The Ongoing Evolution of the Position of First Lady


The Ongoing Evolution of the Position of First Lady

By Katelyn Warren (UCSB 2023)
American Presidency Project Research Assistant
June 5, 2023

With edits by Carson Mills (UCSB 2025)
American Presidency Project Research Assistant
December 15, 2023

The Title of "First Lady"

There is no consensus regarding precisely when and where the term “first lady” originated. It is widely agreed that the term gained mainstream popularity and acceptance sometime between the middle of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Before “first lady” was popularized, the president's spouse or hostess was referred to as “Lady,” “the president’s wife,” or “Mrs. President.”[1]

Some credit President Zachary Taylor with coining the term “first lady” when he used the term to refer to Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, in an 1849 eulogy.[2] However, there is no explicit evidence that confirms this. Others credit a 1911 play, The First Lady in the Land, also celebrating First Lady Dolley Madison, for popularizing the term.

The media played an influential role in formulating the title of “first lady.” Variations such as “first lady of the land” and “first lady of the republic” were attributed to various first ladies before the widespread adoption of the shortened “first lady” around the time of Lou Hoover (1929). The title of “first lady” became common after Eleanor Roosevelt’s precedent-setting term.[3]

The Role

By virtue of their position, first ladies can have significant social and political influence. Even more than for the presidency, formal and legal norms do not shape the first lady’s role. First ladies are unelected and unpaid. So, each decides how much to resist stereotypical gender roles. They have made those decisions in light of presidential views, marital dynamics, lack of staff and budgetary support, and social gender norms.[4] First ladies have often achieved wide-ranging influence through service as social hostess, political partner, advocate for social causes, and campaigner.

The Early Years

Early first ladies’ social and political influence was mediated by strict social gender norms and expectations. Marriage was one of the few avenues through which women could access political power prior to women's suffrage. The position of first lady was the pinnacle of this. Martha Washington (1789-1797), as the first “first lady,” established the precedent that first ladies act as social hostesses responsible for organizing and attending formal Presidential social functions. This social role aligned well with gendered notions of domesticity, but it also provided first ladies with close access to foreign dignitaries and other political figures.

To use a famous example, Dolley Madison (1809-1817), strategically assigned seating at formal functions to group her husband’s foes apart from his supporters. This arrangement allowed her to use her personal charisma to charm the president’s allies. Similarly, Julia Grant (1869-1877) skillfully used formal social functions to enhance the image of the Grant presidency, bringing positivity to an otherwise uninventive presidential term.

Several first ladies of the nineteenth century delegated their hostess duties to younger female family members to avoid public attention and scrutiny, or occasionally in instances of illness. For example, Margaret Taylor (1849-1850) delegated hostess duties to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Taylor, when she fell ill. Similarly, Abigail Fillmore (1850-1853) assigned her daughter, Mary Abigail, to attend formal functions in her place because she did not enjoy participating in social functions.

As gender roles shifted and became more equitable, modern first ladies expanded their role and grounded their influence in more substantive activities and projects. Nonetheless, the political relevance of the social function of the first lady remains a fundamental expectation of the position.

Transforming Duties and Expectations

The increasing visibility of women in public life starting in the late nineteenth century signaled the beginning of a significant shift in social gender norms and expectations. However, this shift in norms did not immediately change in the role of the first lady. First ladies, ironically, have historically done little to advocate explicitly for women and/or women’s issues. Lucy Hayes (1877-1881) may be an exception, given her strong advocacy of temperance. One of the goals of the Temperance Movement was to reduce instances of domestic violence, an issue that disproportionately impacts women.[5]

Nonetheless, the role of the first lady underwent substantial change in the early twentieth century, partly due to the result of growing media interest and publicity. Julia Tyler (1844-1845) was the first to marry a president in office. But Frances Cleveland's 1886 White House wedding garnered substantial public attention. She extended this attention into her role as a co-campaigner during President Cleveland’s second and third campaigns.[6] Edith Roosevelt (1901-1909) made numerous public appearances. She set a new precedent by hiring her own staff and taking on a more public role in policy and personnel decisions.

Some first ladies responded to public backlash against advocates of women’s rights by reverting to a less public, more traditional hostess role. According to Caroli (2019), Florence Harding (1921-1923) and Grace Coolidge (1923-1929) were first ladies who took a less ambitious approach to the role.[7]

A major change in media and public expectations involved first-lady engagement with specific issues. From the mid-20th century, many first ladies led issue campaigns including Nancy Reagan’s (1981-1989) “Just Say No” anti-drug program. Barbara Bush (1989-1993) campaigned for improving literacy. Some concern was expressed about anyone in a role so ambiguously defined in legal terms but with such access to power—i.e., the first lady—would actively advocate for specific issues. Nonetheless, campaigning, broadcasting public appearances, and identifying with a specific cause or issue were commonly practiced and expected by the end of the 20th-century.

New Opportunities for the Role of the First Lady

Two recent changes have been important in changing the role: the evolution of a far more formalized White House office, and normalizing advanced formal education of first ladies. 

First ladies have assumed high-profile political roles at least since Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-1945). She helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a US Representative to the UN Commission of Human Rights.

Rosalynn Carter (1977-1981) was the “first” first lady to keep her own office in the East Wing. She also served as a lead envoy on a 1977 U.S. delegation to seven Latin American and Caribbean countries. During Rosalynn’s term, the Office of the First Lady was defined (1977), and she was the first to appoint a first lady “Chief of Staff.”[8]

The Office of the First Lady falls under the Executive Office (EOP) of the President and thus, per Public Law 95-570 (1978), is funded in the budget of the EOP.[9]

Among Hillary Clinton's many "firsts" (1993-2001), was serving as a close advisor to the president, chairing a task force assigned with reforming the American healthcare system, and operating out of an office in the West Wing.

Education. As of 1940, less than 30% of US females completed 4 years of high school, and fewer than 5% completed college.[10] However, the story was very different for first ladies. As we show in our table of first lady educational levels, by 1940, eight out of nine 20th century first ladies completed secondary school (88%). Two out of 9 (22%) had college degrees.

By 2022, US Census data showed that 23% of all women over age 18 have a bachelor’s degree—a substantial increase from 1940.[11] However, among the 14 first ladies serving between 1945 and 2022, 8 (or 57%) had bachelor’s degrees (or higher). Twelve of 14 had at least some post-secondary education. In this respect the first ladies have directly represented and led the changing role of women in society.

Both Hillary Clinton (1993-1999) and Michelle Obama (2009-2017) received J.D. degrees from prestigious law schools and practiced law before assuming their White House duties. Jill Biden (2021-present) has two master’s degrees (from West Chester State College and Villanova University) and a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware. Jill continued an active teaching career even while serving as first lady.

Looking Forward

There continues to be ambiguity about the role of the first lady, which has remained a consistent source of controversy. While AAPS v. Clinton (989 F. Supp. 8 1993) determined that the first lady is the “functional equivalent of a full-time federal officer or employee,” we can expect ongoing discussion and disagreement regarding the scope of the position.[12]

The plurality of the role emphasizes the balance first ladies must strike between having informal influence on policy while also setting new precedents that suit their priorities. Undoubtedly, first ladies who are willing to stake a larger claim for themselves are becoming the norm. They hold a position that is at the same time “cultural and political, informal and formal.”[13]

WORKS CONSULTED

AAPS v. Clinton, 997 F.2d 898 (D.C. Cir. 1993). https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/997/898/382236/

Borrelli, Mary Anne. “The First Lady as Formal Advisor to the President: When East (Wing) Meets West (Wing).” Women & Politics. Vol 24(1). 2002. Pp. 25-45.

Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: The Ever-changing Role, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Costello, Matthew. “The Origins of the American “First Lady.’” The White House Historical Association. March 3, 2017. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-origins-of-the-american-first-lady.

Eddins, Geri Zabela. “From White House Hostess to American Powerhouse: The Evolution of the First Lady’s Title and Role.” The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. https://ourwhitehouse.org/from-white-house-hostess-to-american-powerhouse/.

Han, Lori Cox and Diane J. Heith. Presidents and the American Presidency. Third Edition. May 26, 2022.

McCallops, James S. “Five: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson: The Protective Steward.” In the book, The Presidential Companion: Readings on the First Ladies. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2006). Pp. 102-125.

Thacker-Estrada, Elizabeth Lorelei. “Four: True Women.” In the book, The Presidential Companion: Readings on the First Ladies. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2006). Pp. 77-101.

The Chief of Staff Association. “The Chief of Staff to the First Lady.” The Gatekeeper. December 4, 2022, https://www.csa.org/csa-the-chief-of-staff-to-the-first-lady/

“The Story Behind ‘First Lady.’” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/first-lady-flotus-history-usage.

The White House President Barack Obama. “Executive Office of the President.” National Archives.https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/administration/eop.

US Census. “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2022” Table 1 https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/demo/tables/educational-attainment/2022/cps-detailed-tables/table-1-1.xlsx (accessed 1/4/2024)

US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 120 Years of American Education: A statistical portrait. January 1993. https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=93442 (accessed 1/4/2024

Watson, Robert P. “The ‘White Glove Pulpit’: A History of Policy Influence by First Ladies.” OAH Magazine of History. Vol. 15, No.3. Spring, 2001, Pp. 9-14.

“Women led the Temperance Charge.” Prohibition: An Interactive History. https://prohibition.themobmuseum.org/the-history/the-road-to-prohibition/the-temperance-movement/.

 

Footnotes

[1] Matthew Costello, “The Origins of the American “First Lady,’” The White House Historical Association, March 3, 2017, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-origins-of-the-american-first-lady

[2] “The Story Behind ‘First Lady,’” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/first-lady-flotus-history-usage

[3] Geri Zabela Eddins, “From White House Hostess to American Powerhouse: The Evolution of the First Lady’s Title and Role,” The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, https://ourwhitehouse.org/from-white-house-hostess-to-american-powerhouse/

[4] Watson, Robert P., “The ‘White Glove Pulpit’: A History of Policy Influence by First Ladies,” OAH Magazine of History. Vol. 15, No.3. Spring, 2001, Pp. 9-14.

[5] “Women led the Temperance Charge,” Prohibition: An Interactive History, https://prohibition.themobmuseum.org/the-history/the-road-to-prohibition/the-temperance-movement/.

[6] Ackerman, S. J. “The first celebrity first lady: Frances Cleveland.” The Washington Post. July 3, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/the-first-celebrity-first-lady-frances-cleveland/2014/06/27/a4a9bdf4-dd4b-11e3-bda1-9b46b2066796_story.html

[7] Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: The Ever-changing Role, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[8] The Chief of Staff Association, “The Chief of Staff to the First Lady,” The Gatekeeper, December 4, 2022, https://www.csa.org/csa-the-chief-of-staff-to-the-first-lady/

[9] The White House President Barack Obama, “Executive Office of the President,” National Archives, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/administration/eop.; Public Law 95-570. Nov. 2, 1978. https://uscode.house.gov/statviewer.htm?volume=92&page=2445

[10]US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait (January 1993) p. 8.

[11]US Census. “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2022” Table 1 https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/demo/tables/educational-attainment/2022/cps-detailed-tables/table-1-1.xlsx [downloads an excel table]

[12] AAPS v. Clinton, 997 F.2d 898 (D.C. Cir. 1993), https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/997/898/382236/; First ladies have consistently been the object of ardent criticism by those who believe they have not lived up to the expectations of the role in some way. For a deeper look into the Office of the First Lady, consult: Han, Lori Cox and Diane J. Heith. Presidents and the American Presidency. Third Edition. May 26, 2022.

[13] Borrelli, Mary Anne. “The First Lady as Formal Advisor to the President: When East (Wing) Meets West (Wing).” Women & Politics. Vol 24(1). 2002. Pp. 42.

Citation: Warren, Katelyn with Carson Mills, "The Ongoing Evolution of the Position of First Lady," The American Presidency Project, UCSB. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/361886