MEETING # 1626
DECEMBER 16, 1999
First Ladies &
the Presidents They Served
by Richard L. Wilkerson
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public
Americans have been fascinated by the first ladies since the time we became a nation.
The First Family is our democratic version of royalty. Our first ladies have represented
the standards of womanhood of their time, standards that have changed many times during
the course of our history. Reading about their remarkable lives is like looking at a
display of our changing images of men and women, homes and families, society and culture.
But being a national image is not easy.
BACKGROUND OF AUTHOR
I was born in 1926 and raised in Long Beach,
California. I volunteered for service in the United States Navy in World War II. I
received TUBA and MA in American history at the University of Redlands. Since that time, I
have studied in nine other colleges and universities. I have taught from elementary
through graduate level and have served in libraries, junior high through universities. My
final years in education was serving as director of a Leaming Center in a community
college. I was elected to two school districts board of trustees. I directed theater for
twenty three years and currently work with three opera companies.
The First Lady is in the spotlight because her husband holds the highest elected
political office in the land. In the twentieth century, she has often had to work hard to
help him get elected. Once he is in office, everything she does reflects on his popularity
with the voters. If she is well liked, has an appealing personality, and is respected by
the press - it makes him a more successful president. (Ironically, until 1920, women could
not vote in national elections, and during much of the nineteenth century they were
discouraged from being involved in politics at all.) Having to live up to the expectations
of others, having to fulfill their ideal image of the perfect woman, has been a
challenging job, and a job for which the First Lady does not get paid. Every First Lady
has responded to these pressures in her own way. Some First Ladies saw their role in the
White House as a way to continue the supportive role they played in their marriages.
Others joined with their husbands in the political issues of their times. Others took on
social causes. Whatever decisions they made about their roles as First Ladies, their
stories are as varied and interesting as is our nations history.
First Ladies & the Presidents They Served, Part
A new phase in the American
Presidency began. The country re-unified itself, while the presidency faced its first
impeachment. Governmental graft and corruption became quite apparent, American business
and industry grew, and after seeing the century turn, we experienced another presidential
1865 - 1901
Andrew Johnson Administration 1865-1869
Eliza Johnson taught her husband writing and speaking skills essential to his career.
Andrew Johnson did not attend a single day of school. He did teach himself to read. How
many public appearances did First Lady Eliza make during her almost four years in the
White House? Only two, in 1866 and 1867. She married Johnson when she was 16 years old, a
younger age than any other First Lady. This was a definite struggle for her, because she
was so immature.
The House of Representatives resolved that the President be impeached for high crimes
and misdemeanors. The Senate did not convict. When his term was up, he was not re-elected
and moved back home in disgrace.
Ulysses Grant Administration 1869-1877
Julia Grant was her husbands personal and political partner, but she preferred
the home life. She was the first First Lady to issue press releases. People criticized her
physical appearance because she was cross-eyed. Grant, however, declared that he loved her
eyes exactly as they were. She lavishly entertained, usually organizing and serving
twenty-nine course dinners.
On May 17, 1877, President Grant, going "as a sovereign" with his family and
a party of friends, went on a major tour of Europe and environs. They visited England,
Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, France, Italy, Greece, Holland, Norway, Sweden,
Russia, Spain, India, China, Japan, Egypt and the Holy Land. Here, as elsewhere, King and
populace gave welcome. Mrs. Grant enjoyed this lengthy tour. Grant thought about running
for a third term, but since his administration was marked by major scandals, he
decided not to seek a third term.
Rutherford B. Hayes Administration 1877-1881
Lucy Hayes was the first college graduate to serve as First Lady, and was descended
from seven veterans of the American Revolution. She was the first Presidential wife to use
the term "First Lady." She had the Annual Easter Egg Hunt moved from the Capitol
grounds to the White House lawn. The Temperance Crusade swept over twenty-three states,
resulting in National Prohibition. Lucy was an advocate of temperance, and she banned all
alcoholic beverages at all state functions. For her efforts, the Womens Christian
Temperance Union commissioned a full-length portrait of her, which now hangs in the White
House. Also, she was a vigorous opponent of slavery.
She was considered a help-mate in word and deed, and won world-wide praise for herself
and for the help she gave her husband. She took an active interest in state and local
charities, in her church and in the community about her. This brought her a harvest of
confidence and goodwill, as well as for the President. When her husband served in the
Army, she stayed with him a good portion of that time. She was called the
"Mother" of his regiment, and this also won him much good influence.
James Garfield Administration 1881-1881
Before becoming the First Lady, Lucretia taught school. She was known for her keen
intellect and appetite for knowledge. Lucretia supported her husbands efforts to
fight government corruption, especially in the New York Customs office and the National
Post Office. She planned many cultural programs and the restoration of the White House,
but these activities were cut short by the Presidents assassination. During
Garfields term, she discovered that he was having a love affair. He apologized and
she forgave him.
Chester Arthur Administration 1881-1885
Ellen Arthur never served as a First Lady because she died before her husband became
President. She privately sympathized with the Confederacy, since many of her Virginia
relatives were fighting for that cause. No doubt, being First Lady would have imposed a
great stress on her.
Grover Cleveland Administration 1885-1889 & 1893-1897
Frances Cleveland was a beautiful woman and was the youngest First Lady. Grover and
Frances were married while he was President. At the wedding reception, telegrams from
Queen Victoria and other notables were read.
The press bedeviled their every movement while in the White House, and for years
afterward, using spyglasses, bribery, and their imaginations in creating their tales.
Without Frances permission, her likeness was used on commercial products of every
sort. Gawking crowds shoved to see her everywhere she went. The Cleveland children had to
be protected from aggressive admirers. Mrs. Cleveland won public adoration on an
unprecedented scale. She shook hands with thousands of women of all classes and ethnic
backgrounds. She worked diligently to further womens education. She was the most
popular woman ever to serve as the nations hostess.
Benjamin Harrison Administration 1889-1893
Mrs. Harrison was the first First Lady to oversee large projects, such as the complete
overhaul of the White House. This project took two years. She helped found and supported
the DAR and the Womens Medical Fund of John Hopkins School of Medicine. For this,
she was honored with a portrait. She was also the first "First Lady" to deliver
her own prepared speech.
During Harrisons administration, he allowed American business interests to do
whatever they chose to do, so the problems of farmers, laborers, and the millions of
immigrants streaming into this country were of no interest to those in power. American
businessmen cleverly organized things to suit themselves without much input from the
Electricity was first installed in the White House during her husbands
administration. She was fearful of touching the switches and sometimes they would not turn
off the lights.
IDA SAXTON McKINLEY
William McKinley Administration 1897-1901
Ida McKinley mystified her friends by her strange behavior. Once a beautiful and
vivacious lady, after her husband became President she became an invalid, almost a
parasite on her husband. McKinleys assassination, tragic though it was, appeared to
give her the strength to live slightly more independently than when he was attending to
her every whim. While McKinleys cabinet discussed weighty matters of international
import, the President was often called to his wifes side to calm her tantrums or to
bring her a needed pen or a book. The White House staff carried out its duties without any
guidance from her, since she refused to allow anyone else to act as hostess. Each time she
suffered a seizure, McKinley covered her face with a handkerchief to reduce her
embarrassment. He took great care to accommodate her condition. In a break with tradition,
the President insisted that his wife be seated next to him at state dinners rather than at
the other end of the table. McKinleys devotion and loving attention to her was the
talk of the Capitol. Mark Hanna remarked: "President McKinley has made it pretty hard
for the rest of us husbands here in Washington."
The president and the nation are youthful and full of vigor, but thirty
years later that will not be the case. Those in office started our national park system,
supported our efforts to become a world power, faced a world war, saw us return to
isolationism, and governed while the nation entered a severe economic depression.
1901 - 1933
Theodore Roosevelt Administration 1901-1909
Mrs. Roosevelt approved plans for a complete remodeling of the White House, including
an entryway corridor which displayed the likenesses of all the First Ladies. This project
cost $475,000. Her husband respected her strengths, and, apparently, she was the only
person who could control him.
President Roosevelt began a new phase in the American Presidency, saying "speak
softly but carry a big stick." The match between the mood of the nation and the new
President was perfect. It was a time of dramatic social and economic ferment. Changes came
about which demanded an end to capitalistic abuses and to the plundering of the
nations ecological resources. A number of things needed to be taken care of: illegal
trusts, the rise of the United Mine Workers, the "Square Deal," conservation,
doubling the number of National Parks, and the building of the Panama Canal.
Although "Teddy" Roosevelt invited eminent black educator Booker T.
Washington to dine at the White House, she excluded African American women from her
William Howard Taft Administration 1909-1913
Helen Taft actively aided her husbands career. On March 27, 1912, she arranged
for the planting of 3,000 cherry trees; a gift from Japan. She was the first First Lady to
see her own book published. She helped her husband grow to be an effective President. She
was the first presidential wife to ride with her husband in the same carriage back to the
White House after his inauguration. She organized their silver wedding anniversary party,
which was more glittering than all other White House festivities. Eight thousand guests
attended this gala on June 19, 1911.
Taft sought the Presidency primarily to please members of his family and later claimed,
"I dont remember that I ever was President." He was not equal to the many
national problems that faced him, many which were well-beyond his political abilities.
However, he did show some success in domestic situations. Two months after entering the
White House, Helen Taft suffered a stroke which impaired her speech. She never fully
Following his presidency, Taft became Chief Justice in the U.S. Supreme Court, serving
from 1913-1921. Helen had worked for this appointment.
ELLEN WILSON & EDITH WILSON
Woodrow Wilson Administration 1913-1921
Ellen Louise Axon married Woodrow Wilson June 24, 1855. She drew sketches in a studio
located on the third floor of the White House. She donated her work for charity projects.
She lobbied Congress to fund slum clearance in the District of Columbia. She was the first
wife of a presidential candidate to make an extended campaign tour with her husband.
Wilson cheated on Ellen Wilson during their engagement, with a certain Mrs. Peck. He
offered to back out of the engagement, but Ellen spurned his offer, replying that she
would stand by him not for duty, pity, nor honor, but for love. She was called the
"First Woman President." Ellen died of Brights Disease on August 6, 1914 and was
buried next to her parents graves in Rome, Georgia. Wilson was so devastated by her
loss that he confided to an aide, E.M. House, that he hoped he would be assassinated.
Edith Bolling Galt, a widow, prided herself on tracing her ancestry to
Pocohontas. She was introduced to Wilson at the White House and they were married on
December 18, 1915. Some felt he was marrying too soon, so there was much malicious gossip
about the Presidents seeming disrespect for the dead. Some of the rumors were
vicious, hinting that he and Mrs. Galt had murdered Ellen Wilson. They both managed to
rise above those rumors.
She was the only woman driving her own electric car around town. When America
entered the First World War, she stopped all entertaining and began to sew pajamas and
shirts for the Washington Red Cross. She also observed the need to cut back during the
war, setting an example by participating in the rationing effort. She had sheep grazing on
a White House pasture rather than waste manpower clearing the grass. When Wilson suffered
a stroke in September, 1919, Edith had to carefully screen all matters of state and make
decisions for the bedridden President. However, she made no decisions regarding public
FLORENCE MABEL KLING DeWOLFE HARDING
Warren G. Harding Administration 1921 - 1923
Florence, known as "Flossie," through hard work and careful management was
able to take herself and her gregarious husband to the White House. She was a good hostess
and served wine-free state dinners. She did personally pour more potent drinks at private
presidential gatherings. When Harding was a senator, he voted for Prohibition. Florence
was the first First Lady to insist on a Secret Service man for her own personal
protection. The First Lady was noted in Washington for her "little red books" in
which she listed her and her husbands enemies.
Florence opened the White House and the surrounding grounds to the public and had many
parties, despite her poor health. The Hardings held private poker parties several times a
week, serving what was considered at the time contraband alcohol during Prohibition. Some
of his appointees were deeply involved in graft and theft. Harding, himself, was not
implicated in any of the wrong doing, but since this occurred during his Presidency, it
may have contributed to his sudden death. Harding suffered from an heart ailment, but
still he began a political tour of Alaska and the West. When he was in his suite at the
Palace Hotel in San Francisco, he collapsed and died. Florence was accused of poisoning
her husband, but for the record she was devoted to him and defended his honor. She died
scarcely more than a year later. Hardings womanizing and fathering a child out of
wedlock did not become publicly known until after his death.
GRACE ANNA GOODHUE COOLIDGE
Calvin Coolidge Administration 1923 - 1929
Graces vivacity and charm proved a perfect complement to Coolidges reserved
manner. She joined the Republican Party just like her husband. She was a popular hostess
in Washington. The social highlight of Coolidges presidency was the party for
Charles Lindbergh celebrating his transatlantic flight in 1907. Coolidge helped restore
dignity to the presidency, so recently tarnished by the scandals during Hardings
Coolidge did not discuss state matters with his wife, and she did not even know that he
had decided not to seek reelection in 1928 until he announced it to the press. Her
philanthropic contributions included working with the deaf, the Red Cross during the First
World War, assisting several civil defense organizations, and encouraging the various
scrap drives for the war effort. Mrs. Coolidge accepted her husbands silences,
business related absences, and his unwillingness to consult her on anything important. The
Coolidge family and their pets were constantly photographed endlessly. One son died
tragically after eating infected food. The Coolidges were to see economic disaster strike
the nation. Mrs. Coolidge died on July 8, 1957.
LOU HENRY HOOVER
Herbert Hoover Administration 1923 - 1929
Mrs. Hoover was active in public life before her husband entered the White House, She
served as a President of the Girl Scouts of America. Her husband never graduated from high
school, but entered Stanford University when he was 17 years old. He was the youngest
member of the Freshman class of 1891. He graduated in May 1895, receiving a BA in geology.
Lou Hoover decided to become a Quaker, and they both sailed to Tientsin, China to work
there. Here they became quite proficient with the Chinese language. They also assisted in
aiding the Belgian refugees during the First World War. When Hoover became President, she
oversaw another restoration of several rooms in the White House. She and her husband
bonded through days of glory and difficulty. She died on January 7, 1944.
Part V, 1933 - today
The Presidents guided America through a world-wide economic depression, a second world
war, and the Cold War, in an attempt to bring justice and peace to the world. We would
again see presidential scandals and another attempt to impeach the President.
ANNA ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration 1933 - 1945
When Mrs. Roosevelt entered the White House, she proved to be a totally new sort of
First Lady. She dreaded the stiff social routine the White House imposed on the
Presidents wives and feared it would stop the welfare activities she considered so
important. "I shall not toe the mark," she declared, in a masterpiece of
understatement. She was the despair of the Secret Service, but she refused to have a
body-guard. Washington had never seen anything quite like her energy. She rose at dawn and
did not stop her activities until late at night. Some of her endeavors included horseback
riding, and writing a syndicated newspaper column and articles for various magazines. She
took voice lessons, spoke over the radio, and lectured giving the money she earned
to charity. All of this was in addition to the formal duties of a First Lady. She received
over 300,000 letters during her first year. FDR allowed her to "judge" any of
his projects. He also did not try to restrain her, saying, "They all know I
cant control you." Eleanor was the first First Lady to take on controversial
issues. She advocated for human rights starting in 1939, held her first press conference
in 1933, and first traveled by air to a foreign country in 1934.
Soon after her husbands death, she was appointed by President Truman as a
delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. She served in this capacity during
Trumans two terms. She was quoted as saying: "One must never, for whatever
reason, turn his back on life."
FDR is still either the best loved and or most hated American President of the 20th
ELIZABETH (BESS) TRUMAN
Harry Truman Administration 1953 - 1961
Bess, as she was affectionately known, provided valued advice to her husband. She
lobbied for the historical restoration of the White House instead of just replacing it.
She also advocated for food conservation and austerities. The Trumans were married for 53
years. Bess detested her years in the White House. She followed Eleanor Roosevelt, which
would be daunting for most everyone. Also, she supported her husband during years of
tremendous world-wide problems. At 97 she was the longest living First Lady. Harry was
loved by most of the American people.
MAMIE GENEVA DOUD EISENHOWER
Dwight Eisenhower Administration 1953 - 1961
Mamie helped found a womens & childrens hospital in Panama. She also
supported many worthy causes at home. She was a fine lady who did her best to support her
husband, her children, and her country.
It was claimed that Ike had an extra-marital affair with an English woman, who was his
personal driver while he was stationed in England during the Second World War. At the end
of the war he left Europe, never seeing the lady again. He and Mamie were married 53
JACQUELINE LEE BOUVIER KENNEDY
John F. Kennedy Administration 1961 - 1963
JFK had been extremely successful with women and had dated countless beauties before
meeting and marrying Jacqueline. After his assassination, a spate of allegations continued
that Kennedy routinely cheated on her.
While Jacqueline was in the White House, she was able to direct further historic
restoration of the White Houses interior and established the White House
Association. Jackie, as she was affectionately called by the American public, was idolized
around the world for her beauty and her taste in fashions. She gracefully combined privacy
and public diplomacy.
LADY BIRD JOHNSON
Lyndon B. Johnson Administration 1963 - 1969
Despite the fact that Lady Bird was asked by her family not to marry into that no-good
Johnson family, she and Lyndon were married in 1934. She invested in a radio station, was
very active in civic affairs, and later built the family fortune with her television
station. She traveled some 200,000 miles promoting a campaign to improve the landscape of
America. She spoke out for the Johnsons Administrations war on poverty. She
also made goodwill trips to 33 different countries and was active in the Head Start
She felt that the primary obligation of a First Lady was to create in the White House "an island of peace" for the President. When it came time for Johnson to run for
the presidency in 1964, she urged him not to seek it, but he chose to run anyhow.....and
won. During LBJs administration America was involved in the Viet Nam War, which was
difficult for both Lyndon and Lady Bird, to say nothing of the country.
THELMA CATHERINE (PAT) RYAN NIXON
Richard Nixon Administration 1969 - 1974
Pat supported educational and self-help programs, traveling widely on public missions.
She supported her husband throughout his political career, including those times of great
distress and crisis.
Although she presented a serene public facade. Pat felt things deeply and was able to
preserve a strong sense of personal balance and compassion. When Nixon went to China in
February 1972, he was the first President to visit a nation not recognized by the U.S. Pat
accompanied him on this trip. In 1972, She was also the first incumbent First Lady to
travel to Africa and the first to call publicly for the appointment of a woman to the U.S.
ELIZABETH (BETTY) BLOOMER FORD
Gerald R. Ford Administration 1974 - 1977
Betty, deciding to become a dancer, studied under Martha Graham, who invited her to
join her New York Concert Group in 1939. Betty was also a Powers model. She married
William C. Warren in 1942, but they divorced amicably in 1947. At the age of 30, on
October 15, 1948, she married Gerald Ford. During there marriage, he had a torrid
four-year long love affair with a woman named Phyllis Brown.
Bettys greatest contribution to the American public was her publicizing the
problem of breast cancer, urging women to help themselves in detecting it early. She,
herself, was dealing with breast cancer at that time. Through this action, she gained the
admiration of millions. Also, she won praise for speaking freely of her struggle with
alcohol and pain-killing drugs. She had used the drugs in seeking relief from an
inoperable pinched nerve, becoming dependent upon those drugs. Following her recovery, she
established the Betty Ford Clinic.
ROSALYN SMITH CARTER
James ("Jimmy") Earl Carter, Jr. Administration
Jimmy Carter, age 21, married Rosalyn Smith, age 18, in 1946. Rosalyn grew up amid
hardship following the death of her father when she was only 13 years old. She worked at a
local beauty parlor, and also helped earn extra money by sewing. When she graduated from
high school she was her classs valedictorian. Like Eleanor Roosevelt before he, she
painstakingly overcame her basic shyness. She was the First lady since Eleanor to testify
before Congress, only her causes were mental health programs and the Equal Rights
She actively campaigned for her husband. During his administration she was active in
several diplomatical missions, and supported programs for the mentally ill and the
elderly. After Jimmy left office, they both worked very visibly and successfully for the
Habitat for Humanity. Rosalyns memoirs - First Lady From Plains, published in
1984, was a nation-wide best-seller.
NANCY DAVIS REAGAN
Ronald Reagan Administration 1981 - 1989
Nancy was educated at Girls Latin School in Chicago. In 1943, she graduated in
with a degree in drama from Smith College. Her acting career brought her to summer stock
in 1946, and then to performing in eleven films with MGM. In 1951, she met Ronald Reagan
and on March 4, 1952, they were married.
As First Lady, she overcame early criticism for spending nearly $1,000,000.00 to
remodel the White Houses living quarters, plus acquiring a 220 place setting of
gilt-edged Lennox china. The Reagan administration, at the same time, was calling for
cut-backs in domestic programs. She later emerged as a leader in the national campaign
against drug abuse among youth.
She was an independent soul, doing and acting according to her own desires. She even
consulted a San Francisco astrologer whenever she felt she needed advice.
BARBARA PIERCE BUSH
George Bush Administration 1989 - 1993
George and Barbara Bush raised six children, moved 29 times, and resided in 17 cities.
This moving around was due to his political career. As Reagans Vice-President, he
logged more than 1,000,000 miles of diplomatic travel.
When George became President, Barbara stepped into the life of the First Lady with
grace and apparent ease. She helped raise money for the United Negro College Fund, the
Leukemia Society, and the March of Dimes. In addition, she was involved with the Literary
Volumes of America, and established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
Her book about Millie, their springer spaniel, became a nationwide best seller, and in
1994, she authored her memoirs of her experiences in the White House.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
William Jefferson Clinton Administration 1993 - 2000
Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley College. After graduation she attended Yale
University Law School. Here she met, and later married, William Clinton. In 1992, the
Clintons were compelled to acknowledge that they had had marital problems, but said that
they had worked them out to their mutual satisfaction.
Hillary was the first First Lady to be a lawyer. A well-educated woman of high
intelligence and energy, Hillary acts as her husbands closest advisor. During the
first years of her husbands presidency, she gained a reputation as the most activist
First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.
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