Out of Their Husbands' Shadows: Famous Wives in American History

In commemoration of what would have been her 88th birthday on April 27th, Bio remembers Coretta Scott King and other famous wives who made a difference.
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It’s a well-known adage that behind every successful man there stands a great woman. Although this famous expression makes us wonder about the reverse (how many great men are there standing behind successful women?), we’ve seen enough of modern politics, business, and entertainment to recognize its basic truth. In the ego-driven, competitive world of politics, in particular, any wife who can stand tough behind the scenes while giving free rein to her partner’s ambition must be made of sturdy stuff indeed.

Of course, not every wife chooses to remain behind the scenes. Over the years, some of America’s most influential women have chosen to step out front. When a personality is so strong (or a belief in a cause so deep) that assuming a secondary role in public life is no longer an option, these wives have established an identity for themselves separate from their famous spouses. At some point, these women cease to be referred to only as So-and-So’s wife; their accomplishments become as defining, or even more defining, than their choice of marriage partner.

Today, Bio spotlights a few American women who became more than just famous wives. They became women who used their marriage as a starting point toward changing the world for the better.

Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King: Years after the assassination of her husband Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King tells her story as the partner of the the man who led the Civil Rights Movement in her book 'My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.' on February 9, 1970. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Coretta Scott King: Years after the assassination of her husband Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King tells her story as the partner of the the man who led the Civil Rights Movement in her book 'My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.' on February 9, 1970. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

When she married Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1953, Coretta Scott asked that the part of the vows asking her to “obey” her husband be removed. This small detail is an example of the independent streak that characterized Coretta Scott King. A supportive wife who believed completely in her husband’s mission, she was still her own woman before her marriage, and she would remain that way well after her marriage’s abrupt end.

Trained to be a musician, Coretta Scott’s marriage to Martin Luther King changed her life considerably. She became deeply involved in causes of racial justice and non-violent change. She was at Dr. King’s side throughout all of the key events of the Civil Rights Movement, and she lobbied hard to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. She worked hand-in-hand with Dr. King until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. 

After this tragedy, she became one of the most important figures in the movement, and she broadened its reach to emphasize the rights of women as well as the gay and lesbian community. She founded the Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta and became an advocate for world peace. Her Coalition of Conscience, forged out of over 800 human rights groups, organized demonstrations in the 80s that equaled in size of those of the Civil Rights years.

During her busy life, Coretta Scott King was a CEO, an author, a newspaper columnist, a television commentator, a recipient of more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees, and a tireless campaigner for human rights as a member of numerous organizations devoted to change. She also pushed for a national holiday that would commemorate the Civil Rights struggle and her husband’s role in it. In 1983, this dream was realized when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was made law. Every third Monday in January, we remember not only the great man who had a dream, but also his persevering wife, who pushed to make it a reality after he was gone.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt Photo

In many ways, Eleanor Roosevelt set the template for the modern political wife – a talented, educated, independent woman who uses the platform provided by her husband to pursue her own interests and causes. More active in public life than any First Lady before her, Eleanor promoted issues of social equality, while her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shepherded the country through the Great Depression and World War II.

A niece of the famously outspoken Teddy Roosevelt, Eleanor’s strength of character would seem to be a given, but she didn’t truly flower until she became First Lady – first, of New York State, when her husband was governor, and then ultimately, of the nation. When her husband was stricken with polio, she began to fill in for him at appearances. Eventually, she did more than parrot her husband’s party line, and soon she espoused her own progressive positions on race discrimination and women’s rights. She lectured widely, wrote a daily newspaper column, appeared regularly on the radio, and gave press conferences (that, incidentally, only female reporters were allowed to attend!). Although some criticized her media-driven activism as detrimental to her husband, for the most part Eleanor was respected by the public as someone who looked out for the “little guy”— and for that matter, the “little woman.”

Eleanor’s public life didn’t cease after Franklin’s death in 1945. She was appointed delegate to the United Nations by President Harry Truman and eventually served as the first United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The United Nations would become her primary focus for several years, even as she continued to campaign for human rights across the board, including the Civil Rights movement, the Equal Rights movement for women, and issues related to refugees. At the time of her death in 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt was widely considered one of the most important Americans of her time. She paved the way for every influential American wife that followed her.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams Photo

Abigail Adams (Photo: Benjamin Blythe (Uploaded by en:User:Mwanner) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Although her era did not permit the same level of independence that Eleanor Roosevelt experienced in her lifetime, Abigail Adams opened the door a little wider as the wife of our second president, John Adams. She wasn’t afraid to express her political opinions openly, and her influence would be felt on the national stage. She was the first First Lady to show that a First Lady could be more than a domestic hostess.

The nature of the relationship between Abigail Adams and her husband has been preserved in the hundreds of letters that they exchanged when political duty pulled him away from their home of Quincy, Massachusetts. In these letters, Abigail kept her ear to the ground and informed John about community affairs; along the way, she advised him about political matters small and great. During the American Revolution, Abigail was even appointed by the Massachusetts General Colony Court to question women charged with being unsympathetic to the American cause. As the plan for a new government was being formed, Abigail actively urged her husband to make sure that the new laws of the land were fairer to women than the British Crown’s had been.

In time, trusting her judgment, John would consult with his wife about most of the political questions that arose in his day-to-day work. He was not stinting in his tributes to Abigail, and her influence became common knowledge. Not everyone was pleased about this state of affairs, however. When John became Vice President to George Washington from 1789 to 1797, and finally President himself, from 1797 to 1801, Abigail was treated with contempt by some critics, who branded her “Mrs. President” for her influence on her husband’s administration. 

Somewhat beaten down by the attention her opinions received from her husband’s political adversaries, Abigail was relieved when he lost the 1800 election to Thomas Jefferson and she could return to a normal life, which she happily did. She wouldn’t live to see her son John Quincy become our sixth president, but by that time, Abigail had already proven that in the new republic a wife could be just as politically astute as the statesmen who distinguished her household.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe Photo

Harriet Beecher Stowe (Photo: Gurney & Sons (Bowdoin College Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As the second wife of educational reformer, Biblical scholar, and newspaper editor Calvin Ellis Howe, Harriet Beecher spent much of the time after her 1834 marriage raising the seven children that she and her husband brought into the world. But this highly literate woman with a social conscience would also spend her time bringing something even more lasting into the world: She would be responsible for writing a book that some say altered the course of American history.

Calvin Howe was an Ohio minister who abhorred the institution of slavery, and Harriet felt the same way. The couple became active participants in the Underground Railroad, ushering many Southern slaves to freedom in the North. Inspired by an incident involving a dying slave, Harriet applied her literary skills to drafting a fiction about the far-reaching effects of slavery called Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. First serialized in 1851 and then published as a book in 1852, the tale’s impact was massive. It became the biggest bestseller up to that point in time, gave the abolitionist movement new ammunition, and raised Southern ire. A popular play spread the messages of the book even further. Certain characters in the book became so emblematic of a type (Uncle Tom, Simon Legree) that their names live on even today.

Some critics of the day maintained that Uncle Tom’s Cabin fomented tensions that resulted in the Civil War. Reportedly, when Harriet visited the White House in 1862, President Lincoln greeted her with “So, you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” Although Lincoln was exaggerating for the sake of a joke, the critics may have been right: It’s not outlandish to attribute large-scale changes in attitude toward slavery to a book that was read by so many people. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe would live a long life and write many more books, Uncle Tom’s Cabin would stand as her most memorable work, and it’s still considered by many to be one of the most influential books in American history.

Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson: In 1982, Lady Bird Johnson founded the Lady Bird Wildflower Center in Texas to preserve and promote the beauty of the land. She once said: “My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.” (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

In 1982, Lady Bird Johnson founded the Lady Bird Wildflower Center in Texas to preserve and promote the beauty of the land. She once said: “My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.” (Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

As we’ve seen, Coretta Scott King strongly supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fortunately, she was not alone. She had a powerful ally in the First Lady of the land, who felt so strongly about the legislation that she chartered both a train and a plane, both dubbed “The Lady Bird Special,” to promote it throughout the South. This extensive “whistle stop” tour was but one example of the forthright way in which Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of Lyndon Baines Johnson, expressed her point of view for causes she believed in.

Born Claudia Taylor, Lady Bird gained her unusual nickname as a child when a nursemaid cooed that she was “purty as a lady bird.” The nickname would prove uncannily appropriate since as a child she loved nature and as an adult she would act to conserve and preserve it. The Highway Beautification Act of 1965, often called the “Lady Bird Bill,” was one of her many efforts to improve the nation’s landscape, which also included efforts to beautify Washington, D.C. and parts of Texas. She would eventually co-found the Lady Bird National Wildflower Center in Austin, which is devoted to preserving native plants and promoting their use in an earth-friendly way.

Lady Bird’s interest in the environment and other humanitarian causes would eventually lead to a slew of high-profile honors, including The Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the two highest civilian honors bestowed in the United States. While Earth Day wouldn’t become an event until 1970, Lady Bird Johnson had already taken very visible steps to improving conservation in our country. She also made plenty of friends along the way, all of whom regarded her as a kind and subtly effective woman who managed to achieve a great deal apart from her often pugnacious and outspoken husband.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton Photo

Hillary Rodham Clinton (Photo: John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images)

Possibly more than any other wife on this list, Hillary Clinton has distinguished herself as a distinct person who operates independently of her famous husband. This takes some doing when your famous husband happens to have been President of the United States for two terms. And yet, even as she prepares once again to run for the office herself, Hillary Clinton raises the possibility that when the history books are written, the Clinton that will be most remembered in American politics may not be named Bill.

Beginning her career as a skilled lawyer, Hillary Rodham learned her political lessons while accompanying her husband on his upward career trajectory. When he became the governor of Arkansas, and eventually, President of the United States, she didn’t remain idle in either circumstance. In 80s Arkansas, she reformed the educational system and worked for children’s rights, while as the country’s First Lady in the 90s, she made the first inroads toward a national health system overhaul. She was the most politically engaged First Lady in decades, and her involvement echoed the approach of Eleanor Roosevelt years before.

Although scandal clouded Bill Clinton’s presidency for both partners, Hillary remained committed to public life. She became the first First Lady to be elected to office when she became a New York state senator in 2000, and she made her first bid for the presidency in 2008. She lost the nomination of her party to Barack Obama, but she accepted a cabinet position in his first administration as Secretary of State. She became the most traveled Secretary of State in history, visiting over a hundred countries. Diplomatic breakthroughs were few on her watch, but she shifted the conversation away from the more rigid foreign policy associated with the previous administration and emphasized the welfare of women and girls abroad.

The remaining chapters have yet to be written for Hillary Clinton, but whether she becomes our 45th president or returns to civilian life, she has already accomplished what no former First Lady has done before. Like the other wives on this list, she has stepped out of the shadow of her husband and made an indelible mark of her own.