The First Ladies
Martha Washington to Jill Biden
President Washington’s wife was the first to be called “lady” by the press—Lady Washington—and the first presidential spouse to appear on a postage stamp.
She urged her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” during the 1776 drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Abigail was also the first to be the wife and mother of a president and the first to reside in the White House.
There is not a known portrait of Mrs. Jefferson in existence. She died eighteen years before her husband’s 1800 election. Their daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, became White House hostess and was the first to give birth in the presidential mansion.
James Madison’s wife was the only first lady given an honorary seat on the floor of congress, and the first American to respond to a telegraph message sent by its inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse.
James Monroe’s wife ended the custom of making the first social call on the wives of the other officials in Washington; for that, the insulted women boycotted her White House receptions.
John Quincy Adams’s wife was the firstborn in a foreign country–England. She played the harp, composed satirical plays, and raised silkworms.
Andrew Jackson’s wife was accused of bigamy; rumor said she married Jackson before her divorce was final. She lived to see Jackson elected, but not inaugurated. Her niece, Emily Donelson, was the substitute White House hostess for most of his two terms.
Martin Van Buren’s wife—his second cousin—died 18 years before he was elected president. Their daughter-in-law, Angelica Van Buren, was the White House hostess the last two years of his term.
William Henry Harrison’s wife was the only spouse and grandmother of a president (Benjamin Harrison). She never lived in the White House; her husband died a month after his inauguration; their daughter-in-law, Jane Harrison, was the White House hostess for the shortest time in history: 30 days.
John Tyler’s first wife, a stroke victim, died in the White House. Their daughter, Letty Tyler Semple, and daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler, filled in as the hostesses until Tyler eloped with his second wife, Julia (1820-1889). She was the first presidential spouse who was photographed.
James Polk’s wife worked as his unpaid secretary; forbade dancing and card playing in the White House.
Zachary Taylor’s wife learned to shoot while they lived on the frontier. By the time she moved into the White House, Mrs. Taylor transferred her first lady responsibilities to her daughter, Betsy Taylor Bliss.
Millard Fillmore’s wife was the first to work before her marriage. She was a schoolteacher. She died three weeks after leaving the White House, and he married a wealthy widow.
Jane Pierce discouraged her husband’s interest in politics. Two months before his inauguration, Mrs. Pierce witnessed the gruesome decapitation of their only living son, in a train accident, and never recovered from the trauma.
James Buchanan’s niece was the White House hostess for America’s only bachelor president. An enthusiastic collector of art, Lane bequeathed her collection to the Smithsonian.
Abraham Lincoln’s wife was the first to hold seances in the White House, and to be excoriated by the press for her lavish purchases of clothing and furnishings during the Civil War.
Andrew Johnson’s wife taught him how to spell and pronounce words, properly, but tuberculosis prevented her from performing her first lady duties. Their daughter, Martha Patterson, substituted; she also milked the White House cows every morning.
The cross-eyed Mrs. Grant owned slaves during the Civil War, while her husband was the general of the Union Army.
The Hayes’ were the first presidential couple to ban alcoholic beverages from the White House, but they hosted the first Easter Egg Roll on the lawn.
James A. Garfield’s wife was doing historical research on the Mansion, when her husband was shot; he died two months later.
Chester A. Arthur’s wife was a contralto singer who got pneumonia after a concert; she died 20 months before he was elected president. His sister, Mary Arthur Elroy, stood in for the first lady; later, she joined the anti-suffrage movement.
Grover Cleveland’s wife was the youngest first lady—21—and the only bride of a president to marry and give birth in the White House. Baby Ruth candy was named in honor of their daughter.
Benjamin Harrison (grandson of President William Henry Harrison; see #9) and his wife, were the first to use electricity and have a Christmas tree in the White House. After her death, the president married her social secretary-niece, Mary Dimmock Harrison.
24. ** Grover Cleveland **
William McKinley’s wife was the only first lady to work as a bank teller/ manager, to urge her husband to retain the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.
A year after his first wife died, Theodore Roosevelt married Edith Carow. The family moved into the White House after President McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
William Howard Taft’s wife was the first to own and drive a car; ride in her husband’s inaugural parade; support women’s suffrage; publish her memoirs; smoke, and lobby–successfully–for safety standards in federal workplaces.
Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, was the only artist-presidential spouse; after she died, he married Edith Bolling Galt, a direct descendant of Pocahontas.
Warren G. Harding’s wife was the first to vote; fly; operate a movie camera; own a radio, and entertain movie stars at the White House. She was also accused of poisoning her husband, who died during his third year in office.
Calvin Coolidge’s wife was a teacher of the deaf, and the first, to speak in sound newsreels.
The only geology major at Stanford, Herbert Hoover’s wife was a scholar and a linguist who spoke Chinese, Latin, French, German, and Italian.
FDR’s spouse was the first who managed to have regular press conferences; write a daily column; a monthly magazine column, and host a weekly radio show.
Harry S. Truman’s wife worked as her husband’s salaried Senate aide, but as the first lady, she never gave an interview.
Dwight Eisenhower’s wife appeared in television commercials promoting him as president, and she enjoyed watching soap operas in the White House.
JFK’s wife was the first to engage a press secretary, a curator, and earn an Emmy award for her televised White House tour.
Nicknamed “Lady Bird” as a child, LBJ’s wife created her own campaign for her husband’s 1964 election and lobbied for the beautification of America.
Richard Nixon’s wife created tours for the blind and deaf; she was also the first to wear pants in public.
Gerald Ford’s wife once danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Later, she founded an alcohol and drug treatment center in Rancho Mirage, CA.
Jimmy Carter’s wife had her own office in the White House and lobbied against the stigmas of mental illness.
Ronald Reagan’s wife was a Hollywood actress and a governor’s wife. She appeared in a video to inaugurate her “Just Say No”/Anti-Drug Campaign.
George Bush’s wife was the second first lady to be the wife and mother of a president, and the only one to write a memoir from the perspective of her dog, Millie.
Bill Clinton’s wife was the only first lady to become a senator, Secretary of State, and presidential nominee for a major party.
Laura Bush is the only first lady to give birth to twins, work as a librarian, and substitute for the president on his weekly radio address.
Barack Obama’s wife is the first African American first lady. She endorsed a plethora of programs to plant “victory” gardens, reduce obesity, and assist military families.
Donald Trump’s wife was the second first lady born out of the country–Slovenia–and the only one to embrace anti-bullying as her cause.
The first with a full-time job, Dr. Biden is a professor of English.
Source: “National First Ladies’ Library: Fascinating Facts”
Information is the property of the National First Ladies’ Library and
Historic Site; Canton, Ohio
***Some material has been augmented, modified or deleted.