The President’s Wife Don’t Run Away
Lucy Hayes made history during her eight years as First Lady of the United States (1877-1881). She was the first president’s wife to have their own personal staff at the White House and took charge of decorating, furnishing and cooking for guests. Her popularity among Washingtonians and the press stemmed from her ability to entertain a diverse array of visitors.
Dolley Madison (1809-17), the wife of Thomas Jefferson, was an influential figure during the second half of his presidency. She was an adept hostess and interior decorator who brought in many renowned designers. Additionally, Dolley served as a strong political voice throughout her husband’s administration, becoming the first First Lady to attend cabinet meetings.
She was an outspoken supporter of the League of Nations and an important ally to both women in Washington as well as men involved in foreign policy. She stressed the significance of Presidents playing a role in furthering international causes and was an outspoken proponent for gender equality.
Her influence was so great that she even helped select her husband’s cabinet appointments (she had been an active member of the Society for the Encouragement of Cookery and Home Management). As a frequent visitor at the White House, she also contributed her expertise in maintaining and furnishing its family quarters.
Although the media often ignores First Ladies outside of the White House, they remain an important element in shaping public perception of both their office and president. Their fashion sense, beauty and decorating choices often garner much attention from observers.
They are often depicted as the ideal wives to their husbands: glamorous, charming, elegantly attired and sophisticated – always looking their best. Their images serve as major sources of inspiration for young girls and women around the world.
Some First Ladies are less successful in this area than others. Their spouses may lack the same professional abilities as their husbands or they might find it more challenging to manage the responsibilities that come with a high profile position. Furthermore, some First Ladies may be more sensitive to criticism and need someone who will speak on their behalf or help them deal with any crises that arise.
Eleanor Roosevelt, an accomplished lawyer, was the first president’s wife to have her own private legal staff and an outspoken champion for women’s rights, child welfare and education. Her popularity amongst the public was undeniable and her political impact still debated today.
Lou Hoover, the wife of Herbert Hoover and a Harvard Law School graduate, was an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage and social justice. As a powerful political force within her husband’s administration, she set an important precedent by becoming the first president’s wife to give speeches on national radio.
Grace Coolidge, the wife of Calvin Coolidge and an accomplished attorney and businesswoman, was a champion for social welfare and education initiatives as well as a loving mother to her children. She became a well-known public figure through her efforts to restore the family quarters at the White House back to its original colonial appearance.