First Lady of the United States

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First Lady of the
United States
Michelle Obama
Style Mrs. Obama
Residence White House
Appointer Barack Obama
Inaugural holder Martha Washington
Formation April 30, 1789 (1789-04-30)
Website First Ladies

The First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS)[1] is an unofficial title and position traditionally held by the wife of the president, concurrent with his term of office. Historically, if a president is not married, or if the president's wife is unable to act as First Lady, the president usually asks a female relative or friend to act as White House hostess.

The position of the First Lady is unofficial and carries no official duties. Nonetheless, first ladies have traditionally held this highly visible position in U.S. government.[2] The role of the First Lady has evolved over the centuries. She is, first and foremost, the hostess of the White House.[2] She organizes and attends official ceremonies and functions of state either along with, or in place of, the president.


The current First Lady is Michelle Obama. At present, there are five living former first ladies: Rosalynn Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter; Nancy Reagan, widow of Ronald Reagan; Barbara Bush, wife of George H. W. Bush; Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of Bill Clinton; and Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush.

Origins of the title

Dolley Madison was said to be 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." One of the earliest uses of the term "First Lady" was applied to her in an 1838 newspaper article that appeared in the St. Johnsbury (VT) Caledonian, the author, "Mrs. Sigourney", discussing how Martha Washington had not changed, even after her husband George became president, wrote that "The first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life. Indulging in no indolence, she left the pillow at dawn, and after breakfast, retired to her chamber for an hour for the study of the scriptures and devotion".[3]

First Ladies (from left to right) Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Rosalynn Carter during the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in 2013.

Dolley Madison was reportedly 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, nor did any of the newspapers of her day refer to her by that title.[4] Sometime after 1849, the title began being used in Washington, D.C., social circles. One of the earliest known written examples comes 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 about Dolley Madison 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.

When Edith Wilson took control of her husband's schedule in 1919 after he had a debilitating stroke, one Republican senator labeled her "the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man."[5]

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.

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, Mary Harrison McKee during Benjamin Harrison's presidency, upon her mother's death, and Harriet Lane during Buchanan's.


Burns 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).[6]

Missouri Governor John Ashcroft and First Lady Barbara Bush with a "Parents as Teachers" group at the Greater St. Louis Ferguson-Florissant School District in October 1991. Mrs. Bush (in rocking chair) is reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear to the children.
First Ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush (standing, left to right), Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter, and Betty Ford (seated, left to right) at the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, November 1991

The position of the First Lady is not an elected one and carries no official duties. Nonetheless, first ladies have held a highly visible position in U.S. government.[2] The role of the First Lady has evolved over the centuries. She is, first and foremost, the hostess of the White House.[2] 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.[2] 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.[2] 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.[2] Jacqueline Kennedy led an effort to redecorate and restore the White House while she was First Lady.[2]

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 Clinton sought to reform the healthcare system in the U.S.; and Laura Bush supported women's rights groups and encouraged childhood literacy.[2] Michelle Obama has become identified with supporting military families and tackling childhood obesity.[7]

Clinton was elected a U.S. Senator from New York in 2001 and was the Secretary of State in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013. Many first ladies, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Michelle Obama have been significant fashion trendsetters.[2] There is a strong tradition against the First Lady holding outside employment while serving as White House hostess.[8] However, some first ladies have exercised a degree of political influence by virtue of being an important adviser to the president.[2] 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.

Office of the First Lady

First Ladies (from left to right) Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Barbara Bush at the "National Garden Gala, A Tribute to America's First Ladies", May 11, 1994. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, absent due to illness, died a week after this photograph was taken.

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.[9] When First Lady Hillary Clinton decided to pursue a run for Senator of New York, she set aside her duties as first lady[10] and moved to Chappaqua, New York to establish state residency.[11] She resumed her duties as First Lady after winning her senatorial campaign [12] and Hillary Clinton retained her duties as both first lady and U.S. Senator for the seventeen-day overlap before Bill Clinton's term came to an end.[13]

Exhibitions and collections

Established in 1912, the First Ladies Collection has been one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian Institution. The original exhibition opened in 1914 and was one of the first at the Smithsonian to prominently feature women. Originally focused largely on fashion, the exhibition now delves deeper into the contributions of first ladies to the presidency and American society. In 2008, "First Ladies at the Smithsonian" opened at the National Museum of American History as part of its reopening year celebration. That exhibition served as a bridge to the museum's expanded exhibition on first ladies' history that opened on November 19, 2011. "The First Ladies" explores the unofficial but important position of first lady and the ways that different women have shaped the role to make their own contributions to the presidential administrations and the nation. The exhibition features 26 dresses and more than 160 other objects, ranging from those of Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, and includes White House china, personal possessions and other objects from the Smithsonian's unique collection of first ladies' materials.[14]

First Ladies of the United States

For a complete list of the first ladies, see List of First Ladies of the United States

First Lady and fashion

Some first ladies have garnered attention for their dress and style. Jacqueline Kennedy, for instance, became a global fashion icon: her style was copied by commercial manufacturers and imitated by many young women, and she was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1965.[15][16] Michelle Obama has also received significant attention for her fashion choices: style writer Robin Givhan praised her in The Daily Beast, arguing that the First Lady's style has helped to enhance the public image of the office.[17]

Fictional First Ladies of the United States

First Lady Title actress
Abbey Bartlet The West Wing Stockard Channing
Marsha Dale Mars Attacks! Glenn Close
Marilyn Whitmore Independence Day Mary McDonnell
Linda Davenport First Kid Lisa Eichhorn
Constance Link First Family Madeline Kahn
Michelle Foster Chasing Liberty Caroline Goodall
Martha Logan 24 Jean Smart
Margaret Kramer My Fellow Americans Lauren Bacall
Melanie MacKenzie First Daughter Margaret Colin
Grace Marshall Air Force One Wendy Crewson
Ellen Mitchell Dave Sigourney Weaver
Joan Scott The Kidnapping of the President Elizabeth Shepherd
Mellie Grant Scandal Bellamy Young
Claire Underwood House of Cards Robin Wright
Patricia Walker House of Cards Johanna Going

See also


  1. "FLOTUS". Open Dictionary. MacMillan Dictionary. October 1, 2011. Retrieved January 4, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Anthony, Carl Sferrazza (September 26, 2008). "The Role of the First Lady". Retrieved May 4, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Martha Washington". St. Johnsbury (VT) Caledonian. August 7, 1838. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "First Lady Biography: Dolley Madison". National First Ladies' Library.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Creeden, Sharon (1999). In Full Bloom: Tales of Women in Their Prime. August House. p. 30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Burns, Lisa M. (2008). First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press. ISBN 978-0875803913.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Michelle Obama". The White House. Retrieved May 4, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Caroli, Betty Boyd (2003). First Ladies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 200.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Executive Office of the President". The White House.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "The First Ladies". National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved April 4, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. VF Staff (1965). "World's Best Dressed Women". The International Hall of Fame: Women. Vanity Fair. Retrieved February 15, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Zilkha, Bettina (2004). Ultimate Style: The Best of the Best Dressed List. New York, NY: Assouline. pp. 64–69, 90. ISBN 2-84323-513-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Givhan, Robin (2012). "First Lady Fashion Fatigue". The Daily Beast. Retrieved October 30, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza (1992). First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents Wives and Their Power 1789–1961. New York: Quill/William Morrow. ISBN 978-0688112721.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> excerpt and text search
  • Bailey, Tim (Spring 2013). "America's First Ladies on Twentieth-Century Issues: A Common Core Unit". History Now. 35.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Curriculum unit based on primary sources.
  • Berkin, Carol, ed. (Spring 2013). "America's First Ladies". History Now. 35.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Popular essays by scholars.
  • Böck, Magdalena (2009). The Role of First Ladies: A Comparison Between the US and Europe (eBook ed.). Munich: GRIN Verlag. ISBN 9783640421534.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Deppisch, Ludwig M. The Health of the First Ladies: Medical Histories from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama (McFarland, 2015). x, 232 pp.
  • Lugo-Lugo, Carmen R. & Bloodsworth-Lugo, Mary K. (2011). "Bare Biceps and American (In) Security: Post-9/11 Constructions of Safe(ty), Threat, and the First Black First Lady". Women's Studies Quarterly. 39 (1): 200–217. doi:10.1353/wsq.2011.0030.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> On media images of Michelle Obama.
  • Pastan, Amy (2008). First Ladies. London: DK. ISBN 9780789473981.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Heavily illustrated.
  • Roberts, John B. (2004). Rating The First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency (2nd ed.). New York: Citadel Press. ISBN 978-0806526089.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> excerpt and text search
  • Troy, Gil (1997). Affairs of State The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple Since World War II.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> By a leading political historian.
  • Truman, Margaret (1996). First Ladies: An Intimate Group Portrait of White House Wives. New York: Facett Columbine. ISBN 978-0449223239.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> excerpt and text search
  • Watson, Robert P. (2003). "Toward the Study of the First Lady: The State of Scholarship". Presidential Studies Quarterly. 33 (2): 423–441. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2003.tb00038.x.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links