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How Much Do You Know About First Ladies?
This article is not a listing of every First Lady in American History. It is a listing of information I did not know about some of those women. What has surprised me in doing this research is how many of them have really interesting unknown facts about their lives. Some of the ones I’ve left out are the most well-known, which translates into there not being much left to learn.
Martha Washington by all accounts did not enjoy her time (George Washington 1789-1797) as First Lady, a term that was not used at the time. She had not supported his candidacy for the presidency and refused to attend his inauguration. She apparently had better things to do, such as managing the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, Mount Vernon. In a historic twist of fate, the Custis Lee Mansion, former home of Robert E. Lee that became the site of Arlington Cemetery, was built by her grandson.
America's only foreign-born First Lady, Louisa Adams, was the wife of president John Quincy Adams (1825-1829). She did not move to America until four years prior to marrying Adams. She wrote two unpublished books about her own life, with details about life as she observed it in Europe and Washington: Record of My Life in 1825, and (I love this title) The Adventures of a Nobody in 1840.
Rachel Donelson Jackson died before her husband Andrew could take office (1829 - 1837). She was buried on Christmas Eve 1828 in the white dress she had purchased for her husband's inaugural ceremonies to be held the following March. She had married Andrew Jackson in 1791, thinking that her first husband had divorced her, but he had not. The Jacksons had to remarry in 1794, giving rise to adultery and bigamy charges raised against Jackson when he ran for president.
Hannah Hoes Van Buren died of tuberculosis in 1819, almost two decades before her husband, Martin Van Buren, became president (1837 - 1841). They had four sons who survived to adulthood, and Van Buren never remarried.
Julia Gardiner married the widowed president, John Tyler (1841 – 1845), in 1844, which was the first time a president married while in office. He was also the first vice president to become president upon his predecessor’s death. During the Civil War, she lived in New York and worked to support the Confederacy. After her husband’s death she successfully persuaded Congress to grant her a pension, Congress then passed a law giving pensions to other presidential widows.
Jane Means Appleton Pierce married her husband, Franklin Pierce (president 1853 - 1857), despite her opposition to his already-fruitful political career. She blamed the death of their three children on his political ambitions. The third, Benjamin, died in a train wreck right before her eyes a matter of months before Franklin's inauguration. The inauguration was held without the usual celebration of an inaugural ball as the nation grieved along with the parents.
Mary Todd wife of Abraham Lincoln (president 1861 - 1865) saw three of her four sons die before reaching adulthood. After watching her husband being shot in the head while sitting next to her in their theater box, her surviving son had her committed briefly. America's first woman lawyer, Myra Bradwell, helped get her released.
Lucy Ware Webb Hayes was the first wife of an American president to have a college education. She's also known for instituting the annual Easter egg roll on the lawn of the White House.
Lucretia Randolph Garfield was a shy, devout, serious woman. The social life of Washington held no interest for her. In spite of what was widely considered a happy marriage, her husband James Garfield (president March - September 1881) was the first president to be publicly known for having extramarital affairs. He was shot in a train station in Washington by a disgruntled would-be White House employee, dying two months later.
Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur, Chester Alan Arthur's (1881 – 1885) beloved "Nell" died of pneumonia at the age of 42 the year before he was elected Vice President. He was still mourning her bitterly when he became President after the assassination of James Garfield. At the White House, Arthur would not give anyone the place that would have been his wife's. He presented a stained-glass window to St. John's Church in her memory, and had it was placed on the church’s south side so he could see the lights shining through it every night from the White House.
Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison (Carrie), wife of Benjamin Harrison (president 1885 - 1889), helped to found the Daughters of the American Revolution and also helped open Johns Hopkins University to women students. But she is best remembered for establishing the custom of having special White House dinnerware, a different pattern selected by each First Lady ever since.
Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt was a childhood friend of Theodore Roosevelt (president 1901 -1909), who grew up to see him marry someone else. When he was a widower with a young daughter they met again and were married in 1886. She was the first First Lady to hire a social secretary, probably to help plan the 1,000-guest White House wedding of Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice.
The law partner of Helen Herron Taft’s father was future president Rutherford B. Hayes (president 1877–1881). So from a young age, Helen was enamored of the idea of marrying a president. She urged her husband, William Howard Taft (president 1909 - 1913), to that end, and her dream eventually came true. Soon after the inauguration, however, she suffered a stroke. But after a year of recovery, she worked tirelessly for causes such as industrial safety and women's education. It is interesting to note, based on her early ambitions, that she was the first First Lady to give interviews to the press. She is also credited with the arrival of cherry trees in the nation’s capital. The mayor of Tokyo sent the First Lady 3,000 saplings that resulted in the beauties on display to this day. She is one of two First Ladies buried at Arlington Cemetery.
Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson (president 1913 - 1921), was a painter of some reknown in her own right. She had a studio with a skylight installed at the White House in 1913. She has the distinction of coordinating White House weddings for, not one, but two daughters within six months of each other - an accomplishment for any mother. A native of Rome, Georgia, and a descendant of slave owners, Ellen used her position as First Lady to improve housing in Washington D.C.'s slums. Those areas were primarily occupied by Blacks or Negroes as they were called at the time.
Florence Kling DeWolfe Harding had a child when she was 20 and the question of whether or not she was legally married was never fully settled. After struggling to support the son by teaching music, she gave him over to his father to raise. She married the successful Warren G. Harding when she was 31 and working on his newspaper with him. During Prohibition she served as White House bartender for her husband’s poker parties. His presidency (1921 - 1923) was riddled with corruption charges, so after his death she destroyed most of his papers trying to preserve a semblance of reputation for posterity.
Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower met her husband Dwight (president 1953 - 1961) when he was an army officer stationed in Texas. She moved from post to post with him as his career advanced. During the war years of WWII, she managed the family without him. She was suspicious of his relationship during World War II with his military driver and aide Kay Summersby, but accepted his assurances that there was nothing between them. The affair has been well documented in the ensuing years.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, became First Lady at the age of 31, the wife of John F. Kennedy (1961-1963). She is the second First Lady buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson (Lady Bird) financed her husband Lyndon's first campaign for Congress, using her own inheritance. She took a public speaking course in 1959 to prepare her to be active in the 1960 presidential campaign. She supported highway beautification resulting in miles of green space between the lanes of U.S. interstate highways being planted with wildflowers. She also supported the creation of Head Start, an educational program for at-risk preschoolers.
Thelma Catherine Patricia Ryan, Pat Nixon, was the first First Lady to declare herself pro-choice regarding abortion, and she urged appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. Richard Milhous Nixon (president 1969 - 1974) survived several public scandals before being the first president to be forced to resign.
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter (president 1977 – 1981) broke precedent by attending cabinet meetings. She lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women.
Like Abigail Adams, Barbara Pierce Bush was wife of a Vice President, First Lady (George H. W. Bush 1989- 1993), and then mother of a President. In 1984 and 1990, she wrote books attributed to family dogs, and the proceeds were given to her literacy foundation.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, was First Lady during her husband Bill Clinton's presidency (1993 - 2001). It is common knowledge that she was the first and only First Lady to be elected to the Senate (2001). What is not so commonly known is she is also the only First Lady to win a Grammy Award for the recording of her 1996 best-selling book, “It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.”
She was elected to two terms in the Senate, representing the state of New York before resigning to be a contender for the presidency (2007). She served as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration.
In 2016 she was the first female nominee of a major party in this country, and she won the popular vote for President of the United States by three million votes. But she lost in the Electoral College.
Learn more about America's First Ladies at http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies