Meet the first ladies of the United States

By Breeanna Hare, CNN

Published 1359 GMT (2159 HKT) November 20, 2020
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Martha Washington was the first "first lady" -- although she wasn't called that at the time. Born Martha Dandridge on a Virginia plantation in 1731, she was a wealthy widow and mother when she married George Washington in 1759.

When he became the country's first president 30 years later, Martha took on the role of presidential hostess. Often referred to as Lady Washington, she set a precedent for the unofficial position with her hospitality skills. She and her husband also set a precedent for relying on enslaved labor in the presidential home; many of the next 15 presidential households through emancipation in 1863 did the same.

Served: 1789 - 1797
From Library of Congress
Abigail Adams, the first second lady of the United States -- that is, the vice president's spouse -- was a prolific letter writer who left behind detailed accounts of her era.

Descendant of the well-to-do Quincys and friends with Martha Washington, Adams upheld the duty of formal hosting once husband John Adams became president. She was also known as a politically engaged sounding board for her husband, and an outspoken advocate for abolishing slavery and supporting women's rights. She famously encouraged her husband to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."

Served: 1797 - 1801
From Library of Congress
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was the wife of the third US president, Thomas Jefferson, but she never actually served as first lady during his administration.

She died in 1782, roughly 20 years before her husband took office. After he was elected, their daughter Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph is credited as filling the role of hostess in her mother's place during his term from 1801 to 1809, with assistance from future first lady Dolley Madison.
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Through her massive popularity and savvy diplomacy skills, Dolley Madison helped evolve the standard for the first lady role.

The first first lady to host an inaugural ball, Dolley is known for employing both political acuity and social charm as she worked as a presidential hostess during husband James Madison's administration.

Served: 1809-1817
From Library of Congress
Elizabeth Monroe was born Elizabeth Kortright into a distinguished New York family. She spent time in France with husband James Monroe at the request of George Washington, and they picked up a very European approach to life -- so much so that the French called her "la belle Americaine." As first lady she imported some of their more formal customs for White House social events.
Served: 1817 - 1825
GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Marrying John Quincy Adams, the nation's sixth president, meant Louisa Adams was the daughter-in-law of the second-ever FLOTUS, Abigail Adams. Louisa, born in London, was also the first first lady to be born outside of the US.

She had excellent hospitality and diplomacy skills, and acted as Adams' unofficial "campaign manager" as he made his way toward the presidency. During her tenure as first lady, however, poor health and depression from the sour politics of her husband's election took a toll.

Served: 1825 - 1829
From Library of Congress
Dying shortly before husband Andrew Jackson's inauguration, Rachel Jackson's chapter in American history often focuses on how horribly the press treated her for her past.

She'd married the future president in 1791 without officially divorcing her first husband. Rumors swirled about infidelity -- leaving Andrew Jackson always ready to come to Rachel's defense. Their romantic history seeped into coverage of Jackson's presidential campaign and Rachel witnessed some of Washington's bite. Jackson won in 1828, but Rachel didn't live to join him in Washington as first lady.

Niece Emily Donelson -- and later Sarah Yorke, Jackson's daughter-in-law via his adopted son -- took over the role in Rachel's place.
From Library of Congress
As with Martha Jefferson, Hannah Hoes Van Buren died years before her husband Martin Van Buren became president. Not much is known about her; the couple were first cousins and had grown up together in New York's Dutch community.

Angelica Singleton, a relative of former first lady Dolley Madison, married into the Van Buren family and then filled the role of White House hostess. Angelica stepped into the role of first lady with enthusiasm, and was successful in helping the widowed president navigate the social expectations of the executive mansion.
From Library of Congress
Anna Harrison wasn't thrilled at the idea of becoming first lady, and she never had to serve in the role in the traditional sense. A religious woman in poor health, she stayed behind in Ohio while husband William Harrison went to Washington for his inauguration in 1841. "I wish that my husband's friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement," she's quoted as saying upon word of his election win.

But Harrison's term only lasted from March 1841 to April 1841, when he died; while he was in office, their daughter-in-law Jane was his White House hostess.
From Library of Congress
Letitia Tyler was the first wife of "His Accidency," which is what political foes called President John Tyler. President William Harrison had been in office for a month before he died, suddenly bumping up VP Tyler. This wasn't part of the Tylers' plan; Letitia had suffered a stroke two years prior that left her confined to a wheelchair, and they thought they'd be able to continue to live at their Virginia residence.

Once in the White House, Letitia Tyler relinquished the now expected hostess duties to her daughter-in-law, Priscilla. An actress by trade, Priscilla enjoyed the work and was quite successful at it, filling in as White House hostess even after Letitia's death in 1842. Letitia was the first president's wife to die in the White House.
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President Tyler's second wife was born Julia Gardiner to a prominent New York family. Thirty years younger than Tyler, Gardiner was a frequent guest at the White House and known for her wit and beauty -- she was called "the rose of Long Island." She caught the recently widowed president's eye, leading Tyler to become the first president to marry while in office in 1844.

Enthusiastically taking up the social aspects of being a first lady, Julia Gardiner Tyler was also known for supporting her husband's political views, including state's rights and slavery. Like at least 11 other presidential households, the Tylers owned enslaved people -- and, like at least eight other presidential households, relied on enslaved labor in the White House.

Served: 1844 - 1845
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Sarah Polk was considered progressive among the women of her era -- she was childless at a time when women were expected to become mothers, and she was incredibly politically engaged.

Born wealthy on a Tennessee plantation, the highly educated first lady was a political partner to President Polk. She privately helped with speeches, gave advice and marked news articles for him to read. She was religious and didn't embrace the drinking and dancing aspect of being a first lady, but was still well-liked and well-respected.

Served: 1845 - 1849
From Library of Congress
Margaret Taylor was another first lady who would've been content not to be. Born in Maryland, she'd married Lieutenant Zachary Taylor and went with him from post to post, but drew the line at playing the role of first lady.
She took zero interest in Washington society or the tasks of presidential hostess, passing them off to her youngest daughter Mary Elizabeth when Taylor took office in 1849.
This arrangement didn't last long; President Taylor died suddenly in 1850.
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An educated teacher from New York, Abigail Fillmore's story is unique because she's the first first lady to maintain a career after marrying. Future president Millard Fillmore had a hard time getting started in law, and Abigail continued to teach to help support their family.

She was a studied political partner, but when her VP husband moved into the White House following the death of President Taylor, Abigail Fillmore cited poor health and left a lot of the hostess duties to her daughter. She did leave a lasting legacy through her passion for books and learning, successfully lobbying for and starting the White House library.

Served: 1850 - 1853
From Library of Congress
Overwhelmed by tragedy right as they were to start their presidential term, President Franklin Pierce and First Lady Jane Pierce entered the White House in mourning. Their 11-year-old son, Benny, was killed in front of them in an 1853 trainwreck; when President Pierce's inauguration happened two months later, First Lady Jane -- who already wasn't a fan of politics -- did not attend and the inauguration ball was canceled.

Served: 1853 - 1857, although she often claimed illness and passed off first lady duties to her aunt and President Pierce's secretary.
From Library of Congress
Without Harriet Lane we may not use the term "first lady" at all -- and ironically, she was never married to a president. When her bachelor uncle and guardian James Buchanan started his term, a 27-year-old Harriet, who'd been orphaned as a kid, stepped up as hostess.

After a series of not-quite-interested first ladies in the White House, Harriet revived the role of the presidential hostess as part social guru and part political wizard. Harriet could throw a great party; had enviable style; diplomatic skill; and was well-liked by all -- prompting the press to dub her in print as the "first lady of the land."

Served: 1857 - 1861
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Mary Todd Lincoln may be one of the most misunderstood first ladies in American history.

She was known for being a supportive sounding board to her husband throughout his political career, and for taking her role as the White House hostess seriously -- perhaps too much so in the eyes of critics, who noted how quickly and easily she burned through money. If it wasn't her spending, she was critiqued for other actions; it seemed in a divided nation at war, neither side truly trusted or accepted first lady Lincoln.

Served: 1861 - 1865
From Library of Congress
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln propelled Andrew Johnson into the presidency -- and Eliza McCardle Johnson into the role of first lady. Suffice to say she wasn't over the moon with this new title, and preferred to maintain her privacy even as she relocated to the White House.

While she maintained some of the traditional hostess duties, Eliza Johnson also relied on daughters Martha and Mary while she focused on being her husband's unwavering political adviser. She's known for her staunch loyalty to Johnson, which remained steady even through his impeachment trial.
Served: 1865 - 1869
From Library of Congress
When Ulysses S. Grant's military status helped put him on the path to the presidency, wife Julia Grant embraced their new status with open arms. She was a willing and eager White House host who was known for extravagant entertainment.
But like her predecessors, her focus wasn't all on decorations and events -- she was invested in politics, too, and is counted among her husband's advisers. She loved being a first lady so much she called those years "the happiest period" of her life.
Served: 1869 - 1877
From Library of Congress
The first president's wife to earn a college degree, Lucy Hayes was a politically savvy partner to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Loved by the public and the press, Hayes was a popular first lady known for her charitable acts and commitment to temperance, even while cheerfully hosting events and concerts. Hayes abstained from alcohol and kept a dry White House -- later leading to the nickname "Lemonade Lucy."

Served: 1877 - 1881
From Library of Congress
Well-educated and literary, First Lady Lucretia Garfield was less inclined to the social aspects of her role as she was toward the political. But during her brief tenure as first lady, she did fill her hostess duties as best she could -- restoring parts of the White House and even reinstating alcohol after the Hayes administration's dry policy.

She had a short run as first lady because President James Garfield was shot in July 1881. For three months, Lucretia was a steady presence by his side, helping maintain the short-lived Garfield presidency until his death that September.

Served: 1881
From Library of Congress
Born into a well-connected Virginia family, Ellen Arthur, pictured here, never got the chance to serve as first lady. She died more than a year before her husband Chester Arthur became president, following his predecessor James Garfield's assassination.

Arthur's sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, filled in as White House hostess from 1881 to 1885. But President Arthur had been so bereaved by the loss of his wife, he never gave his sister formal recognition as first lady.
From Library of Congress
President Grover Cleveland was a bachelor when he first began his term, and White House hostess duties fell to his sister, Rose. But by 1886, President Cleveland had fallen for his former law partner's daughter, Frances Folsom, who was 27 years his junior. (And not whom the public thought he'd wed; bets were on him tying the knot with Frances' mother.)

Frances proved to be a popular and adored first lady who had so many fans across the country she had to hire a social secretary to help her navigate her celebrity. She was also thoughtful about her social duties, making sure to hold a weekly event on Saturdays so working women could attend and meet with her, too.

Served: Rose filled in as White House hostess from 1885 - 1886 before pursuing a career in education. Frances took over duties from 1886 -
1889. She returned to her first lady role when Cleveland was elected to office again from 1893 to 1897.
From Library of Congress
Following a very popular first lady wasn't easy, but Caroline Harrison was remembered as an elegant hostess who gave special attention to the presidential residence before dying of tuberculosis while her husband was still in office.

She persistently lobbied to renovate and update the executive mansion, even overseeing the installation of electric lighting. And she curated the first ever White House china collection. Outside of her work in the White House, she also helped create the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

Served: 1889 - 1892, when she died. Her daughter helped take over her duties until the end of President Benjamin Harrison's term.
From Library of Congress
In poor health throughout her husband's presidency, Ida McKinley struggled to fulfill all the social duties expected of a first lady, but she remained a solid political partner for President William McKinley.

She was known for being an opinionated political adviser who wanted to uphold as many of a first lady's duties as she possibly could. She once preferred to clear an entire season's social calendar than delegate her hostess responsibilities. Her husband was a doting and devoted partner right up until his death; he was assassinated in 1901.

Served: 1897 - 1901, with an assist from second lady Jennie Hobart.
From Library of Congress
When her husband became POTUS following the death of President McKinley, Edith Roosevelt took on the role of first lady and whipped the White House affairs into shape.

Known for running a tight ship, Edith Roosevelt created some of the bureaucracy we see around the role of first lady today, including an official staff with a full-time, salaried social secretary. She was also a reliable, clear-eyed confidant for President Theodore Roosevelt, helping to support his presidency from behind the scenes.

Served: 1901 - 1909
From Library of Congress
Where President William Taft may have lacked ambition, historians say his wife Helen "Nellie" Taft made up for it. She came from a political family and had a keen interest in politics, and eagerly stepped into the role of presidential wife.

She was the first first lady to ride next to her husband in his inaugural parade, which helped solidify and elevate the status of the first lady. Nellie Taft, who suffered a stroke not long after her husband's administration began, devoted herself to improving the cultural competency of Washington, D.C.; it was Nellie who gave us the city's beloved Japanese cherry trees.

Served: 1909 - 1913
From Library of Congress
Woodrow Wilson is one of the most influential presidents, and he had two very influential first ladies. The first was Ellen Wilson, an educated artist and activist who was less interested in the traditional hostess duties of first ladies as she was in using the position to make a tangible difference in others' lives.

Before she died of Bright's Disease, Ellen Wilson created the Rose Garden, lobbied for social causes and helped support her husband's political career.

Served: 1913 - 1914
From Library of Congress
Following the death of his first wife, a grieving President Wilson was introduced to Edith, the daughter of a prominent Virginia family who would go on to play a crucial role in Wilson's administration.

Some have even referred to Edith Wilson as the unofficial first woman president or the "secret" president, since she helped him maintain the presidency after a stroke left him partially paralyzed in 1919. She was integral to his daily process -- deciding what papers and visitors he would and would not see -- and referred to her work as her "stewardship."

Served: 1915 - 1921
From Library of Congress
From the beginning, the wealthy Florence Harding was a vocal partner with husband Warren G. Harding, starting with their newspaper and including his path to the presidency.

Seeing her husband's potential, Florence Harding helped steer him toward success, including into the Oval Office. "I have only one real hobby," she's quoted as saying. "My husband."

Once in the White House, she took on the standard hostessing duties in addition to operating as a core political adviser. She helped shape her husband's cabinet in addition to advocating for her own causes -- from gender equality to support for wounded veterans -- up until her husband's sudden death in 1923.

Served: 1921 - 1923
From Library of Congress
Stylish and warm, Grace Coolidge made her mark on White House history as a popular first lady who knew that celebrity provided a certain unspoken power.

Widely adored for her trendy taste, Hollywood access and athleticism, Coolidge was a skilled hostess whose White House socializing generated tons of press. While she didn't give interviews -- President Coolidge frowned on his first lady being politically outspoken -- she did use that attention to put a spotlight on causes she cared about, like education for the deaf and women's rights. Her generosity and vivaciousness as first lady was also a huge asset to her shy and reserved husband, helping him to navigate politics with greater ease.

Served: 1923 - 1929
From Library of Congress
A well-educated, politically active globetrotter before landing at the White House, First Lady Lou Hoover was the first president's spouse to have her own regular, national radio broadcast.

While she chose to play a more subdued advisory role to her husband, First Lady Lou Hoover also persistently pursued interests of her own, from her involvement in the Girl Scouts movement to assisting wounded veterans. She also sought to preserve and restore parts of White House history -- and with this being the era of the Great Depression, did so out of her own funds.

Served: 1929 - 1933
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A true trailblazer, Eleanor Roosevelt completely reimagined what it means to serve as FLOTUS.

She showed how first ladies could have massive social impact, launching press conferences; hosting radio broadcasts; and expressing her views in a syndicated newspaper column. She was also a committed -- and active -- advocate for civil rights, racial justice, gender quality and jobs for the poor. Traveling the country to see firsthand how she could help Americans, she was a first lady who put the "serve" in "service."

And she did all that while keeping up with the standard hostess duties. After leaving office, Roosevelt continued her work with a U.N. post, working tirelessly to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Served: 1933 - 1945
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The way Elizabeth "Bess" Truman approached being first lady shows just how malleable the role can be. Following right behind an outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman chose to stay out of the spotlight and keep her political advisement to her husband private.

Although she preferred to avoid attention, Bess Truman did have her own opinions on the politics of the day. She was President Harry Truman's close adviser and was considered to have influence over his political decisions; he would write to her about political quandaries in what historians have called "Dear Bess" letters.

Served: 1945 - 1953
From Library of Congress
In the Eisenhower White House, "Ike runs the country (and) I turn the lamb chops," first lady Mamie Eisenhower would famously say. The former military wife believed in a more traditional first lady role, one in which she entertained and held charity drives while her husband handled the politics.

But that doesn't mean she stayed out of the spotlight: Mamie Eisenhower was a trendsetter during her husband's two terms, with many women wanting those bangs and to wear the color of the era, "Mamie pink." And while she wasn't as politically outspoken as some of her predecessors, she still understood this influence carried political power. She helped bolster Eisenhower's presidential campaign, all by virtue of being her charming self.

Served: 1953 - 1961
From Library of Congress
When one thinks of iconic first ladies, Jacqueline Kennedy easily comes to mind. Like Mamie Eisenhower before her, Jackie Kennedy was a bonafide trendsetter, with her particular taste bringing a glamour and sophistication to the White House that was a turning point in creating the modern first lady.

But as revered and influential a fashionista as she was, Jackie Kennedy was also a natural diplomat and a studious historian. She worked to restore the White House in an effort to preserve its history, and was a key player in her husband's presidential trips overseas.

Charming and bright, she also knew the power of media: It was Jackie who came up with the idea of Camelot to cement the Kennedy legacy after her husband's 1963 assassination.

Served: 1961 - 1963
Kennedy Library Archives/Getty Images
Born Claudia Taylor, the story goes that the first lady was nicknamed "Lady Bird" because of a caretaker who found a young Claudia "as pretty as a lady bird." But one shouldn't be fooled by the genteel moniker; as a first lady, Lady Bird was a force, operating as an invaluable political partner to her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and pursuing initiatives of her own.

She knew that the role of "White House hostess" sounded simpler than it really was. In addition to being the first first lady to have a staff director and a press secretary, Lady Bird Johnson carefully documented her day-to-day duties, which included supporting LBJ's Great Society programs and her own efforts to support her passion for environmental conservation.

Served: 1963 - 1969
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The word many use to describe Pat Nixon as first lady is "dignified": even through the Watergate scandal, the wife of President Richard Nixon kept a cool head. While she wasn't one to pontificate in front of the press, she was a first lady with strong opinions about politics and a drive to help others.

In fact, when she was asked about her focus as first lady, she responded simply, "People." Her diplomacy led to her traveling frequently as a personal representative of the president, sometimes with President Nixon and sometimes without. It was during a trip to China that Pat Nixon's skills helped secure two giant pandas for the US.

Served: 1969 - 1974
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Admired for her candid honesty and vulnerability, Betty Ford helped expand the perception of what it means to be a first lady -- and perhaps it helped that she never thought she'd be first lady at all. She and husband President Gerald Ford found themselves thrust into the Oval Office after former President Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal.

Betty Ford responded by using the new, brighter spotlight to illuminate issues many Americans faced but few spoke about, from breast cancer and abortion to her own struggles with mental health and addiction. A fierce supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, Ford was unafraid to speak her mind.

Served: 1974 - 1977
From Library of Congress
When Rosalynn Carter entered the White House in the late 1970s, much had begun to change for American women, and some of that was reflected in Carter's approach to being first lady. She was a clear partner and political equal with husband President Jimmy Carter, traveling as the president's official envoy to Latin America in 1977.

She was also a vocal supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment; better mental health programs; and a cause former First Lady Pat Nixon would have been proud to see on her list: volunteer work to help ease social burdens.

Served: 1977 - 1981
From Library of Congress
When Nancy Reagan began her tenure as first lady alongside President Ronald Reagan, she was ready and willing to support him in any capacity -- whether that was firing, hiring or advising.

As one part of a presidential partnership, Reagan saw her role as being her husband's biggest champion and protector. "You're the one who knows him best," she said. "You don't give up your right to an opinion just because you're married to the president."

For Nancy Reagan, those opinions included removing her husband's chief of staff and getting him to apologize for the Iran-contra scandal, in addition to pursuing her own initiatives as first lady, such as the ubiquitous 1980s "Just Say No" campaign. Plus, on the style front she gave us that signature Reagan red.

Served: 1981 - 1989
From Library of Congress
Immensely popular, First Lady Barbara Bush would joke that she was "everybody's grandmother" while she served alongside husband George H.W. Bush's administration. Of the public's affection for her, Barbara Bush said it was the result of her being "fair, and I like children and I adore my husband."
Publicly, she de-emphasized politics and zoomed in on her passion for literacy, which was a core issue for her as a first lady. But she was also a political asset, so well-liked by the public that she gave a boost to her husband's campaigns and others too. In President Bush's term, Barbara Bush became the first first lady to campaign by herself on behalf of congressional candidates from her husband's party.

Served: 1989 - 1993
From Library of Congress
An attorney who advocated for child welfare and women's rights prior to becoming first lady, Hillary Clinton was ready to hit the ground running alongside husband President Bill Clinton as he began his term in 1993.

She proved herself to be as invested in navigating policy as her husband, who appointed First Lady Clinton to lead the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. Despite criticism for that decision, among others, throughout her husband's administration, Hillary Clinton remained steadfast in her role as FLOTUS.

After her tenure in the White House, Hillary Clinton went on to become the first first lady to run for political office. She's been a New York Senator as well as the Secretary of State, in addition to becoming the first woman ever to be nominated for president on a major party's ticket in 2016.
Served: 1993 - 2001
From Library of Congress
Similar to her mother-in-law, First Lady Laura Bush brought a passion for education to her tenure in the White House. And again similar to Barbara Bush, Laura Bush has been credited for being a calm, consistent source of counsel for her husband, President George W. Bush.

Laura Bush may have been on the quieter side when it came to sharing her political views, but she was unwavering in her support of her husband and family. As a first lady, Bush put an emphasis on social issues like literacy, establishing the first National Book Festival, as well as raising awareness for the rights of women under the Taliban regime.
Served: 2001 - 2009
Krisanne Johnson/The White House/Library of Congress
Michelle Obama worked as a lawyer and hospital administration executive prior to her husband President Barack Obama's run for presidential office, which launched them both into history books as the first African American president and first lady.

The two very clearly operated as a partnership, but Michelle Obama didn't publicly focus much on policy. Instead, she chose to emphasize her role as a mother alongside core issues like healthy eating to curb childhood obesity; empowering women and girls; and supporting military families.

Out of the White House, Michelle Obama remains culturally and politically influential, releasing a best-selling memoir and creating her own podcast.
Served: 2009 - 2017
From Library of Congress
Like some first ladies before her, Melania Trump has chosen to maintain more of her privacy as FLOTUS. In fact, the press often calls her "a woman of mystery."
Originally from Slovenia, she joins Louisa Adams as a first lady to be born outside of the US and the only first lady to become a naturalized citizen. During her time in the White House, she's blended some of the more traditional aspects of the position -- from Easter Egg rolls to Rose Garden renovations -- while also trekking a more unconventional path that has been the source of much public discussion. She's worked to focus her tenure on her "Be Best" initiative, which addresses opioid abuse, cyber bullying and overall child welfare.
Served: 2017 - present
Benoit Mahaux/Library of Congress