic president – John F. Kennedy.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Russian artist Gleb Alexander Ilyin is photographed with a portrait he painted of Lou Hoover in her Girl Scout uniform. Mayflower Hotel Log

Lou Henry Hoover

As the wife of one of the nation’s preeminent engineers, Lou Hoover traveled with her husband extensively, often on trips which lasted years. Lou graduated from Stanford University in 1898 with a degree in Geology. By then she was an accomplished horsewoman, an athlete excelling in several sports, proficient in Latin, and a taxidermist of considerable talent. She traveled with her husband Herbert to China, dedicated her time and talents at hospitals around Yianjin during the Boxer Rebellion, and demonstrated her proficiency with a pistol when necessary. By the time she returned to the United States she was fluent in Chinese.

Lou’s ability to speak Chinese, a skill she shared with her husband, allowed the couple to often thwart efforts to invade their private communications when they entered the White House. The president and his wife often spoke to each other in Chinese when in the company of others from whom they wished to keep their comments confidential.

The Hoover Administration began as the Roaring Twenties came to an end and ushered in the worst years of the Great Depression. Lou Hoover became the first of the American First Ladies to regularly broadcast radio messages to the American people. Although she did not host her own broadcast she was a frequent guest, whence she urged the public to support volunteer recovery programs as the nation battled the collapse of the economy. She supported programs which she had advocated for most of her adult life, projecting an air of confidence to the nation and in her husband’s abilities to restore the economy.

Lou Hoover also saw the strain of the office and the effect it was having on her husband, until the presidency a vigorous, active man. Recognizing the need for rest and recovery, she promoted the development of Camp Rapidan in Virginia, a rustic retreat for the presidential entourage only a short distance from the White House. Hoover purchased the land with his own funds, using Marines to provide improvements in the form of buildings and shelters. Hoover, a devoted fly fisherman, used the camp for meetings and recreation throughout his presidency. It was the precursor of today’s Camp David in Maryland.

Lou Henry served as the National President of the Girl Scouts of America both prior to and following her tenure as First Lady of the United States. The home which she designed and in which she and her husband resided for many years is now the residence of the President of Stanford University. The talented and influential Lou Hoover died suddenly in 1944, more than two decades before her husband, who never remarried.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt addresses the United Nations in 1947. FDR Presidential Library

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name was Roosevelt. She was a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, and a descendant of two prominent New York families. As her husband was the longest serving president, she occupied the position of First Lady longer than any other woman. She maintained close relationships throughout her life with women, including famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart and Associated Press reporter and later government employee Lorena Hickok. Speculation over whether such relationships were of a sexual nature continues among historians and scholars today.

When Eleanor became First Lady it was with a determined drive to change the office forever. It had been traditional for the First Lady to avoid the appearance of work outside of the White House; Eleanor continued her active career in business and in public appearances from the outset. She wrote a daily newspaper column entitled My Day which was syndicated nationwide, hosted her own radio broadcast, and wrote monthly magazine columns.

Eleanor began the practice of the First Lady holding her own press conferences, speaking through her own office rather than through that of the president. The president’s salary at the time was $75,000 and Eleanor publicly announced her intention to out-earn her husband. By the time the United States entered World War II Eleanor was commanding speaker’s fees of $1,000 per appearance, roughly equivalent to $17,000 today.

Eleanor took a particular interest in the plight of coal miners and their families, frequently to the exasperation of her husband. One project which he supported was her proposal to develop a pre-planned community of displaced miners in a subsistence farming community to be known as Arthurdale. The community was racially segregated, Jews were restricted, and Conservatives labelled it a “communist utopia.” FDR quickly withdrew from its support, although Eleanor avidly lobbied for funding for similar communities.

The imperious Eleanor banned male reporters from her press conferences, thus forcing editors to retain female reporters on their staffs. On more than one occasion FDR was forces to issue press statements which renounced the policies or opinions voiced by his wife. After leaving the White House and the office of First Lady, which she had forever changed, Eleanor continued her activism for the rest of her life.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Mamie Eisenhower influenced the spending habits and fashion sense of young housewives in the 1950s. The White House

Mamie Doud Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower is not remembered as a particularly influential First Lady for several reasons. She replaced the still vocal (at the time) Eleanor Roosevelt in the public mind as the leading political woman in the nation (Bess Truman being considered a non-entity by most, including herself). She was followed in the office by the glamorous Jackie Kennedy. What is forgotten is the prestige and glamor which Mamie restored to the First Lady’s position after several years of the silent and withdrawn Bess.

Yes, glamor. Mamie was named one of the best dressed women in the United States each of the eight years of Eisenhower’s administration. She was fond of pink, and her predilection for the color initiated a national trend for items which shared the shade, including household items such as towels and decorations. The “Mamie look” became a major fashion trend, and in the fifties the nation which had long suffered from the deprivation of depression and wartime rationing was in the mood to spend. Several leading designers linked themselves to her.

During the Eisenhower Administration more foreign leaders and other dignitaries visited the White House than in any preceding presidency, and Mamie imbued the Office of the First Lady with dignity and poise when receiving them. The advent of routine air travel made face to face meetings between the President and corresponding world leaders more convenient and far more common, the budding television industry made them better documented.

Mamie also set an example of frugality for young housewives, inspired no doubt by her long marriage to a military careerist, when she was required to run a home on a tight budget. She was well known for using coupons and sales notices, cutting out the former for the use of the White House staff, both personally and for use stocking the White House pantries.

While not overtly active in political discussions, Mamie made sure her opinions were known. She disapproved of and personally disliked Senator Joseph McCarthy and refused to invite him to White House functions. She strongly supported Republican Ellen Harris in her campaign for election to Congress. And she personally supervised the care for her husband when his health became an issue during his administration.

10 Powerful First Ladies That Actually Drove the US Presidency From Behind the Scenes
Jackie Kennedy on the morning of Friday, November 22, 1963, in Fort Worth, Texas. Wikimedia

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

John Kennedy was the first president elected in the television age, and as such he was well served by his wife, the glamorous and telegenic Jackie. Jackie was much more than just an effective photo opportunity. She expanded the staff of the Office of the First Lady and upon entering the White House was dumbfounded by the shabby condition of an Executive Mansion in disrepair. The White House had been gutted and rebuilt only a decade earlier, but the interiors far from reflected the wealth and prestige of the nation.

Jackie undertook a complete remodeling of the White House interior and décor. After first taking steps to remake the living quarters – the portion of the White House referred to as the residence – she then began to redecorate the public rooms in a manner which reflected the history of the house and its status in national and international affairs. Many former president’s had taken historic pieces with them upon leaving the White House; Jackie started searches to located these and other furnishings. Jackie used her influence to create a law making White House furnishings the property of the Smithsonian Institution, rather than the president.

She created the position of Curator of the White House and was the first to hire one. She also created the White House Historical Association and other organizations to preserve the history and heritage of the Executive Mansion. She scoured museums and private collections for the best of American art to be displayed in the White House. By February 1962 she was ready to conduct the nation on a televised tour of the White House, via a film which was awarded an Emmy, making Jackie the only first lady to win the Emmy award, appropriately for the first First Lady of the television age.

Jackie accompanied her husband on foreign and domestic trips, causing the president to often quip that people were more interested in seeing her, and what she wore, than they were in him. Her value as a political asset was unquestionable.

Possibly her greatest contribution as First Lady came when her husband was murdered at her side, and for the next few days she led the nation in its mourning, as a widow and young mother. She demonstrated courage and poise in the face of her grief which helped pull the shocked country together, surrounded by the leaders of the free world, once again, broadcast to the world by television.