Who Wore the Pants? 5 American First Ladies & Their Roles

The role of the first lady is lesser-known in the US government. However, the influence of the president’s right hand has profoundly impacted the nation’s history.

Mar 1, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

first ladies and their roles american history


Martha Washington held the title “The Presidentress” before the official title of First Lady was given to the president’s wife. However, the president’s wife, or a female relative of the president, has served as the official hostess of the presidential residence since the inception of the United States as a country. Though the 46 presidents of the United States are remembered through the history books, stories and eccentricities of their “presidentresses” have only sometimes been so prevalent. Many of these women made a significant mark on the White House, literally and symbolically. This begs the question: who were these women?


1. Martha Washington: The First, First Lady

Martha Washington by James Peale, 1796, via George Washington’s Mount Vernon


Martha Dandridge was born in 1731 at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. At the age of 19, she married 39-year-old Daniel Parke Custis. In their seven-year marriage, the couple had four children, two of whom died as toddlers.


Martha was widowed at 26 years old and became the sole owner of her late husband’s 17,500-acre plantation, where she was also the owner of over 300 enslaved people. Less than a year later, she met and began courting George Washington, a reserved militia officer, whom she married in January of 1759.


After the Revolutionary War, the new government of the United States called George Washington to serve his new nation as its first president. Martha was reluctant to this idea and had hoped her husband would not become president in the first place. The life of the president’s wife was chaotic and unfamiliar to Martha, and she remarked that she felt “more like a state prisoner than anything else.”

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However she felt about the role privately, Martha maintained her calm and friendly demeanor publicly, if not solely because she knew that her actions would set a precedent for the wives of American presidents who followed her.


The most notable action in her role was the gatherings she held every Friday night for regular citizens of New York City, where the national capital was temporarily situated. Martha caused a stir with these gatherings, inviting women and men, political rivals, and people from various parts of the American government. She treated these gatherings as salons of discussion.


Lady Washington’s Reception by Daniel Huntington, 1861, via George Washington’s Mount Vernon


The first lady made it known through her duties as a hostess in the presidential household that the American government was for the ordinary people. In doing so, Martha Washington established trust between citizens and government officials, a huge undertaking, especially when it was clear that she would much rather have been at her home in Virginia.


The first First Lady established trust and closeness with the American people and their elected officials. This was integral to the government’s success and shaped the role of the first lady to be a liaison between ordinary citizens and the country’s leaders.


2. Frances Cleveland: The Twenty-Something 

Frances Cleveland Portrait by Casimir Gregory Stapko, 1899, via the White House Collection/White House Historical Association


Frances Cleveland was born Frances Clara Folsom in Buffalo, New York, in 1864 to Emma and Oscar Folsom. Her father formed a law partnership with Grover Cleveland; thus, the future president had known Folsom since she was born.


Following the death of her father, Cleveland became the family’s executor and remained close to the Folsom women. After being elected president, Cleveland expressed his interest in marrying Frances while she was visiting the White House in 1885. This was initially a shock, as Frances’ mother, Emma, expected to be married to the president rather than becoming the presidential mother-in-law.


Frances Cleveland holds a few records among first ladies of the US. She was the youngest first lady the White House had ever seen, at just 21 years old. She was also the first lady to marry at the White House.


Frances F. Cleveland, February by Frederick Benjamin Johnston, 1897, via the Library of Congress


During her husband’s two non-consecutive terms in office, Frances did not attempt to interfere in policy matters but provided leadership in women’s professionalism. She sought to help women break through into the male-dominated professional music field while supporting the Home for Friendless Colored Girls and serving on the Wells College board of trustees.


She also holds the title of the longest-living first lady after leaving the White House, as she lived 51 more years after leaving the position at 32 years old.


3. Rosalynn Carter: Addressing Mental Health

Official portrait of the First Lady, Rosalynn Carter by George Augusta, 1984, via the White House Historical Association


Rosalynn Carter was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in Plains, Georgia in 1927. She was born to a modest family, and after her father’s death while she was in high school, she had to help her mother keep their family afloat by sewing dresses. Despite this, she graduated as valedictorian from Plains High School.


Smith had known Jimmy Carter for a long time before they wed in 1947. She was best friends with Carter’s younger sister, Ruth. She adjusted to many lifestyle changes throughout her husband’s many career changes and served as an extension of her husband when he was campaigning and was elected president.


During her time in the White House, Rosalynn advocated for mental health reform, elderly care reform, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition to these campaigns, Rosalynn also served as her husband’s representative when meeting with South and Central American leaders and supporting the arts by sponsoring jazz and poetry festivals at the White House. Another initiative Rosalynn raised money and awareness for was the displacement of Cambodians after visiting refugee camps.


Rosalynn Carter with Amy and President Jimmy Carter as she leaves for Latin America, Brunswick Airport, by Bernard Gotfryd, 1977, via the Library of Congress


Rosalynn used the Carter Center’s formation to further advance human rights, mental health work, and poverty. She was voted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, alongside only two other first ladies, in 2001.


4. Abigail Fillmore: The First Lady to Work Outside Home after Marriage

Official portrait of Abigail Fillmore, via the White House of President Barack Obama


Born Abigail Powers in Stillwater, New York, the 13th first lady of the United States was also the last to be born in the 18th century. Due to her father’s death, Abigail had no choice but to contribute to the family’s finances, thus beginning her teaching career at 16 years old. In 1819, Millard Fillmore, two years Abigail’s junior, became a pupil at the school where she taught in New Hope, New York. Seven years later, the two were married in Moravia, New York on February 5, 1826.


Abigail continued to teach until her two children were born, but soon after began serving as an advisor to her husband throughout his political career. She kept up with the news of the day and was comfortable serving as a liaison for political purposes on behalf of her husband.


Abigail often left her calling card with officials, domestic and international alike. When her husband became president, she still tended to serve as an advisor, even if he did not always listen. Millard lost the Whig Party reelection by ignoring Abigail’s suggestion to veto the Fugitive Slave Act.


Engraving of the library of the White House in the Oval Room, 1865, via the Library of Congress


Abigail was mostly uninterested in glamorous social events, sending her daughter, Mary Abigail, in her place. Instead of attending high-profile and fashionable soirees in Washington, Abigail hosted many bastions of the arts from the White House, including writers Washington Irving and Charles Dickens.


Abigail’s most notable contribution during her time as the first lady was the addition of the White House Library, which she secured through congressional funding.


Abigail Fillmore died of pneumonia just 26 days after leaving the White House, the shortest amount of time of any first lady. She is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.


5. Betty Ford: The First Lady to be Fully Transparent

Official portrait of Betty Ford by Felix de Cossio, 1977, via the White House Historical Association


Elizabeth Bloomer was born in 1918, the daughter of a Grand Rapids, Michigan socialite and a rubber factory worker. Her mother introduced her to dance at age eight, and Betty fell in love. By 14, she had decided to go into dance as a profession. She had opened a dance studio by the time she graduated high school. Betty studied dance professionally and was a part of a troupe that performed in Carnegie Hall.


Betty continued to teach dance classes after moving back to Michigan, holding ballroom classes for children with sight and hearing disabilities and African American children at a time when segregation was prevalent.


She married William Warren in 1942, but after three years, she realized that the marriage would not work. However, Warren fell ill, and Betty was responsible for the household income for the next two years. Only after Warren recovered did the couple end their marriage.


Betty married Gerald Ford only one year after their meeting, and Gerald was elected to US Congress in the subsequent months. Gerald’s political career would be at the forefront of their lives from the start of their marriage.


President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford in the living quarters of the White House, Washington DC by Marion S. Trikosko, 1975, via the Library of Congress


In 1974, after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford became the 38th president of the United States.


Betty Ford established herself as a force to be reckoned with from the beginning of her tenure as the first lady. She was active on her CB radio using the codename “first mama,” and she was known for her propensity to play disco music in the White House.


Betty brought attention to the connection between addiction and HIV/AIDS diagnoses, advocating for those with these illnesses and gay and lesbian rights in general. In addition to lobbying for these issues, Betty was well known for being transparent and honest about herself.


She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the first few weeks of her time as the first lady, and in the 1980s struggled with addiction to alcohol and opioids. She raised awareness for those struggling with the same problems in both instances, even starting the Betty Ford Center, which specifically helped women with chemical dependence.


Betty Ford died of natural causes in 2011, having been the chair of the Ford Center since its inception.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.