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American First Ladies

Wives of the Presidents

By

Florence Harding

Florence Harding
Courtesy US Library of Congress
(August 15, 1860 - November 21, 1924)
Florence Kling DeWolfe Harding had a child when she was 20 -- and likely not legally married -- and after struggling to support him by teaching music, gave him to his father to raise. She married the wealthy newspaper publisher, Warren G. Harding, when she was 31, working on the newspaper with him. She supported him in his political career, and in the early "roaring twenties" even served as White House bartender (during Prohibition) during his poker parties. His presidency (1921 - 1923) was marked with corruption charges, and on a trip she had urged him to take to recover from stress, he suffered a stroke and died. She destroyed most of his papers in her attempt to preserve his reputation.

Grace Coolidge

Grace Coolidge
Courtesy US Library of Congress
(January 3, 1879 - July 8, 1957)
Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge was a teacher of the deaf when she married Calvin Coolidge (president 1923 - 1929). She focused her duties as First Lady on remodeling and charities, helping her husband establish a reputation for seriousness and frugality. After leaving the White House and after her husband died, Grace Coolidge traveled and wrote magazine articles.

Lou Hoover

Lou Henry Hoover
Adapted from an image courtesy of the US Library of Congress
(March 29, 1874 - January 7, 1944)
Lou Henry Hoover was raised in Iowa and California, loved the outdoors, and became a geologist. She married a fellow student, Herbert Hoover, who became a mining engineer, and they often lived abroad. She used her talents in mineralogy and languages to translate a 16th century manuscript by Agricola. While her husband was president (1929 - 1933), she redecorated the White House and became involved in charity work, heading the Girl Scout organization for a time, continuing this charity work after her husband left office. She headed England's American Women's Hospital during World War II until her death in 1944.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt 1949
© Clipart.com
(October 11, 1884 - November 6, 1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt, orphaned at ten, married her distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt (president 1933 - 1945). From 1910 on, Eleanor helped with Franklin's political career, despite her devastation in 1918 to discover his affair with her social secretary. Through the Depression, New Deal, and World War II, Eleanor traveled when her husband was less able to. Her daily column "My Day" in the newspaper broke with precedent, as did her press conferences and lectures. After FDR's death, Eleanor Roosevelt continued her political career, serving in the United Nations and helping create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She chaired the President's Commission on the Status of Women from 1961.

Bess Truman

Bess Truman
Adapted from an image courtesy of the White House
(February 13, 1885 - October 18, 1982)
Bess Wallace Truman, also from Independence, Missouri, had known Harry Truman from their childhoods. After they married, she remained primarily a housewife through his political career. She didn't like Washington, DC, and was quite angry with her husband for accepting the nomination as vice president. When her husband became president (1945 - 1953) only a few months after taking office as vice president, she took her duties as First Lady seriously, while avoiding such practices as some of her predecessors as having press conferences. She also nursed her mother during the White House years.

Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower
Adapted from an image courtesy of the White House
(November 14, 1896 - November 1, 1979)
Born in Iowa, Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower met her husband Dwight (president 1953 - 1961) in Texas when he was an army officer. She lived an army officer's wife's life, either living with "Ike" where he was stationed, or raising their family without him. She was suspicious of his relationship during World War II with his military driver and aide Kay Summersby, but he assured her that there was nothing to the rumors of a relationship. She made some public appearances during her husband's presidential campaigns and presidency. In 1974 she described herself in an interview: "I was Ike's wife, John's mother, the children's grandmother. That was all I ever wanted to be."

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
Adapted from an image courtesy of the US Library of Congress
(July 28, 1929 - May 19, 1994)
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, First Lady 1961-1963, was the wife of John F. Kennedy. During his Presidency, "Jackie Kennedy" became known mostly for her fashion sense and for her redecoration of the White House. After the assassination of her husband in Dallas on November 22, 1963, she was honored for her dignity in her time of grief.

Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson
(December 22, 1912 - July 11, 2007)
Lady Bird (Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson) financed her husband Lyndon's first campaign for Congress, using her inheritance. While he served in the military, she maintained his congressional office back home. Lady Bird took a public speaking course in 1959, and in the 1960 campaign began more active campaigning. Throughout his career, she was known as a gracious hostess. Lady Bird Johnson became First Lady after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and she actively campaigned in 1964 for her husband (president 1963 - 1969). She supported highway beautification and Head Start as First Lady and after his death in 1973, continued to be active with her family and causes.

Pat Nixon

Patricia Nixon
Adapted from an image courtesy of the US Library of Congress
(March 16, 1912 - June 22, 1993)
Born Thelma Catherine Patricia Ryan, Pat Nixon was a housewife when that was becoming less popular as a vocation for a woman. She was the first First Lady to declare herself pro-choice regarding abortion and she urged appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. She met Richard Milhous Nixon (president 1969 - 1974) at theatre tryouts, and while she supported his political career, she remained largely a private person, loyal to her husband despite his public scandals.

Betty Ford

Betty Ford
Adapted from an image courtesy of the US Library of Congress
(April 8, 1918 - )
Wife of Gerald Ford, the only U.S. President (1974 - 1977) who wasn't elected as President or Vice President, she was an unexpected First Lady in many ways. She made public her battles with breast cancer and chemical dependence (the Betty Ford clinic is named for her), and she endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and women's right to abortion.
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