First Ladies and Their Causes

The first lady of the United States plays a vital role in setting the tone for the national office. Though it is not an official job, first ladies throughout U.S. history have entertained, served as advisors to their husbands and have set fashion trends...
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The first lady of the United States plays a vital role in setting the tone for the national office. Though it is not an official job, first ladies throughout U.S. history have entertained, served as advisors to their husbands and have set fashion trends. Many first ladies have also been passionate about specific causes. As we honor important women in March, let's look back at some of the causes our first ladies have held dear.

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Dolley Madison (1809-1817) Legend has it that President Zachary Taylor referred to Dolley Madison as "first lady" at her funeral, coining the term we still use today. Before her husband was elected president, Dolley served as a hostess for President Thomas Jefferson, a widower. As first lady, Madison was known for her flamboyant parties and her strong personality. She was also a well-known supporter of many charities, including the Washington City Orphan Asylum, which was founded in 1815 to help poor children without families. Madison's interest in caring for orphans helped inspire a long line of first ladies who became dedicated to helping the nation's youth.

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Mary Todd Lincoln (1861-1865) Mary Todd Lincoln served as first lady during one of the most difficult eras in U.S. history. During the Civil War, she became active in efforts to provide care and services to Union soldiers, and she visited troops with President Abraham Lincoln. She marshaled resources for the Contraband Relief Association, an organization which helped recently freed former slaves and injured soldiers. These activities have been overshadowed by Mary Todd's erratic behavior throughout her term as first lady and for her immense grief after Lincoln's assassination in 1865.

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Lucy Webb Hayes (1877-1881) As the first of the first ladies to graduate from college, Lucy Hayes was a national role model for women's education. Her husband, President Rutherford B. Hayes, made the controversial decision to ban alcoholic beverages from White House functions, a choice Lucy stood firmly behind. Later nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy," she was an advocate of temperance but did not want to be officially connected with the cause. Instead, she visited many schools including African-American Hampton College and the National Deaf Mute College in Washington, D.C., to show her commitment to education for all. Hayes also believed in caring for the nation's Civil War veterans. She helped several of them keep positions on the White House staff, and she frequently visited injured vets at the National Soldier's Home in Maryland.

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Lou Henry Hoover (1929-1933) A worldwide traveler who studied geology at Stanford University where she met her future husband, Herbert Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover loved the outdoors from a young age. She drove her own car from California to Washington, D.C. in 1921, and she camped by pack mule through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Hoover was passionate about athletics and was a founder of the National Amateur Athletic Foundation. She was also an active leader in the Girl Scouts of America for many years, and transitioned to honorary president after she became first lady. She challenged segregationists by inviting African Americans to visit the White House and advocating for equal rights. Hoover encouraged all women to become active, enjoy nature and pursue an education.

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Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-1945) Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most popular first ladies of the 20th century. She was a humanitarian who championed equal rights for all, and she transformed the role of the first lady during the challenging Great Depression era. A pioneer in her time, Roosevelt formed her own staff, held press conferences, and traveled throughout the nation and the world. She was a powerful opponent of segregation and lynching, and she fought actively for equality for African Americans. After her term as first lady, Roosevelt helped create the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, remaining an important figure on the world stage.

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Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson (1963-1969) After her husband, President Lyndon Johnson, announced his Great Society plan to reinvigorate America, Lady Bird Johnson launched a campaign to inspire communities to clean up neighborhoods and highways. “Beautification” was critical, she argued, and people would become more active participants in their communities if the landscapes around them were clean and vibrant. Her advocacy helped lead to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which set up limitations on outdoor advertising and provided funding for cleaning up highways.

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Betty Ford (1974-1977) Betty Ford is probably best known for her role in helping reduce the stigma of alcoholism after admitting her struggle with the disease and opening the Betty Ford Clinic. But she was also one of the nation's most active and outspoken first ladies. In the wake of Watergate, she vowed the White House would try not to keep secrets and she would do her part in ensuring that openness. Shortly after her husband Gerald Ford was elected, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ford spoke publicly about her mastectomy, inspiring other women to learn about the disease. She was a vocal believer in equal opportunity for women, and she was devoted to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Despite criticism from conservatives, some of whom called her “No Lady,” her approval ratings remained high throughout her term as first lady.

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Nancy Reagan (1981-1989) When Ronald Reagan was elected president, the nation seemed to be responding against the cultural experimentation of previous decades. As first lady, Nancy Reagan's name became almost synonymous with her Just Say No campaign against drug abuse. With a national emphasis on small government, Nancy Reagan urged communities to solve social problems by spreading the word about the dangers of drug abuse and premarital sex. Known for her crisp style and candid demeanor, she spoke nationally about these issues and enlisted celebrities to help her in the cause. Though this approach was later criticized for being too simplistic, at the time First Lady Reagan captured the nation's imagination with her advocacy.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton (1993-2001) Today Hillary Clinton is known as a world leader through her role as Secretary of State. As first lady, she played many different roles. Clinton poured her energies into devising a better health care system. Though the plan never took hold, she helped raise the visibility of health care issues nationwide. Clinton was also a strong supporter of historic preservation and education as honorary chair of the Save America's Treasures committee. This program provided resources and funds to help communities preserve valuable documents, sites and structures. Clinton also helped announce the conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. This historic flag is currently on display at the museum in Washington, D.C.