The Most Influential First Ladies
Monday, April 04, 2016
During a recent address in Argentina, first lady Michelle Obama stressed the importance of empowering women across the world through education. The speech is part of Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, which helps girls around the world go to school.
Let Girls Learn is the most recent project launched by the first lady, following Reach Higher, Joining Forces and Let’s Move! Obama’s busy agenda underscores how the role of first lady can be used to spearhead influential and far-reaching campaigns.
InsideGov decided to take a more in-depth look at the role of first ladies in U.S. history. Using data from the Siena College Research Institute's First Ladies Study, we ranked the 25 most influential first ladies in American history.
Siena College collaborated with C-SPAN and the White House Historical Association to create surveys for scholars and historians in American history to rank first ladies on 10 different influence indicators. Note that six first ladies were excluded from the college's original ranking because they died before getting into office or were in office for too short of a time.
#25. Helen Taft
Mean Rank: 62.371
“Nellie” Taft expanded the social scene at the White House, loosening some of the social codes put in place by her predecessor Edith Roosevelt. Taft also made headlines for her decision to replace the crew of all-white male ushers at the White House with African-American men.
#24. Mamie Eisenhower
Mean Rank: 62.497
A military wife for much of her life, Mamie Eisenhower supported increasing benefits for retired veterans. Eisenhower also took steps to counter segregation, including inviting African-American children to the famous White House Easter Egg Roll.
#23. Sarah Polk
Mean Rank: 62.62
Like her husband, Sarah Polk had an astute mind for politics. She assisted James throughout his political career, helping with speeches and advising him on important matters.
#22. Julia Grant
Mean Rank: 62.809
Despite her husband’s stormy presidency, Julia Grant was a popular entertainer and hostess at the White House. After Ulysses’ second term, the couple went on a world tour, meeting political leaders across the globe.
#21. Grace Coolidge
Mean Rank: 62.908
With “Silent Cal” at her side, Grace assumed the more social role when entertaining guests. She was also interested in helping people with disabilities, and raised $2 million for the Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts.
#20. Ellen Wilson
Mean Rank: 63.164
As first lady, Ellen Wilson took up a number of political causes, including improving living conditions in Washington’s poverty-stricken ghettos. However, her time in the White House was tragically cut short when she died from kidney disease in 1914. Following Ellen's death, Woodrow married Edith Galt in 1915.
#19. Lucy Hayes
Mean Rank: 63.165
Nicknamed “Lemonade Lucy,” Lucy Hayes was famous for her support of the temperance movement. During her tenure in the White House, alcohol was banned from all events at the mansion.
#18. Louisa Adams
Mean Rank: 63.197
Like her husband John Quincy Adams, Louisa had a turbulent four years in the White House, due to a bitter political election and her own health problems. Nevertheless, she was a staunch abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights during and after her tenure as first lady.
#17. Lou Hoover
Mean Rank: 63.321
Even before she entered the White House, Lou Hoover was a national figure in the U.S. During World War I, she founded the American Women’s War Relief Fund, and in 1924, she established the National Women’s Conference on Law Enforcement.
#16. Elizabeth "Bess" Truman
Mean Rank: 64.256
Following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bess Truman was thrust into the role of first lady. Although she stopped Eleanor Roosevelt’s tradition of holding press conferences, Truman was an active hostess at the White House.
#15. Nancy Reagan
Mean Rank: 65.802
During her time in the White House, Nancy Reagan led a campaign against drugs called “Just Say No.” Reagan helped establish thousands of “Just Say No” clubs across the country and went on speaking tours throughout the nation.
#14. Edith Wilson
Mean Rank: 66.007
President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife took an immediate interest in politics and kept social events at the White House to a minimum during World War I. After the president suffered a stroke in his second term, Edith’s role in managing the executive branch increased greatly.
#13. Edith Roosevelt
Mean Rank: 66.265
In comparison to her husband, President Theodore Roosevelt, Edith was a quieter and more private person. She undertook extensive renovations of the White House, including new landscaping and modernizing the public rooms.
#12. Laura Bush
Mean Rank: 66.669
Laura Bush was one of the most popular first ladies of the modern era. A former teacher and librarian, she took up children’s education as one of her main causes while in the White House, launching the “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn” initiative in her first term.
#11. Barbara Bush
Mean Rank: 66.777
Like her daughter-in-law, Laura Bush, Barbara Bush promoted literacy among America’s youth. As first lady, she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and continues to support this cause today.
#10. Rosalynn Carter
Mean Rank: 69.463
Rosalynn Carter took up mental health research as her main cause during her time in the White House. She supported the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 and served as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.
#9. Martha Washington
Mean Rank: 71.521
As the first first lady, Martha Washington set a precedent for how the role could be approached. During her time in the White House, she managed the presidential household and held weekly receptions.
#8. Betty Ford
Mean Rank: 72.903
One of the most politically active first ladies, Betty Ford took up numerous causes, including breast cancer awareness and the Equal Rights Amendment. She also founded the Betty Ford Center to combat substance abuse and drug addiction.
#7. Lady Bird Johnson
Mean Rank: 73.784
An active environmentalist, Lady Bird Johnson dedicated herself to national beautification projects and wildlife preservation. In 1977, President Gerald Ford awarded her the Medal of Freedom for her service.
#6. Hillary Clinton
Mean Rank: 74.76
As first lady, Hillary Clinton advocated for health care reform and supported children’s and women’s issues. Perhaps more than any other first lady, Clinton maintained a high-profile political career after leaving the White House, serving as a New York senator and secretary of State, and running for president.
#5. Michelle Obama
Mean Rank: 75.919
The current first lady has taken up numerous causes during her time in the White House, including childhood obesity, veterans’ wellness and education for young women.
#4. Dolley Madison
Mean Rank: 78.331
Dolley Madison set an important precedent in the White House, taking up social causes and using her extensive social networks to support her husband’s political career. The term “first lady” is believed to have been used for the first time during President Zachary Taylor’s eulogy of her.
#3. Jacqueline Kennedy
Mean Rank: 78.397
Although she served as first lady for fewer than three years, “Jackie” Kennedy was an iconic figure in American history. Following her husband’s assassination, she helped support the grief-stricken nation.
#2. Abigail Adams
Mean Rank: 81.967
As the first second lady and second first lady, Abigail Adams played an important role in the early days of the republic. She and President John Adams were the first couple to reside in the White House, and Abigail Adams continued her formal hosting duties in the new capital.
#1. Eleanor Roosevelt
Mean Rank: 84.082
Serving as first lady for over 12 years, Eleanor Roosevelt was an influential figure during the Great Depression and World War II. She played an active role in advising her husband and was the first first lady to hold her own press conferences.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt remained in the national and global spotlight, serving as chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Complete Ranking of First Ladies
The chart below shows the 25 most influential first ladies in U.S. history. Seven of the top 10 are from the modern era (since the FDR administration).
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