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The secret lives of the iconic First Ladies

Sometimes, I imagine myself as First Lady.

I know what you’re thinking: Chelsea, why don’t you imagine yourself as President? Well, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because being president just seems so thankless and annoying most of the time (First Ladies are traditionally better-liked than their husbands). Or maybe it’s because I don’t feel like going prematurely grey like Barack Obama did. Or maybe it’s because I want to be Michelle Obama, who’s spent the last eight years continuing the trend of elevating the First Lady beyond White House “hostess”.

Besides the fact that I couldn’t possibly host anything (I’d most likely bow out of my own parties), I probably wouldn’t even survive the campaign trail. People would dredge up my NC-17 Vampire Diaries fan-fiction or ask about my tweets regarding the 2016 presidential election, or God forbid they find my Tumblr. I’d have to answer for my Facebook photos, my selfie-laden Instagram and sporadically updated WordPress. Good luck to the first First Lady who has to deal with all that. Even if I made it to the White House, I’d have to be charming and tactful around people I may find a little annoying or massively loathsome, plan events I wouldn’t entirely care about, and of course I’d have to live up to the greatness of Michelle Obama and the First Ladies who came before her – women who tackled their hostessing duties along with challenges unique to the position.

Not all of them enjoyed the role, but all of them molded it to suit their personalities – and one even used it to catapult herself to a Democratic presidential nomination.

The Incumbent 

 For Harriet
For Harriet

Michelle Obama was unimpressed by Barack Obama’s decision to run for President, but she eventually came around. Before becoming First Lady she was a lawyer and then moved into community service, where she eventually landed a gig as VP of Community Outreach at a Chicago hospital. She carried over her interest in public service to being First Lady. Michelle even helped launch the United State of Women Summit to celebrate and promote change for American women. The summit was the most recent realization of Michelle’s goals as First Lady. Over the past eight years, Michelle’s kickstarted initiatives to end childhood obesity, to support veterans and their families, to encourage children to continue their education post-high school and to educate women across the world. 

She does all this while maintaining an approval rating higher than the president’s. And looking really good all the timeAnd making speeches. And landing on lists of the most influential and most inspiring. And being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. And just being lovely. As the first black First Lady, Michelle’s also dealt with the unique trials that come with being a very visible black woman. And she’s done it very well, cue Oprah Winfrey quoting Maya Angelou when she said Michelle Obama makes us “proud to spell my name w-o-m-a-n.”

The Original First Lady


Like all public roles, the White House carries with it the threat of political opposition and public scorn. Even minus these two factors, the attention that accompanies the change of address means a total lifestyle change. Women in particular are placed beneath a political microscope to have their every move is scrutinized. The very first First Lady Martha Washington wasn’t a fan. She was totally put off by the turn her life took after George Washington was named president, unable to do anything without being hounded by the press, and though she remained gracious she described herself as “more like a state prisoner than anything else.” At the end of Washington’s term she thought they’d be able to retire to private life, it didn’t work out that way, and even after his death she was hit up for social calls.

The National Hero

 First Ladies
First Ladies

Unlike Martha, First Lady number three Dolley Madison slipped effortlessly into the role with few reservations. Even before becoming First Lady herself, she was called on by Thomas Jefferson (whose wife had died years before he took office) to serve in the role. That was the usual if a president didn’t have a wife to fulfill the role of “hostess”, but it was usually a female relative tapped to do the job. Between her trendsetting fashions and warm personality, she helped bolster her husband’s presidency and became a celebrity of her time. After the White House’s burning in 1814, Dolley refused to leave the White House until a number of historical pieces had been removed, including a painting of George Washington, and this had her named a national hero. After her death she was the first to be called “First Lady” when she was eulogized by Zachary Taylor.

The Icon


Dolley likely would have loved, and Martha loathed, what came down the line with Jackie Kennedy, the 37th First Lady. With her iconic fashion sense, Jackie’s role as First Lady was highly visible and one of the most photographed. While Jackie was promoting the arts and inviting writers, musicians, and scientists to mingle with the political elite, she also restored the White House to a bastion of American history. Being multilingual (she spoke English, French, Spanish and Italian) heightened her popularity internationally. To keep up with the Jackie and her husband’s extreme popularity, the first White House photographer was appointed. Overall, the Kennedys’ time in the White House made the presidency look incredibly glamorous, but for their family it was anything but.

In August of 1963 Jackie gave birth to Patrick Kennedy, but his death days later sent the family reeling. The Kennedys’ marriage was troubled before that (with JFK rumoured to have had more than one affair), but their union to be permanently broken when JFK was assassinated three months later. As their motorcade rolled through Dallas, JFK was shot with Jackie beside him, and she survived with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression she’d just begun to conquer after her son’s death. Her post-First Lady life was much brighter. She remarried and became a book editor, picking up the career she’d pressed pause on when she became First Lady.

The Redefiner 

 The Justice
The Justice

Another part of the First Lady role is not keeping an outside job. As time progresses, it’s becoming increasingly ridiculous to ask women to give up lucrative careers to devote four (and potentially eight) years to their husband’s political ambitions. Even the Second Lady hasn’t traditionally escaped this. Jill Biden is the first to keep her job since her husband became VP. But even years ago First Ladies were doing what they could as First Lady even without a specific “job”. Eleanor Roosevelt, our 34th First Lady, broadened the role of beyond organizing social events and being friendly to political allies.

By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, Eleanor had been working as a radio commentator and writer for a decade and had no plans of stopping. Ignoring criticism that it was “undignified for the president’s wife to undertake such overtly commercial ventures”, Eleanor pulled in thousands of dollars with her radio broadcasts, public speaking events, books and columns (like the nationally-syndicated “My Day”) all of which she used to draw attention to political issues including racial and gender equality. She started having her own press conferences and allowed only women reporters to take part. One of those reporters was a woman Eleanor was later rumored to have had an affair with, Lorena Hickok. When FDR’s final (and fourth) term ended, Eleanor became a United Nations spokeswoman, and in a testament to her incredible influence, everyone in the room stood to recognize her when she first came in. Applauded for her political savvy, Eleanor is considered one of the best First Ladies America has ever seen.

The Activist


Eleanor’s political outspokenness was echoed in Betty Ford, our 40th First Lady, though her years in the White House were marked by her unique brand of honesty and candor. With the Republican party trying to recover from Watergate (President Ford was Nixon’s replacement after he resigned). Betty’s casual discussion of taboo topics didn’t go over well. Among other things Betty talked about how frequently she and the president had sex (“as often as possible”), premarital sex, drug use, and her vocality about her mastectomy increased breast awareness.  It didn’t help that she called Roe v. Wade “the best thing in the world” and campaigned hard for the Equal Rights Amendment.

But Betty’s approval ratings remained high – way higher than her husband’s. Despite campaign buttons reading, “Betty’s Husband For President”, Gerald Ford lost the presidential election. Still Betty’s influence remained, and so did her openness. She was vocal about her treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and established the Betty Ford Center to help similarly affected women. After her death in 2011, The Nation said she was “one of the last nationally recognized and respected champions of socially liberal Republicanism”.

These are only a few of the First Ladies to leave their footprint on American history. Others, like Edith Wilson, took control to decide what was worthy of the president’s attention after his stroke. She was heavily criticized for it and assured the public she didn’t make major policy decisions, but we have no way of knowing for sure. Lady Bird Johnson, who financed her husband’s first run for Congress, was the first to have her own staff. Rosalynn Carter was the first to have her own office in the East Wing. And there are dozens of other things I could tell you about the First Ladies who did their part and promoted change from their unpaid position in the White House, lending their time and their spirit to the country while going mostly unmentioned in history lessons.

By Chelsea Hensley

Chelsea A. Hensley is a writer from St. Louis. She recently graduated with a BA in English from the University of Missouri. When she isn’t writing, she's enjoying a book, watching Netflix or listening to Beyoncé. Sometimes she even tries to do all three at once.