How did the role of First Ladies in the White House change and evolve through the years from Dolley Madison (4th First Lady) to Eleanor Roosevelt (33rd First Lady)?

Annie McNutt


It is said that “behind every great man there is a great woman.” Throughout this year in the crash course for Advanced Placement United States History, we studied the Presidents and their actions and accomplishments. However, we left the First Ladies out of the picture because there is not enough time to learn every detail about our rich history. Hopefully this page will provide enlightenment about the incredible wives of the Presidents we learned so much about. The role that each First Lady played throughout history is different and constantly changing. Towards the beginning of the time of the presidency, wives of Presidents were expected to be (and usually were) White House hostesses. In other words, the First Ladies hosted parties and balls, such as the Inaugural Ball (first hosted by Dolley Madison) and other major events. Women of the time were generally homemakers meaning that they were not extremely involved in economic and political affairs. However, the First Ladies were different in that they had a “leg up” by being the President’s wife; which gave them access to many new and exciting spheres of influence in society. This page attempts to explore the affects these women had on the presidencies of their husbands and how their roles as First Ladies changed with changing times and values.

Dolley Madison (4th First Lady)

Dolley Madison (wife of President James Madison)

  • Viewed As: A White House hostess
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. Held First Inaugural Ball when husband, James Madison, was elected President
    2. Fundraising for the Lewis and Clark Exploration of the Louisiana Territory
    3. Helped Found A Washington D.C. Home for young orphaned girls
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. Raised the bar for the role of the White House hostess and made it a more important and prominent role in the White House
    2. One of the first times that the First Lady was involved in aiding a major exploration (stepping outside role as first lady)
    3. First time that a First Lady began to donate her time to charitable work (this set a precedent for future First Ladies in that now many First Ladies pick and organization or two to donate a major portion of their tenure’s in office supporting)

Sarah Polk (11th First Lady)

Sarah Polk (wife of President James K. Polk)

  • Viewed As: A strict (and somewhat commanding) White House hostess who was very influential behind the scenes
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. Banned dancing (not popular)
    2. She devoted all her time to her husband’s career because she had no family to distract her like previous First Ladies did
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. Though the banning of dancing was not popular, it proved to society that the First Lady had power and could exert it however she pleased
    2. The vast amounts of time that Sarah Polk was able to spend helping her husband, James K. Polk, gave her more power over his administration and the decisions he made as president
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • Sarah Polk had more power than previous first ladies due to her involvement in her husbands campaign and presidency and enforcing rules she believed necessary and proper

Abigail Fillmore (13th First Lady)

Abigail Fillmore (wife of President Millard Fillmore)

  • Viewed As: A strong, independent First Lady who, though a White House hostess, had many other interests that she pursued
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. Pursuit of education
    2. Attended sessions of Congress
    3. Created the White House Library
    4. Public Presence
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. She learned a new language and played piano. The fact that Abigail Fillmore had a somewhat higher education than most women of the time made her a figure that many women looked up to as a role model. Mrs. Fillmore supported women’s education and women participating in occupations predominantly run by men
    2. The fact that she attended sessions of Congress proves that she had power and was included in the political aspects of the presidency
    3. As a White House hostess, Abigail Fillmore added to her job refurbishing and renovating the White House, her plans included a Library
    4. Abigail Fillmore’s great public presence (she traveled with her husband to public and official ceremonies made it known that she was involved in the presidency
      • She went to an event at which her husband received Sioux Indians after a treaty signing, she was the only woman at the even
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • First Ladies were never before allowed to sit in on sessions of Congress and listen to debates and the passing of bills, this made the First Lady more politically involved in the presidency
    • Overall, Abigail Fillmore took on more power and responsibility during her tenure and was a prominent public figure allowing for her presence and affect on the presidency to be noticed

Mary Lincoln (16th First President)

Mary Lincoln (wife of President Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War)
  • Viewed As: A White House hostess who was very much involved in the Civil War which became a big part of her husband, Abraham Lincoln’s, Presidency
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. She vigorously supported her husband’s campaign
    2. She was a volunteer nurse for the Union Army and did many other things to raise Union morale and aid the war cause
    3. She supported abolition and some say she influenced the emancipation of African American slaves
    4. She became involved with the Sanitary Commission fairs and the Contraband Relief Association
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. Unlike First Ladies before her, Mary Lincoln supported her husbands campaign for presidency which kept her involved throughout his tenure
      • She also made speeches in which she discussed the most pertinent political issues
    2. The fact that Mary Lincoln was involved in the Civil War cause showed that she was not above helping her country in its time of need, it made her more personable and furthered the tradition of First Ladies helping the community in one way or another
    3. Mary Lincolns support of her husband and his intentions to emancipate the slaves in the South gave her the reputation of aiding her husband in the emancipation process
    4. Both organizations raised funds to support he Union troops, again displaying Mrs. Lincoln’s willingness to devote her time to the Unions cause
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • Mary Lincoln was involved to a much greater extent than any of the First Ladies before her
    • Her support of her Husband and the Union Army proved that the First Lady was not only a White House hostess, Mary Lincoln expanded the sphere of influence of the First Lady providing that women could do their part in aiding the war cause, and just because she was the First Lady did not exempt her from these duties
    • Mary Lincoln stands out in history as a strong First Lady who was very involved and aware of the politics and events of the time

Lucy Hayes (19th First Lady)

Lucy Hayes (wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes)

  • Viewed As: A very active First Lady who was not as preoccupied with running the White House as she was with her influence outside the White House, on society
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. She had a higher education
    2. She was aware of the political damage her participation in some organizations could do to her husband (politically aware)
    3. Had influence over some decisions her husband made regarding women’s rights
    4. She supported local Children’s Hospitals by sending flowers
    5. She supported the National Deaf Mute College in Washington D.C. and the Asylum for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky
    6. Influenced President to continue construction on the Washington Monument
    7. She allowed African American musical groups to perform in the White House
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. She was a role model for women to get a higher education and feel empowered to be just as good or better than men
    2. The fact that she was more politically aware than her predecessors is important because it allowed her to have more influence on the political front of her husbands Presidency
    3. Lucy Hayes is said to have influenced her husbands decision to support the right of women lawyers to appear in the Supreme Court (this displays the influence the First Lady has behind the scenes)
    4. Lucy Hayes, like First Ladies before her had philanthropy projects. However, she took on philanthropy specifically directed for the disabled (Children’s Hospital, the deaf and the blind)
    5. Her support of both higher education and the deaf and the blind came together when she declared her support for deaf and mute colleges
    6. Her influence upon the President was again displayed when she prompted him to continue the work on the Washington Monument which had been begun in 1848
    7. Her role as White House hostess expanded and she showed her support for African Americans by allowing Black musical groups in the White House
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • Lucy Hayes was a much more active and influential First Lady than her predecessors by becoming involved in many philanthropy opportunities and have a strong influence over her husband in his decisions
    • Lucy Hayes’ involvement in philanthropy and public life made her a prominent figure of the time allowing her to have a major impact on the policies and values of the time

Caroline Harrison (23rd First Lady)

Caroline Harrison (wife of President William Henry Harrison)

  • Viewed As: A First Lady who tended not to be as involved in her role as White House hostess and more involved in current social, economic and political issues
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. Became the first President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1890
    2. She gave John Hopkins Hospital the support to create a new Hospital Wing only if they agreed to admit women to their medical school, they did
    3. Public Figure-accompanied her husband to centennial celebrations
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. Caroline Harrison’s involvement in the DAR was a huge step for the role of the First Lady in that she participated fully in a major organization (it became a full-time job)
    2. Her support of various women’s issues was popular and an important advancement because she, as a woman, was attempting to further empower women of the time
    3. Her presence as a public figure for women illustrated that they could have roles that were just as important as those of men (DAR President etc.)
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • Caroline Harrison was much more involved in bettering the community than she was in politics or as her role as a White House hostess
    • She changed the role of the First Lady by dedicating her support and time to an organization and doing her best to empower women
    • Overall, Caroline Harrison was much more involved in current social issues than any of the First Ladies before her

Helen Taft (27th First Lady)

Helen "Nellie" Taft (wife of President William Howard Taft)

  • Viewed As: A First Lady who was extremely politically involved during her husband’s presidency and not as involved in her role as White House hostess
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. Involved politically in her husband’s 1908 campaign and advised him on many things from how to present himself to what she thought on current events
    2. She was the first First Lady to ride with her husband in the inaugural parade
    3. She brought African Americans to work as ushers in the White House
    4. She participated in the National Civic Federation which organized labor and industrial disputes (main goal: provide healthier and safer working conditions without compromising productivity)
    5. She often attended congressional hearings
    6. When William Howard Taft had a stroke on May 17, 1909 he depended greatly on Helen Taft
    7. She attended the National Democratic Convention as the first First lady to do so and the only one to do so from the opposing party
    8. Helen Taft also strongly supported women’s suffrage
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. Her political involvement in her husband’s presidency was unheard of from previous First Ladies. In previous years the First Lady was only a hostess and was not to worry her pretty little head with politics
    2. She was not only a strong political presence but a strong public presence as well by traveling with her husband and showing that the First Lady was just as important in the White House as the President
    3. Her support of African Americans and the and the fact that she brought them into the White House and put them into uniforms displayed the power she possessed in the White House
    4. She was very involved in the troubles between big business and laborers that occurred during this time which showed that the First Lady could be involved in matters that were previously left to men
    5. Like a few select First Ladies before her, Helen Taft attendance of congressional hearings showed that women were taking on jobs of men and more specifically that the President depended on the First Lady
    6. After the President’s stroke he depended heavily on his wife, though the Vice President should have been brought in, the First Lady insisted that she could help her husband in the final years of his presidency, giving her more power than any other First Lady before her
    7. Her attendance of the National Democratic conference showed the public that he was taking over her husband’s presidency and stepping up politically
    8. Her support of women’s suffrage showed her hope that women would get a higher education and become more involved in occupations previously run by men
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • She was the most politically involved First Lady in history which was never the case with any of the previous First Ladies
    • Her involvement in political issues was an example to women of the future that a woman is just as capable as a man at running the White House and making important political decisions
    • Also, her husband’s stroke left him unable to fulfill his role as President which gave Helen Taft a lot of power and control

Florence Harding (29th First Lady)

Florence Harding (wife of President Warren Harding)

  • Viewed As: A very active First Lady who was some what involved in politics and heavily involved in many other organizations (she did very little to constitute being a White House hostess and was certainly more than just a hostess)
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. Readily offered her political opinions and was not afraid to show that she was up to date on current political issues
    2. She supported a vast amount of groups and organizations:
      • American Association of University Women
      • The National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs
      • The American Federation of Teachers
      • The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)
      • The League of Women Voters
      • The National Women’s Christian Temperance Union
    3. She attempted and supported placing women in political offices
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. Florence Harding was not timid, she openly shared her beliefs and opinions not fearing what people, namely men in politics, would think of her. This caused women to feel empowered to chase after political jobs
    2. Her extensive participation in many organizations kept her very busy. The fact that she lent her time so willingly to so many different organizations changed the role of the First Lady making it a more prominent and influential one
    3. Though some of Florence Harding’s predecessors supported politics themselves and supported women’s higher education and rights, never before did a First Lady take action in placing women in political occupations. This was one of the first times that a First Lady did not only verbally support and idea but actually took action in making it a reality
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • She was much more than a White House hostess in that she devoted a substantial portion of her tenure in office supporting different organizations
    • Florence Harding also took actions to make her ideas realities which First Ladies before her did not get the chance to do during their time

Eleanor Roosevelt (32nd First Lady)

Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

  • Viewed As: An extremely active First Lady who was ahead of her time
  • Important Advancements as First Lady:
    1. Eleanor was not a big White House hostess, she was more interested in woman’s equality and rights for African Americans
      • Arranged a special concert at the Lincoln Memorial for Marian Anderson, a black opera singer, after she was refused by the DAR because she was black
    2. She had a radio program on which she gave speeches regarding a range of topics
    3. She supported the Vietnam War cause by visiting wounded soldiers and bring suggestions to FDR
    4. Eleanor aided the President with his career after he was stricken with polio in 1921
    5. Became the chair of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1963
      • Lead to the Equal Pay Act of 1963- giving women who were doing the same jobs as men equal pay
  • Significance of those advancements:
    1. The fact that she strayed away from the traditional role of the First Lady made her revolutionary. She was not satisfied only serving as a hostess and in fact was much happier being involved in politics
    2. Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio program was new and different and set her apart from First Ladies before her in that she was sharing her views and opinions with the public
    3. Though not a drastic change or advancement, her support of the war cause is still important because it demonstrates that she was willing to step outside the White House and be involved in current issues
    4. After FDR’s polio attack, Eleanor was left with a lot more power and responsibility. She cared for him and helped him run the country. This was important because it was rare at this time that a woman would be allowed to aid the President to such an extent that she was very involved in decision making
    5. Probably one of her most important achievements occurred after she was out of office as First Lady: her appointment to chair of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1963. This is significant because it is the first time that the status of women is being addressed with a formal group that was recognized by the President (Truman) and heavily supported leading to its great success
  • Change from previous First Ladies:
    • Eleanor Roosevelt was a very active First Lady which earlier on was not seen often
    • The removal of herself from the White House hostess position in pursuit of other interests was a major advancement in that since the position of First Lady was invented the women were seen as hostesses
    • Eleanor Roosevelt was outgoing and willing to support just about any cause she felt strongly about

How did the role of First Ladies in the White House change and evolve through the years from Dolley Madison (4th First Lady) to Eleanor Roosevelt (32nd First Lady)? ANSWER:

The role of First Ladies in the White House has evolved immensely over the years. During the Presidencies of the first twelve Presidents of the United States, the roles of the First lady remained, for the most part, the same. First Ladies were expected to run the White House and host parties and events to promote their husbands. Women did this with no questions and accepted that they had no place in politics or the topics of greater importance such as philanthropy, social issues and economics. Later on women generally took more responsibility in the more important issues and had a greater influence on the President and the important decisions made. First Ladies became respected public figures and joined and put their support behind many worthy causes. However, though this was the general trend of the role of First Ladies, some women were ahead of their time and took a more dominant role in the White House, making many important advancements that caused women to be more respected and have a chance to make a difference. First Ladies were role models and the First Ladies mentioned above are only a few of the women who have made a dramatic difference in our history. Though some people may not agree, First Ladies had a profound effect on the way this country turned out and many of the important laws and rules we have today. Ida Scott Taylor once wrote: Do not look back and grieve over the past, for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has not yet come. Live in the present, and make it so beautiful that it will be worth remembering. First Ladies do this exceptionally. First Ladies do not dwell on the successes or failures of their predecessors, nor do they worry about what others will do in the future. First Ladies make the most of the time they have in office to make a difference and maybe, just maybe, something they do will touch someone and make all their efforts and hard work worth the time. They make their time in office so important that is it worth remembering. First ladies work hard to make things happen and they are often overlooked. The point of this page is to shed some light on the many things First Ladies have done that they are rarely credited for. First Ladies are much more than White House hostesses; and who knows, one day we may be lucky enough to have a Firs Man and have a woman take on the role of President. Anything is possible!
Michelle Obama (wife of current President Barack Obama)

Below is a small crossword puzzle about the First Ladies and their main achievements. (each First Lady mentioned above is used only once) Print out and ENJOY!

Murrin, John M. Liberty Equality Power A HIstory Of The American People. California: Clark Baxter, 2007.
"National First Ladies' Library." 2009. National First Ladies' Library. 10 May 2009. <>.
Newman, John J. United States History Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination. New York: Amsco School Publications Inc, 2006.
Knowledge learned this year in APUSH