History

5 things you never knew about U.S. First Ladies

There’s no doubt that being the First Lady of the United States comes with immense responsibility and influence, but there is no specific job description that comes along with it, besides picking the White House china and decorating the Christmas tree. First Ladies throughout history have come up with their own responsibilities and pastimes to stay busy. Some of them were more influential than others in the shaping of the country. Here are five little-known facts about some of our U.S. First Ladies.

Many of them never lived in the White House

The White House with fountains in front and greenery
Credit: mktgmantra/ Unsplash

One of the best perks of becoming president is getting to live in the 55,000-square-foot mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but many of the First Ladies never got a chance to live there.

  • Martha Washington: George Washington was President before the White House was built. It was finished in 1800, three years after Washington left office.
  • Martha Jefferson: She died 18 years before her husband, Thomas Jefferson, took office.
  • Rachel Jackson: Andrew Jackson’s wife died just before his inauguration.
  • Hannah Van Buren: Martin Van Buren’s wife died 18 years before he took office.
  • Anna Harrison: Her husband, William Henry Harrison, died a month after his inauguration. She never got a chance to move into the White House.
  • Ellen Arthur: Chester A. Arthur’s wife died a little over a year before he took office.
  • Alice Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt’s first wife died 17 years before he was elected.

Eleanor Roosevelt had her own plane

Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Credit: April Sims/ Shutterstock

Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most influential and memorable First Ladies in history. Known for her intelligence and outspokenness, she redefined the role to be more politically involved than any of her predecessors had.

Because she was so busy changing the course of history, her travel schedule was very tight. She thought it would be helpful if she could have her own plane to get around. In 1943, a military bomber was reconfigured to carry the president as the precursor to Air Force One. It was called the Guess Where II. When it was finished, Secret Service deemed it was too unsafe to carry a President — but it was perfect for the First Lady! Eleanor Roosevelt took the plane as her own and even got her student pilot license. She had flown regularly before she got her own plane, a few times with Amelia Earhart.

Florence Harding served alcohol in the White House during prohibition

First Lady Florence Harding operating a newsreel in front of a crowd of journalists
Credit: Everett Historical/ Shutterstock

Florence Harding’s husband, Warren G. Harding, served as President from 1921-1923. Prohibition was in full swing in the United States, but like many American families then, that didn’t stop them from having a good time. Warren was an avid poker player and enjoyed having friends over to the White House’s private chambers to play. Not only was alcohol regularly served, Florence Harding tended the bar!

Abigail Adams was an adviser to her husband

View of the Boston Women's Memorial with statues of Abigail Adams and Phillis Wheatley, Boston, Massachusetts
Credit: Jorge Salcedo/ Shutterstock

Abigail Adams was the wife of the second president and Founding Father John Adams. She was also the first person to be both wife and mother of a U.S. President. Her eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became president in 1825. She was also the first First Lady to live in the White House.

Before the United States declared its independence, she was given the task of meeting with women who remained loyal to Great Britain and trying to convince them to help the cause. With this appointment she became the first First Lady to officially hold a government position. She remained influential in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and insisted that women be granted equal treatment under the new laws, famously asking them to “remember the ladies.” Although she didn’t get her wish, this was the first example for the push for equal gender rights in the United States. Because of her intelligence and political experience, she became her husband’s most trusted adviser during his presidency.

Edith Wilson basically served as President

President and Mrs. Wilson take in a baseball game during the President's second term in office.
Credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archive/ flickr

Edith Wilson was the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson and was a direct descendant of Pocahontas — yes, that Pocahontas. She had also been previously married to a wealthy jewelry store owner who had died and left her with a great deal of money. With her newfound wealth, she was able to travel the world and visit high-class places like Washington, D.C., where should could meet influential people... like the President of the United States. She met Woodrow Wilson while he was in office. They began dating and got married.

Mrs. Wilson was very involved in her husband’s politics. He gave her access to top secret information and insisted that she sit in on his meetings. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and was unable to manage the office of the Presidency. Edith was ready to take care of him along with his job. She stood at his bedroom door, screening all meetings and papers that would get through to the President. In effect, she was the gatekeeper for the entire executive branch of government! If she didn’t deem something important, the president never saw it. She even handled some of the paperwork herself “on behalf of the president.” This was known as her “stewardship” period. For one and a half years until Wilson’s term was over, Edith Wilson essentially held the power of the President of the United States.