First Lady of the United States is the title of the hostess of the White House. Because this position is traditionally filled by the wife of the President of the United States, the title is most often applied to the wife of a sitting president. However, several women who were not presidents' wives have served as first lady, as when the president was a bachelor or widower, or when the wife of the president was unable to fulfill the duties of the first lady herself. In these cases, the position has been filled by a female relative or friend of the president, such as Martha Jefferson Randolph during Jefferson's presidency, Emily Donelson and Sarah Yorke Jackson during Jackson's, Mary Elizabeth (Taylor) Bliss during Taylor's, Harriet Lane during Buchanan's, and Chelsea Clinton during some of her father's.
Burns (2008) identifies four successive main themes of the first ladyship: as public woman (1900–1929); as political celebrity (1932–1961); as political activist (1964–1977); and as political interloper (1980–2001).
The current first lady is Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama. At present, there are six living former first ladies: Betty Ford, widow of Gerald Ford; Rosalynn Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter; Nancy Reagan, widow of Ronald Reagan; Barbara Bush, wife of George H. W. Bush; current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of Bill Clinton, and Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush.
Origins of the title
Dolley Madison was the first President's wife to be referred to
as "First Lady" at her funeral in 1849.
The use of the title first lady to describe the spouse or hostess of an executive began in the United States. In the early days of the republic, there was not a generally accepted title for the wife of the president. Many early first ladies expressed their own preference for how they were addressed, including the use of such titles as "Lady", "Mrs. President", and "Mrs. Presidentress;" Martha Washington was often referred to as "Lady Washington."
According to legend, Dolley Madison was referred to as "first lady" in 1849 at her funeral in a eulogy delivered by President Zachary Taylor. However, no written record of this eulogy exists. Sometime after 1849, the title began being used in Washington, D.C. social circles. The earliest known written evidence of the title is from the November 3, 1863 diary entry of William Howard Russell, in which he referred to gossip about "the First Lady in the Land," referring to Mary Todd Lincoln. The title first gained nationwide recognition in 1877, when newspaper journalist Mary C. Ames referred to Lucy Webb Hayes as "the First Lady of the Land" while reporting on the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. The frequent reporting on Lucy Hayes' activities helped spread use of the title outside Washington. A popular 1911 comedic play by playwright Charles Nirdlinger titled The First Lady in the Land popularized the title further. By the 1930s it was in wide use. Use of the title later spread from the United States to other nations.
The wife of the Vice President of the United States is sometimes referred to as the Second Lady of the United States, but this title is much less common.
The position of the First Lady is not an elected one, carries no official duties, and receives no salary. Nonetheless, first ladies have held a highly visible position in U.S. government. The role of the first lady has evolved over the centuries. She is, first and foremost, the hostess of the White House. She organizes and attends official ceremonies and functions of state either along with, or in place of, the president.
Both Martha Washington and Abigail Adams gained fame from the Revolutionary War and were treated as if they were "ladies" of the British royal court. Dolley Madison popularized the first ladyship by engaging in efforts to assist orphans and women, by dressing in elegant fashions and attracting newspaper coverage, and by risking her life to save iconic treasures during the War of 1812. Madison set the standard for the ladyship and her actions were the model for nearly every first lady until Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s. Plagued by a paralytic illness, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was not free to travel around the country, so Mrs. Roosevelt assumed this role. She authored a weekly newspaper column and hosted a radio show. Jacqueline Kennedy added the role of decorator of the White House when she was first lady, engaging in an expansive campaign to restore the White House.
Over the course of the 20th century it became increasingly common for first ladies to select specific causes to promote, usually ones that are not politically divisive. It is common for the first lady to hire a staff to support these activities. Lady Bird Johnson pioneered environmental protection and beautification; Pat Nixon encouraged volunteerism and traveled extensively abroad; Betty Ford supported women's' rights; Rosalynn Carter aided those with mental disabilities; Nancy Reagan founded the Just Say No drug awareness campaign; Barbara Bush promoted literacy; Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to reform the healthcare system in the U.S.; and Laura Bush supported women's' rights groups and encouraged childhood literacy. Michelle Obama supports military families, helping working women balance career and family, and national service.
Clinton was, for a time, given a formal job in the administration. She became a U.S. Senator from New York in 2001 and is currently the Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Many first ladies, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Michelle Obama have been significant fashion trendsetters.
There is a strong tradition against the First Lady holding outside employment while serving as White House hostess. However, some first ladies have exercised a degree of political influence by virtue of being an important adviser to the president. During Hillary Clinton's campaign for election to the U.S. Senate, the couple's daughter Chelsea took over much of the First Lady's role. Chelsea served as Acting First Lady during the fortnight between her mother's swearing in as a Senator and the end of her father's presidency.
For more details on this topic, see Office of the First Lady of the United States.
The Office of the First Lady of the United States is accountable to the First Lady for her to carry out her duties as hostess of the White House, and is also in charge of all social and ceremonial events of the White House. The First Lady has her own staff that includes a Chief of Staff, press secretary, White House Social Secretary, Chief Floral Designer, etc. The Office of the First Lady is an entity of the White House Office, a branch of the Executive Office of the President. As such, Hillary Clinton's abdication of the office in favor of the couple's daughter, in advance of the former's installation as a United States Senator avoided conflict under the Ineligibility Clause of the United States Constitution.
References in Popular Culture
In the NBC TV series Wings, Fay Evelyn Cochran (Rebecca Schull) has a streak in which she has touched every First Lady of the United States since Eleanor Roosevelt. She had to hurdle a barbeque pit to touch Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan told her to get out of her face or she'd have her arrested.