On President’s Day - From Martha to Michelle: Little Known Facts About Our First Ladies

Since 1885, the United States has celebrated President’s Day in the third week of February. Although most closely associated with our first and sixteenth presidents who were both born in February, it has become a day to commemorate all US presidents. Forty-four men have served in this important position (one non-consecutively), and all had women by their sides – women who were bright and accomplished in their own right. So, as we celebrate President’s Day, let us also remember the First Ladies.

My first foray into learning about this group of women came twenty years ago when, as a congressional intern in Washington DC, I visited the National Museum of American History. I was fascinated by an exhibit on the dresses of the First Ladies. Incidentally, “dresses” really were the proper focus, as it wasn’t until Pat Nixon that a First Lady wore pants in public. To see not only some of the actual clothing worn by Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Monroe and others, but to also consider how culture, style and progress were reflected in these dresses, was remarkable. As the exhibit highlighted, First Ladies are more than just the wives (and in a few cases daughters, daughters-in-law and even a niece) of presidents. They are strong women who should be valued for more than their attire.

These women had and have their own talents, stories, passions and interests. And just as the role of the president has changed, both by the times in which the particular President lived and the individual who held the office, so too has the role of the First Lady. Some fascinating women have served as First Lady, and they have indeed led interesting lives along side their famous husbands. For example, Abigail Adams was in many ways President Adams’ political partner. Dolly Madison and later Edith Roosevelt defined the protocol for White House social and diplomatic functions. Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith, keep the Executive Office running smoothly after her husband’s stroke. Jacqueline Kennedy restored the White House and protected important historical artifacts for future generations. And of course Eleanor Roosevelt was incredibly influential during and after FDRs many terms. More recently, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama have each, in their own way, used their role as First Lady to advance causes close to their hearts. So, today we give a shout out to the women who have served in the White House. But of course, we continue to hope that someday it will be necessary to write a similar article recognizing the accomplishments of the First Gentlemen!

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