The Impressive Accomplishments of 24 Former First Ladies

Melania Trump

Throughout American history, the role of the First Lady has transcended traditional expectations. From advocating for women’s rights to creating impactful policies, these women left their marks as more than just the president’s spouse. 

1. Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams
Image Credit: Gilbert Stuart – National Gallery of Art – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Abigail Adams, the second First Lady, was an early advocate for women’s rights and education. Her passionate letters to her husband, John Adams, reflect a progressive stance, urging him to “remember the ladies” as he formed the new nation.

2. Dolley Madison 

Dolley Madison
Image Credit: William S. Elwell, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Fourth First Lady Dolley Madison, celebrated for her social grace, transformed the White House into a vibrant center of political and cultural influence and shaped the role of future first ladies who followed in her footsteps. Her legendary role during the War of 1812, securing essential documents, art, silver, and a notable portrait as the British attacked the capital city, further solidified her place in American history.

3. Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt
Image Credit: Underwood & Underwood, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

The longest-serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a pioneering human rights advocate. Beyond her iconic role, she was integral in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, leaving an enduring legacy of championing global humanitarian principles and social justice.

4. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jackie Kennedy
Image Credit: McNamara family private collection, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was stylish, poised, and renowned for her cultural contributions and preservation efforts. Her restoration of the White House and love of the arts showcased a commitment to national heritage.

5. Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson

Claudia Johnson, Lady Bird
Image Credit: Robert Knudsen, White House Press Office – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

As First Lady and environmental advocate, Lady Bird Johnson spearheaded initiatives like the Highway Beautification Act. In addition to changing the landscape to make it more attractive, she was a social and political activist for many policies. 

6. Betty Ford 

Betty Ford
Image Credit: David Hume Kennerly, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Betty Ford, the outspoken and transparent First Lady, was a trailblazer for women’s rights and mental health awareness. Her candidness about her breast cancer battle and substance abuse struggles sparked crucial conversations, fostering change and compassion.

7. Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter
Image Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Rosalynn Carter was another first lady who was a prominent mental health advocate. Her commitment to destigmatizing mental health issues led to significant contributions, including involvement in the creation of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

8. Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan
Image Credit: mark reinstein/Shutterstock.

Tackling drug abuse with her iconic “Just Say No” initiative, Nancy Reagan, one of the most influential first ladies, endorsed a preventive approach. Her campaign, a defining effort, emphasized education and awareness during her tenure.

9. Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush
Image Credit: Records of the White House Photograph Office, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Barbara Bush was a relentless proponent of family literacy and education. Her passion led to the creation of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, impacting educational strategies to build a stronger America.

10. Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton
Image Credit: Laura Patterson – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Hillary Clinton was a dynamic first lady who broke new ground by pursuing a political career and later becoming the Secretary of State. Her resilience and political acumen marked a transformative era in the role of first ladies.

11. Laura Bush

Laura Bush
Image Credit: White House photo by Krisanne Johnson, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Laura Bush was a gracious and articulate first lady who fought ferociously for education and literacy, focusing on empowering women. Her initiatives, such as the National Book Festival, aimed at fostering a love for learning across diverse communities. She was also a notable advocate for her husband’s public education reforms, such as the No Child Left Behind Act.

12. Michelle Obama 

Michelle Obama
Image Credit: The White House from Washington, DC – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Few first ladies outside of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy have been in the conversation for the most charismatic of all time. Michelle Obama inserted herself into the running right away. Her niche was healthy living and education. From Let’s Move! to Reach Higher and multiple other campaigns, she aimed her efforts at addressing childhood obesity and enhancing educational opportunities.

13. Melania Trump 

Melania Trump
Image Credit: Marianique Santos, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

With a focus on well-being and anti-bullying, Melania Trump promoted programs that discussed the mental and emotional health of children. Her Be Best campaign served to facilitate positive online behavior and overall well-being.

14. Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson
Image Credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, No restrictions/Wiki Commons.

Edith Wilson was resilient during Woodrow Wilson’s illness and played a noteworthy part in decision-making. After he suffered a severe stroke during his second presidential term, she began acting as a de facto chief executive. Many have deemed her the first unofficial female president of the United States. She navigated crucial matters and maintained stability during a pivotal period in presidential history.

15. Martha Washington

Martha Washington
Image Credit: Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

The inaugural First Lady, Martha Washington, set enduring precedents for the role. As the first to occupy the position, she molded traditions, upholding a sense of dignity and hospitality that laid the foundation for future first ladies. It was remarkable to those around her that she managed her husband’s estates and spent most of her at the military encampments alongside him to support the troops. 

16. Caroline Harrison

Caroline Harrison
Image Credit: Digital Public Library of America, Indiana Memory – Harrison Presidential Site, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Caroline Harrison notably advocated preserving the White House and cataloging its historical artifacts, establishing the tradition of detailed inventories. In addition, she actively promoted women’s rights and education, participating in charitable organizations such as the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was the nation’s second first lady to die while fulfilling the position.

17. Edith Roosevelt 

Edith Roosevelt
Image Credit: United States Library of Congress – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

A creative force, Edith Roosevelt, was a significant contributor to the design of the West Wing of the White House. Her keen eye for aesthetics and commitment to modernizing the presidential residence were vital in shaping its architectural evolution.

18. Julia Grant

Julia Grant
Image Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

One of Julia Grant’s most well-known contributions was the restoration of the White House, which had fallen into disrepair. Julia Grant played an essential part in securing funding for the renovation and worked to enhance the overall image of the presidential residence. In addition to her social and domestic responsibilities, Julia Grant was also involved in charitable work, supporting various causes such as the American Red Cross.

19. Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk
Image Credit: George Dury, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Sarah Polk, a shrewd political partner, was prominent in assisting with her husband’s career. As a trusted advisor, she navigated the intricacies of Washington politics, helping immensely with James K. Polk’s successful political journey to and through the presidency.

20. Louisa Adams

Louisa Adams
Image Credit: Charles Bird King, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Louisa Adams was fluent in multiple languages and key in international relations. As first lady, her linguistic skills and cultural understanding contributed to diplomatic efforts, setting a precedent for future engagements. Adams also supported charities that focused on education and relief for the poor.

21. Florence Harding

Florence Harding
Image Credit: National Photo Company Collection – Library of Congress Catalog/Wiki Commons.

A staunch advocate for women’s suffrage and veterans’ rights, Florence Harding was crucial to advancing these causes. Her unwavering commitment reflected a progressive stance that supported meaningful social and political changes during her time. 

22. Pat Nixon

Pat Nixon
Image Credit: White House – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Driven by boundless empathy, she became the first First Lady to bolster volunteerism and initiated the Right to Read program, pioneering literacy efforts. Additionally, she worked to establish new recreational areas near urban centers for those unable to visit distant national parks. She traveled to over 80 countries, accompanying President Nixon to China and embarking on solo missions to Africa and South America, prioritizing visits to schools, hospitals, and orphanages over formal receptions and banquets.

23. Ellen Wilson

Ellen Wilson
Image Credit: Library of Congress Catalog, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Ellen Wilson was a promoter of societal reform who dedicated herself to housing improvement and better working conditions. She asked others to join her cause of caring for the disenfranchised in poverty-stricken communities. Her advocacy for the working class left a remarkable impact on social and labor issues during her time.

24. Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower
Image Credit: White House photographer – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Mamie Eisenhower was a trailblazer in health advocacy, and she raised awareness about heart disease and fervently encouraged physical fitness. Her strategies sought to improve the nation’s well-being and raise public health awareness. She supported various endeavors, including the American Heart Association, affordable housing, and healthcare for Army personnel widows.

Author: Creshonda Smith

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Creshonda is a content writer with a passion for entertainment and lifestyle topics like parenting, travel, and movies. Hailing from Cleveland, OH, she graduated from The Ohio State University with a bachelor's and master's degree in Clinical Social Work. While she has specific topics that she enjoys writing about, she likes to tackle other topics that she's not as familiar with in an attempt to continually improve her writing skills and knowledge about the world around us. Creshonda has written for various publications such as MSN, Detroit Legal News, Jacksonville Journal-Courier, and more. When she's not serving as a Trending Topics writer for Wealth of Geeks, she's searching for tropical destinations to travel to with her family.