The Lasting Legacies of Underappreciated First Ladies
Ah, the first lady. An iconic title, and one that’s been synonymous with style, diplomacy and grace since 1776. It’s also probably the only position in US politics that isn’t a total sausage fest. In the beginning, the role of the first lady was almost exclusively a domestic one. But over time, the FLOTUS’ role has expanded. And now that we’re closer than ever than we’ve ever been to having a former FLOTUS as president, and subsequently to having our very first “first gentleman,” there’s been increased conversation as to what exactly the role of the first spouse should officially entail.
For inspiration, we need look no further than the work of some of the most incredible women in our nation’s history. Of course, we’ve all heard of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy, but there are plenty of first ladies whose influences are often overlooked–so we thought we’d name a few.
Abigail Fillmore hit the books
While she never really got involved in the political sphere—as many first ladies didn’t in the 19th century—Abigail Fillmore got shit done. Important shit. Her background as an educator and her overall love of knowledge inspired her to establish the first official White House library in the early 1850s. She worked tirelessly to obtain funds for the project, and spent months collecting books to fill the library’s shelves.
Sarah Polk made things political
If we’re being honest, Sarah Polk was kind of a buzzkill. She banned dancing in the White House, and rarely hosted parties. And even when she did, there was never any music or entertainment for the guests. But as dry as she sounds, she set an important precedent for all future first ladies. She’s considered the first “truly political” FLOTUS—she saw the White House as above all a place of business, and worked closely with her husband on his speeches and papers.
Edith Wilson was pretty much president
Edith Wilson—who was actually Woodrow’s second wife during his presidency—probably had more on her plate than any other FLOTUS. She had always worked closely with the president on important issues. But when he suffered a stroke in 1919, Edith’s role became even larger, as she had the final say in deciding whether an item was important enough to be reviewed by her husband. Yeah, that’s a lot of power.
Rosalynn Carter challenged mental health stigma
Rosalynn was said to be one of President Carter’s closest advisors, and she was even kind of an honorary cabinet member, being one of the very few first ladies to sit in on meetings with the president and his staff. Her most notable accomplishments involve battling the stigma of mental illness. In 1977 she served as chairwoman on the President’s Commission on Mental Health, and was instrumental in passing a law that would greatly improve institutional care for the mentally ill.
Michelle Obama, #turnip queen
With only a few months left in the White House, and no write-ups in history books as of yet, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention some of our current first lady’s accomplishments. During her time as FLOTUS, she’s helped launch four initiatives to promote children’s health and education, and better care for service members and veterans.
Also, she’s the #turnip queen. Need we say more?
Images via Answers, White House History, Bustle and IB Times
Stay tuned to Milk for more political underdogs.