5 Famous First Ladies in America

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
First ladies hold a unique position in politics. Officially, the role of the first lady has never been defined, however, throughout history they have created their meaning for the position through hosting people of varying classes at the White House, engaging in social work, and assisting their husbands in their political duties. These are famous five first ladies whose influence on the nation has been unmatched. 
 
Abigail Adams
 
Historical letters between Abigail Adams and her husband President John Adams reveal her to be one of the most influential first ladies. He often sought her opinion while making decisions for the nation and she used the value he placed on her word to express her concern about the treatment of women. In one of her letters to the president, she remarked, “Remember the Ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not push such unlimited power into the hands of the Husband. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” 
 
Abigail was born in 1744 in Massachusetts. As a child, she was an avid reader but never attended school. She and John were third cousins and knew each other as children. They married when Abigail was 20 and began having children shortly after. While John was away from home during the Revolutionary War, he and Abigail remained close by exchanging an estimated 1,100 letters. They were the first residents of the White House where critics of John noted his wife’s influence over his politics, referring to her as “Mrs. President.” 
 
Dolley Madison
 
Known for her warmth and charm, Dolley Madison was the fourth first lady and wife of President James Madison. She was born to a modest Quaker family in 1768 and was one of eight children. Sadly, Dolley was widowed at age 25 when her husband and youngest son both died of yellow fever. Just a few months later, she was introduced to James by Aaron Burr. The two married in 1794 and moved to Philadelphia where James served in the House of Representatives. They later moved to Washington D.C. where Dolley assumed the role of assisting the then-first lady in her hosting duties. 
 
When James was elected president, Dolley quickly rewrote what it meant to be the first lady of the United States. She established the tradition of the White House reflecting the interests and style of the first family and adopted the role of maintaining the home. She welcomed anyone interested in the weekly receptions held at the White House, mixing all classes of people for which she received some criticism. She made a habit of wooing the president’s harshest critics by inviting them for dinner and calling on them at their homes if they refused the invitation. Some historians credit her with helping James get elected for a second term. After James died, Dolley moved into a home across from the White House where she remained a regular visitor and hostess. 
 
Sarah Childress Polk
 
Like Abigail Adams, Sarah Childress Polk was known for her influence over her husband’s politics. Wife of James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States, Sarah used her role as First Lady to make changes in the public affairs and political spheres. She was born in 1803 in Tennessee and had an exceptional education for a woman at the time. When she married James in 1824, he was already involved in politics, which intrigued her immensely. During his time in the House of Representatives, she regularly joined him on trips to Washington D.C. She became known among his peers for being a charming conversationalist. 
 
Historians today note that Sarah played a crucial role in James’ politics, serving as an advisor and emotional resource. She opened the White House twice per week for receptions and made an effort to engage with James’s adversaries. Unlike Dolley before her, Sarah had little interest in decorating the White House in her style, but she did manage the installation of gaslighting. When James’s term ended in 1849, the couple moved to Nashville, but James died later that year. Despite being only 45 years old, Sarah never remarried. 
 
Eleanor Roosevelt
 
Eleanor Roosevelt redefined what it meant to be the first lady. She was an advocate for human and women’s rights, wrote her column expressing her ideas on these issues, and held press conferences where she advocated for social change. Eleanor was born in 1884 and was a painfully shy child, but schooling at Allenwood Academy in London transformed her personality. She met soon-to-be president Franklin Roosevelt in 1902. The two were distant cousins and began a secret relationship. Despite familial protests, the two married just one year later. 
 
Eleanor worked for the American Red Cross during World War I and was engaged in public service as Franklin continued working his way up in politics. When Franklin was elected president, Eleanor took the role of First Lady and used it to speak out for human rights, children’s rights, and women’s issues. She focused her attention on the country’s poor and fought to end racial discrimination. Proactive and dynamic, Eleanor was First Lady during some of the nation’s most trying times. Following her husband’s death, Eleanor continued her work. She was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Harry Truman and helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as chair of the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor was undoubtedly one of the most outspoken and ambitious first ladies. 
 
Mary Todd Lincoln
 
Mary Todd Lincoln, although one of the most famous, was one of the most unpopular first ladies in American history. Mary was born into an affluent family in Kentucky and had a strong education as a child. She met Abraham Lincoln in the 1830s while living with her sister in Illinois. The couple both loved politics and literature, and despite Mary’s family disapproving of the union, the young couple married in 1842. Mary was a supporter of Abraham’s political career, offering him advice and advocating for him socially. She joined him to Washington D.C. when he was elected to Congress, drawing the attention of several of his colleagues. 
 
When Abraham was elected as the 16th president, 11 states in the South seceded from the Union. Many of Mary’s closest friends and family in Kentucky were part of this movement while Mary remained a supporter of the Union. She became known in the White House as emotional and outspoken, leading many to dislike her. She spent money on lavish items while the country was trapped in the bloody Civil War and was accused of being a spy for the Confederacy. When her husband was assassinated, Mary fell into a deep depression that caused her to be estranged and admitted to an insane asylum. Her reputation after leaving the White House was one of being crazy and unstable. 
 
First ladies have played an important role in American politics throughout history. Their efforts and legacies have shaped the nation nearly as much as their husbands.