One of the most powerful positions in the world is unelected, unpaid, and technically has no official authority. The wife of the President of the United States — the first lady — is a position not spelled out in the Constitution or any other legislative document. Although constitutionally powerless, the first lady wields great influence, not only upon her husband but also upon the public.
As of this writing, fifty-three women have occupied the role of first lady. Forty-two have held the position by virtue of being married to the president; eleven served in that role in an acting capacity as official White House hostess.
Some, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, took an active public role in shaping policy. Others, such as Bess Truman, shunned the limelight, yet unquestionably played a pivotal role in the nation’s history because of her access to and influence over her husband. Whether widely-known or not, each of these women deserves recognition, due to the way history has been shaped under their hands. Take a look at this first part of a four-part series of interesting facts about the First Ladies of the United States.
1. Martha Washington, 1731-1802
George Washington’s marriage to widow Martha Custis guaranteed her position as the first of the First Ladies. The title was given to her by the press, and throughout the country, she became known as “Lady Washington.” In 1902, she became the first presidential spouse to appear on a postage stamp.
2. Abigail Adams, 1744-1818
John Adams’ wife was the first of the First Ladies to reside in the White House. On his first night in the mansion, the president wrote, “May none but honorable and wise men ever rule under its roof.” We may imagine Abigail gently reproved him about the gender exclusivity of his prayer. Several years before, as her husband participated in the discussions concerning the impending declaration of independence from British rule, she wrote to him, urging, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
3. Martha Jefferson, 1772-1836
Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, passed away 18 years before he became the third President of the United States. No known portrait exists of her. Upon Jefferson’s election, his daughter, who was also named Martha, served as the official hostess for her father. She was the first to give birth in the presidential mansion in Washington, D.C.
4. Dolley Madison, 1768-1849
James Madison’s wife got a chance to serve as the first lady in two administrations. Before her husband became the nation’s fourth president, she frequently served as official hostess for his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson. She is the only first lady given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress, and was the first American to send a private message by telegraph. In 1844, when the first telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore was completed, Dolley Madison was invited to send the first message over the line. When she arrived, she asked, “What is it you wish me to do, gentlemen?” Someone replied, “To send a message to Baltimore, and get a reply in a few minutes.” After expressing her disbelief and wonder at this statement, Mrs. Madison remembered that her friend Mrs. Wethered resided in Baltimore. She dictated the following message: “Message from Mrs. Madison. She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered.”
5. Elizabeth Monroe, 1768-1830
Long before Jaqueline Kennedy became the talk of Paris, James Monroe’s wife held France in thrall. She was known as “La Belle Americaine” because of her popularity among the French people and her famed beauty. Her influence in France helped save the life of Adrienne de La Fayette during France’s Reign of Terror. She was the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, who assisted in the U.S. Revolutionary War.
6. Louisa Adams, 1775-1852
The wife of John Quincy Adams was the first wife of a president born in a foreign country. She was the only First Lady with this distinction for nearly 200 years until Melania Trump joined the club in 2017. She was quite imaginative and allowed her creativity to come out through the writing of satirical plays, playing the harp, and raising silkworms.
7. Emily Donelson, 1807-1836
Andrew Jackson’s celebration upon being elected as the 7th president of the United States was short-lived. His wife, Rachel Jackson (1767-1828), died six weeks after the election, before he could move to Washington to commence his term in office. Rachel’s niece, Emily Donelson, served as official hostess for most of her uncle’s administration.
Emily would have found kindred spirits in future First Ladies, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush, in that she was known for being graceful, charming, witty, and a strong advocate for literacy for all.
8. Sarah Yorke Jackson, 1803-1887
Sarah Yorke married Andrew Jackson’s adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr., in 1831. The couple enjoyed an extended honeymoon at the White House before leaving for Jackson’s home in Tennessee, The Hermitage. They stayed there for nearly three years until a fire destroyed much of the main house. They then returned to Washington, now with two young children, and resumed their stay at the White House.
For the next year and a half, the White House enjoyed co-First Ladies. Sarah joined with Emily Donelson to oversee all of the White House’s social functions. Despite occasional awkwardness, the arrangement worked out well. The President differentiated between the two women, referring to Sarah as “Mistress of the Hermitage” to avoid stepping on Emily’s toes.
In 1836, Emily died of tuberculosis, leaving Sarah as sole hostess of the White House for the remainder of her father-in-law’s term.
9. Angelica Van Buren, 1818-1877
Martin Van Buren entered office as a widower. His wife, Hannah Van Buren (1783-1819), died 18 years before he became the 8th president of the United States. For over a year and a half, the White House went without a hostess for the first time. Van Buren’s son, Abraham, married Angelica Singleton in 1838, and she immediately assumed the role of First Lady for her father-in-law.
Angelica had a good tutor for her new role in her cousin, former First Lady Dolley Madison. In 1837, Angelica and Abraham took an extensive tour of Europe and met Queen Victoria and France’s King Louis Philippe. Upon her return to Washington, she attempted to incorporate European customs into White House social settings. This was not well received by the Washington elite, and it contributed to Martin Van Buren’s reputation of being out of touch with the common man.
10. Anna Harrison, 1775-1864
William Henry Harrison’s wife held the title of First Lady for only 32 days, since her husband died shortly after assuming office. Despite this short tenure, she still has the distinction of being the only woman to have been both the spouse of one president and grandmother to another (Benjamin Harrison). She was the first of the First Ladies to receive a formal education. The Harrisons had ten children, but most of them died young. One died infancy, and seven in their 20s or 30s. Only two lived beyond age 35, and only one beyond 50. Nine of their 10 children preceded her in death.
11. Jane Harrison, 1804-1846
Despite the fact that William Henry Harrison’s administration was the shortest in American History, the White House had two First Ladies during that time. Anna Harrison was too ill to travel to Washington, D.C. with her husband for his inauguration, and she was not able to join him there before he passed away. Consequently, she never lived in the White House. Their daughter-in-law, Jane Harrison (1804-1846), served as hostess for White House social functions during that brief month.
12. Letitia Tyler, 1790-1842
John Tyler’s first wife suffered a stroke several years before becoming First Lady. She served in that role, despite her physical limitations for 18 months until a second stroke ended her life. She became the first of three First Ladies to die in the White House.
Read more fun facts about Presidents.
Read more fun facts about marriage.