May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Most Influential First Ladies in History

3 min read
influential first ladies in history

Often times there are aspects of our everyday lives that make us ponder history. As the 2016 election comes more and more near, there are many who are focusing on current and former First Ladies of the United States of America. Certainly the forerunner of the Democratic party is currently Hillary Clinton. However, there are those tossing out Michelle Obama’s name, too, for the next President of the United States.

It is interesting to think that the most influential first ladies in history achieve their greatest victories not in their role as First Ladies, but after having served in their role as First Lady in the White House.

When looking at the most influential first ladies in history, there are several great ones that come to mind: Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Edith Wilson are some of the more popular ones. While all of America’s first ladies have had their impact on history, these are some that went above and beyond, not resting on their laurels.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt receives continued accolades even to this day. As a finalist on the recent Women on the $20 campaign, Eleanor Roosevelt is praised as one of the most influential first ladies in history. She was the first wife of a president to hold press conference and write a syndicated column. Where Hillary Clinton boast of her thousands of miles spent traveling, she barely holds a candle to the 40,000+ miles that Roosevelt traveled in the first year of the New Deal.

From visiting wounded GIs and getting them their benefits, to spearheading the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt showed that her mission in life was to place the interest of the nation above her own.

Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson

When Lyndon B. Johnson first met the soon-to-be Mrs. Johnson, he proposed to her within hours. It only took a short amount of time for the our 36th president to fall in love with her, and the American people followed suit. Most First Ladies become less involved in politics once they move into the White House–not necessarily by choice, but due to their new duties and responsibilities; however, not Lady Bird Johnson. She became very active in legislation, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As someone who appreciates history, it is exceptionally important to note her involvement in historic preservation and her work with Head Start. The year following her leave of the White House, she became a member of the National Park Service’s Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments. For her work she received the Medal of Freedom from President Ford, in 1977, and the Congressional Gold Medal from President Reagan in 1988.

Edith Wilson

Someone many consider the first female president of the United States of America, Edith Wilson stood by her husband and helped run the nation when he suffered from a stroke. Woodrow Wilson’s “special gift from Heaven” was very much so a gift to the American people. She was very active in the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations.

Although she claims: “I myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of the public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not.” One could argue deciding what was and wasn’t deemed important is the most crucial decision of them all. Her assistance during his paralysis kept Wilson from being the first president to ever resign from the White House.

Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk, a lady who is credited in the History Buff’s Guide to the Presidents: Top Ten Rankings of the Best, Worst, Largest, and Most Controversial Facets of the American Presidency as “the first truly political first lady.” She believed that the White House was a place of business, not one that should host lavish parties at the taxpayers’ expense.

To expedite his workload, President Polk had his wife work closely with him marking papers urgent, proofreading his speeches, and wrote correspondences for him. With no children, time-consuming hobbies, or causes to champion, she devoted all her time to politics. During the Civil War, as a resident of Nashville, Sarah Polk’s home was neutral territory and was visited often by both Union and Confederate officers.


1 thought on “Most Influential First Ladies in History

  1. I believe Edith badly understated her role. She and Wilson’s Secretary ran the country while keeping the President’s condition a secret.

    I would rate what Nancy Reagan did when Ronald obviously was incapable as more in line with Wilson’s stated power. He had more powerful staff that kept Nancy from being able to / needing to run the country.

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