The First Lady

Although there is no mention of the role of first lady in the Constitution, it has developed into an important position in American government. After all, perhaps no other person carries as much influence with the president as his spouse.

First Ladies and Their Causes

Whereas first ladies were once confined to simply setting the social calendar and hosting White House receptions, today they work on issues of public policy and advance agendas based on their own interests. Recent first ladies have adopted the following causes:

  • Jacqueline Kennedy devoted herself to restoring the White House and establishing the White House Historical Association.

  • Lady Bird Johnson continued Jacqueline Kennedy's work, creating the First Ladies Commission for a More Beautiful Capital.

  • Pat Nixon enhanced the White House art collection and was a strong proponent of volunteerism.

  • Betty Ford was closely identified with her fight against drug and alcohol abuse, and founded the Betty Ford clinic.

  • Rosalynn Carter worked with the mentally ill, and served as the honorary chairwoman of the President's Commission on Mental Health.

  • Nancy Reagan started the “Just Say No” campaign, an anti-drug and anti-alcohol program targeted at young Americans.

  • Barbara Bush focused on adult literacy and elderly care.

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton took an active role in public policy, serving as chairwoman of the National Commission on Health Care Reform. She was also an advocate for children, and author of the bestselling book It Takes a Village.

  • Laura Bush, like her mother-in-law, has promoted literacy. She also played an important role in comforting parents and children across the country in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

  • Three Who Stood Out

    Of the thirty-eight women who have occupied the White House as first ladies, three in particular have stood out for their achievements, and have helped shape the role.

    Eleanor Roosevelt

    Eleanor Roosevelt revolutionized the role of first lady, transforming it from hostess to public policy advocate. Eleanor was a tireless advocate for the poor and underprivileged, reaching out to millions through barnstorming tours, a weekly newspaper column, press conferences, and frequent radio interviews. After leaving the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt carried on her husband's legacy of social activism, and also served as the United States ambassador to the United Nations.

    Jacqueline Kennedy

    Perhaps more than any first lady before or since, Jacqueline Kennedy is responsible for restoring the beauty and elegance of the White House. Her interest in the arts, culture, and the history of the White House captured the imagination of the country, and added to the youthful and energetic image of her husband's administration. Jacqueline Kennedy won the admiration of the world for her strength and courage following the assassination of President Kennedy.

    Hillary Rodham Clinton

    Eleanor Roosevelt began the transformation of the role of first lady, and Hillary Rodham Clinton completed it, elevating the role of public policy advocate to the primary responsibility of the first lady. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, her public service did not end after leaving the White House. As the junior senator from New York, she is the only first lady to hold elected office. Hillary Clinton blazed a new path while first lady, and continues to do so in the U.S. Senate. There are some who believe that she might even run for president someday.

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