- America’s first ladies have rich histories to rival their commander-in-chief husbands.
- Edith Wilson basically ran the government after her husband had a stroke; Grace Coolidge had a pet raccoon; and Melania Trump speaks six languages.
- Continue to learn facts about each first lady, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The 41 women who have followed their husbands to the White House to become America’s first ladies may have lived lives overshadowed by their partners.
But these women each have a unique story to tell – filled with tragedy, joy, and often accomplishments unusual for women of their time.
James Buchanan was the only bachelor president, but a few presidents’ wives didn’t act as official first ladies, or didn’t live to see their husband’s become presidents, so we’ve excluded them here. Sometimes first daughters or sisters acted as the official hostess, or no one filled the role.
Here are the most interesting little-known facts about the small club of women who have called 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home.
The nation’s first first lady stayed by her husband’s side during much of the Revolutionary War. General George Washington often asked her to join him at his winter encampment, and thought it so necessary that she be there that he “sought reimbursement from Congress for her travelling expenses,” according to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
John and Abigail Adam’s love letters are world famous, but she also had a sweet correspondence with another president, Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams became friends when they were both sent to Europe as American diplomats shortly after the Revolutionary War, but other the years their political differences caused them to fall out.
However, when then-President Jefferson’s daughter Polly died in 1804, Abigail immediately wrote to him to express her sadness at the loss.
There would be other periods when Abigail and Jefferson didn’t talk after that, but they were on speaking terms at the end of Abigail’s life.
In January 1817, a little less than a year before Abigail’s death, Jefferson wrote her a letter saying “our next meeting must then be in the country to which [time] has flown, – a country for us not now very distant.”
President James Madison’s wife may be credited with instilling the importance of bipartisanship in US politics.
According to the New York Historical Society, Dolley Madison would invite members of different political parties to her social functions, at a time when tensions between parties were so high that debates could often devolve into physical violence and even duels.
Her parties stressed civility and encouraged cooperation, in part thanks to the presence of women.
Before becoming first lady in 1817, Elizabeth Monroe followed her husband – the country’s future fifth president – to France, where he was appointed United States Minister under George Washington.
The Monroes lived in France during the height of the French Revolution, and Elizabeth is credited with saving the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife from execution at the guillotine.
The first foreign-born first lady was, perhaps unsurprisingly,one of the most well travelled.
Louisa Adams was born to a British mother and an American father in London, where she later met her future husband, John Quincy Adams. She didn’t move to America until four years after their marriage.
Louisa spent much of her union following John around to his different diplomatic postings, from Berlin to Russia – but always felt most at home in her husband’s native New England.
Anna Harrison was the first first lady to be widowed while her husband was in office. President William Henry Harrison died a month after catching a cold at his inauguration. His wife was still in the process of packing up to join him in Washington when she learned of his death.
She lived to be 88.
Letitia Tyler was the first first lady to die while her husband was in office, at the age of 51 in 1842. Her death also made her the youngest first lady to ever die.
Julia Tyler was the first first lady to marry her husband while he was a sitting president, when she tied the knot with President John Tyler two years after his first wife’s death. There was some criticism of the marriage at the time, due to the couple’s 30-year age difference.
After her husband President James K. Polk’s four years in office, the couple retired to their home, “Polk Place,” in Nashville, where he died in 1849.
Sarah lived at the home for the rest of her life, standing her ground even when the Civil War broke out in 1861, and fighting came to Tennessee. Polk Place was considered neutral ground by both armies, and the former first lady is said to have entertained both Union and Confederate leaders at her house during this period. She too lived to age 88.
While her husband was away fighting in the Mexican War, Peggy Taylor made an oath with herself that if he came back alive, she would never go out into society again. She continued to hold that vow when her husband became president in 1849, relegating all social duties at the White House to her youngest daughter, Mary Elizabeth.
Abigail Fillmore is sometimes credited with establishing the White House’s library, but the National First Ladies Library casts doubt on this claim. She was, however, an avid reader and keen observer of the political happenings of the time, acting as an unofficial adviser to her husband. The couple amassed a personal library of more than 4,000 books.
Like many other first ladies, Jane Pierce was not exactly excited to fill the position. When her husband was nominated as the Democratic party candidate in 1852, she is said to have fainted hearing the news.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Before marrying Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd dated Stephen A. Douglas, one of his rivals in the 1860 presidential election, according to The Ohio State University.
There’s a local legend in Greeneville, North Carolina, that when Andrew Johnson first came to town in 1826, Eliza commented to a friend as he passed by, “There goes my beau!” and that they were married within a year.
Julia Grant was the first former first lady to write a memoir, blazing the way for similar books from the likes of Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, according to the History Channel. But it wasn’t published until nearly 75 years after her death.
Lucy Hayes was the first first lady to graduate from college. Her time as first lady is perhaps best known for banning alcohol from the White House, which earned her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy,” according to the History Channel.
Moving into a White House made dry by her predecessors, Lucretia Garfield ignored pressure from the temperance movement and reversed the policy not to serve alcohol, according to the History Channel.
Frances Cleveland was the only first lady to hold the position twice, when her husband was voted out of office after one term, and then voted back in four years later.
She was also the youngest first lady ever. She married 49-year-old President Grover Cleveland at the age of 21, in a ceremony at the White House.
Caroline Harrison served as the founding president general of the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organisation whose members can trace their ancestry to those who aided in the Revolutionary War.
She also helped raise money for Johns Hopkins University medical school, but only on the condition that they let women in.
Ida Saxton met her future husband while working as a cashier at her father’s bank in Canton, Ohio, and the two appeared to share a deep love.
When he was shot by an assassin in September 1901, his first thoughts went to his wife.
“My wife – be careful how you tell her – oh be careful,” he told his secretary.
Edith knew her future husband, Teddy Roosevelt, nearly her entire life, after becoming playmates with his younger sister when they were toddlers.
The two were married two years after Roosevelt’s first wife, Alice, died in childbirth.
Edith lived to age 87.
When William Howard Taft became president in 1909, his wife broke tradition by walking with him in the inaugural parade, something modern first ladies have held up, according to the History Channel.
Helen Taft was also the first woman to be both the wife of a president and the wife of a chief justice of the Supreme Court, when he was nominated to the highest court in the country eight years after leaving the White House.
While her husband, future President Woodrow Wilson, was teaching at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania during her first pregnancies, Ellen Wilson insisted on going home to Georgia to give birth so that her children would not be born Yankees.
But she didn’t embrace some of the darker aspects of the South. The descendant of slave owners, she worked to improve housing conditions in black slums.
Her time as first lady was short lived, as she died in August 1914, about a year-and-a-half into her husband’s presidency.
President Woodrow Wilson married Edith Axson a little less than a year after the death of his first wife, Ellen. Edith Wilson has sometimes been called the “first woman to run the government” since she took over a lot of her husband’s responsibilities when he suffered a stroke in 1919 that left him partially paralysed.
President Warren G. Harding was Florence Kling’s second marriage, after her first husband – whom she married at 19 – left her after she gave birth to their son.
Though she was born into privilege as the daughter of the wealthiest man in Marion, Ohio, proud Florence refused to move back home and went to work to make rent.
First lady Grace Coolidge caused somewhat of a scene at the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll, when she brought along the family’s pet raccoon, Rebecca.
According to the History Channel, Rebecca clawed at the first lady and some children before she had to be taken back to to her quarters for safety.
The Coolidges adopted Rebecca when a Mississippi resident sent the animal to the White House as a Thanksgiving table offering. The president decided to pardon the raccoon instead of killing it for meat, and it quickly became one of his fondest companions.
Lou Hoover was a pioneer, becoming the first woman in the country to earn a bachelor’s degree in geology from Stanford University, where she met her future husband, according to the National First Ladies’ Library.
Her love of the outdoors also led her to act as president of the Girl Scouts twice in her lifetime.
And she was fluent in five languages, including English, Spanish, Italian, and French. She also learned Latin and Mandarin Chinese.
Orphaned at a young age, Eleanor Roosevelt was walked down the aisle on her wedding day by then-President Teddy Roosevelt, her uncle. Because she was marrying her fifth-cousin once removed, her uncle joked that “there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.”
When her husband was elected to the US Senate in 1934, Elizabeth Truman worked in his office as a secretary. Harry Truman said his wife was a hard working and earned “every cent I pay her.”
As a military wife, Mamie Eisenhower was constantly moving from posting to posting. By the time he was elected president in 1952, she estimated that she had unpacked at least 27 times.
Before marrying John F. Kennedy, a young Jacqueline Bouvier worked as a reporter and photographer for the Washington Times-Herald, a now-defunct newspaper in D.C.. And in her later years, she went to work as an editor at the Doubleday publishing house, according to the History Channel.
“Lady Bird” Johnson
Like Edith Wilson before her, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson helped run her husband’s affairs. When Lyndon Johnson volunteered for Naval service in World War II, she helped run his Congressional office. And she did the same thing again while he recuperated from a heart attack in 1955 as Senate majority leader.
Patricia Nixon was born Thelma Catherine Ryan and earned her nickname at birth for being born on St. Patrick’s Day.
She’s also responsible for helping to bring pandas to the US.When she commented about her love for the animals during a visit to China in 1972, dignitaries giftedthe US two pandas, which lived at the zoo in Washington, D.C. To this day, three American zoos maintain relationships with China to lease pandas.
A little more than a year after she and her husband left the White House, Betty Ford publicly admitted to being an alcoholic and checked into an addiction centre. Her candor had a lasting impact.
Ford went on to use her personal struggle to help other addicts, a few years later opening the Betty Ford Centre, a rehab facility in Rancho Mirage, California.
In 2014, the Betty Ford Centre merged with Hazeldon to form the Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation.
Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Smith grew up together in Plains, Georgia. In fact, the nation’s 39th president can remember the day that his future wife was born. His mother, Lillian, was a nurse and helped deliver the girl, and brought her son over the next day to see the baby, according to Good Housekeeping.
The two families were so close that Rosalynn’s younger sister was named after Jimmy’s mother.
“It was the Depression and people didn’t have money to pay a doctor and Jimmy’s mother took care of everybody whether they had money or not. And my father just admired her for that and so he named my little sister for Lillian,” Rosalynn Carter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011.
According to the book “Secret Lives of First Ladies”, Rosalynn first developed a crush on her childhood friend when he left Georgia to enter the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and she saw a picture of him in uniform. They went on their first date while he was home for the summer in 1945, and they married a year later.
The Red Scare brought Nancy Davis and Ronald Reagan together in 1951.
The future first lady was working as an actress at the time, when she sought out the help of Reagan, then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, in getting her name off a blacklist of possible communist sympathizers, according to the History Channel.
They married a year later.
Tragedy is the reason that Barbara Bush’s iconic hair started turning white at the age of 28, when she suffered the loss of her toddler daughter Robin to leukemia, according to the Washington Post.
She told the “Today” show in 2018 that she had stopped dying it because of her active lifestyle.
“The white hair was because I wanted to play golf,” she said. “I wanted to play tennis. I wanted to swim and my hair turned, as I’m sure someone else will tell you, orange, green, yellow, depending upon how much chlorine in the pool. So I decided to go white.”
Hillary Clinton met her husband, future President Bill Clinton, when they were both law students at Georgetown University. She told the “Today” show in 2015 that he had to ask her three times before she agreed to marry him.
In 1963, a 17-year-old Laura Bush got into a car crash with another vehicle that was driven by a friend, Mike Douglas, who died.
In her 2010 memoir, Bush wrote at length about the tragedy that she has shied away from talking about most of her life, saying the incident left her wracked with guilt for years.
“I lost my faith that November, lost it for many, many years,” she wrote in the book, according to The New York Times. “It was the first time that I had prayed to God for something, begged him for something, not the simple childhood wishing on a star but humbly begging for another human life. And it was as if no one heard. My begging, to my seventeen-year-old mind, had made no difference. The only answer was the sound of Mrs. Douglas’s sobs on the other side of that thin emergency room curtain.”
As the nation’s first black first lady, Michelle Obama grew up encountering racism and bias.
In her memoir, “Becoming,” she told an emotional story about how a college counselor discouraged her from applying to Princeton, even though she was at the top of her class at her magnet school, in student government, a member of the National Honour Society, and the sister of a current Princeton student.
She applied anyway and got in. She later came to the realisation that her peers at Princeton were no smarter than she was.
Melania Trump is the second first lady to be born outside the US and the first first lady to have grown up under communism. Melania was born in Slovenia in 1970, when the Baltic country was a part of now-defunct Yugoslavia, which had a socialist government.
She also speaks six languages – more than any other first lady.
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