Skip to main content

How To Be First Lady

July 2024
9min read

The ground rules have changed drastically since 1789. Abigail Adams, stifled in her time, would have loved being First Lady today.

ONCE AGAIN the candidates gear up for a national election; not only the candidates but their wives too. And pity the ladies! Their husbands run against different opponents; they, for nearly forty years, have had to measure up to one woman—Eleanor Roosevelt.

Because Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned across the country for FDR, they too must campaign for their husbands. Because Eleanor Roosevelt championed good causes, they too must be women with a cause. Because Eleanor Roosevelt held press conferences, so must they. In the course of her thirteen years in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt created the modern First Lady.

Forty years later her grip on the American imagination still holds. So powerful is her model—and, perhaps, so weak is our national historical memory—that its revolutionary quality is all but forgotten. The fact is that Presidents’ wives before Eleanor Roosevelt, whatever their interests or talents, were forbidden to play politics in public. To break this rule was to invite contemporary scandal and historical disgrace.

To begin at the beginning, with Martha Washington: she did not attend her husband’s inauguration and did not arrive at the then-capital city of New York until a month later. Once there she complained that it was unfortunate that “I, who had much rather be at home, should occupy a place with which a great many younger and gayer women would be prodigiously pleased.” She did not, she wrote, expect “felicity from the splendid scenes of public life. … I sometimes think the arrangement is not quite as it ought to have been.”

Such reluctance makes a marked contrast with her willingness a decade earlier, while Washington was commanding the Continental Army, to join him each winter at his headquarters in order to bring him what he called “domestic enjoyments.” The years of the Revolutionary War had tested her mettle as the wife of the hero of the Republic and found her worthy.

Timidity does not, then, account for her unhappiness with the role of First Lady. There was, of course, no model she could emulate, nor could the reigning canons of female virtue come to her aid. During the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, female virtue was made up of purity, piety, and passivity, qualities meant to be exercised only at home. Virtue so defined was radically at odds with public prominence. It is hardly surprising that the contradiction could be paralyzing.

In Martha Washington’s case, it was just that. When she arrived in New York, she found the President’s house furnished and the presidential social schedule fixed. Yet had she been there from the first, it is doubtful whether she would have been consulted in these arrangements. As Washington saw it, presidential style and deportment had the political weight of an affair of state. The question of how the first chief magistrate in modern history to be elected by his equals was to behave toward his fellow citizens required weighty consideration. A way must be found, wrote Washington, to “preserve the dignity and respect that was due to the first magistrate … without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation” indulged in by kings to overawe their subjects.

After lengthy consultation Washington set two weekly occasions when the citizenry could call without invitation at the President’s house: a Tuesdayevening levee for men only and a Friday-evening tea for both men and women. A third weekly event, this one by invitation only, was to be a Thursday dinner given by the President and his lady. There sociability stopped. The Washingtons would return no calls and accept no private invitations.

The levees were crowded but brief; the dinners bountiful in food and wine and equally bountiful in silence. At the teas the First Lady received sitting down, the Vice-President’s wife, Abigail Adams, seated at her side. These were hardly the “splendid scenes of public life” she had anticipated, and there was little else to occupy her. “I live a very dull life here and know nothing that passes in the town. I never go to any public place. Indeed, I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from. And, as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.” On occasion she permitted herself a less passive resistance, abruptly ending more than one tea party by saying in a loud voice that her husband normally went to bed at nine and that she always preceded him.

Next came John Adams. His wife, the formidable Abigail, schooled at Martha Washington’s side, knew what would be expected of her and took “no comfort or pleasure” in contemplating it. She foresaw no relaxation of the social constraints that had so irritated her predecessor. And worse she had a lively interest in politics that she was used to expressing. “I know not,” she wrote her husband, “how to place so many guards about me as will be indispensable, to look at every word before I utter it, and to impose a silence upon myself when I long to talk.” To this John Adams replied: “I have no concern on your account but for your health. A woman can be silent, when she will.” Her response was tart: “I hope to acquire every requisite degree of taciturnity which my station calls for, tho … it will be putting a force upon Nature.”

Like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams did not attend her husband’s inauguration: it was still a political, not a social, event. But once arrived in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, she took up First Ladyship with her characteristic vigor. Soon she was giving dinners several times a week to as many as forty guests. The Adamses’ food was less lavish than the Washingtons’ and their wines less fine, but the new First Lady kept the conversation lively and charmed her guests with her wit and vivacity.

By the winter of 1797-98 Abigail Adams had made herself Philadelphia’s leading hostess. As she drove through the streets, people bowed or took off their hats. Even the Quakers, she boasted, noticed her “in their way.” She was beginning to enjoy being First Lady but was too wise a woman to confuse popular success with political license. For the four years of Adams’s Presidency, she succeeded admirably in holding her tongue in public, though she did not cease voicing her deeply felt political opinions in the private circle of her family and friends.

Abigail Adams was a woman of remarkable intelligence and public spirit, but if as First Lady she was not the wooden doll Martha Washington was, neither did she expand the role. She left the office of First Lady as she found it.

Thomas Jefferson’s wife died long before he took office, and his style as President was in deliberate contrast to Federalist formality and polish. No teas, no levees, the least possible number of state dinners. On the official occasions he could not avoid, he often called on Dolley Madison, wife of his secretary of state, to be his hostess. Thus she had the rare advantage of on-the-job training for the office that, in 1809, was to become hers.


Dolley Madison embraced First Ladyship with a joy unmatched before and long afterwards. She was first to attend her husband’s inauguration and first to celebrate it with an inaugural ball. She had been born a Quaker and had customarily worn Quaker dress, but as First Lady she shed dove-gray for shimmering iridescences and fashionable décolletage. A female guest described her at the inaugural ball, wearing a champagne-colored velvet gown with a long train, pearls at her throat and ears and wrists, crowned with a turban made in Paris of matching velvet and white satin, topped with “the superb plumes of the bird of paradise feathers.” She carried her finery with “perfect propriety [and] unassuming dignity.” Here was republican female perfection, queenly high style complemented by democratic simplicity of manner.

In 1835, some eighteen years after the Madisons left the White House, the English journalist Harriet Martineau visited them at Montpelier, their Virginia plantation, and reported that “Mrs. Madison is celebrated throughout the country for the grace and dignity with which she discharged the… duties which devolve upon the President’s lady.… [With] such discretion, impartiality and kindness it is believed she gratified everyone and offended nobody. ”

Discretion, impartiality, and kindness—what are these but purity, piety, and passivity translated from domestic into public virtues. It was Dolley Madison’s nearly miraculous feat to achieve that translation, though few who followed her as First Lady were able to follow her in this. Mrs. James Monroe, her immediate successor, a beautiful and sophisticated woman, did not try. She hated White House entertaining and sent her daughter to be hostess in her stead. Through the rest of the century, a disconcerting number of women—Mmes. Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, among others—followed the Monroe rather than the Madison pattern. Some would not, others said they could not, appear in public.

Two notable First Ladies in midcentury took up their duties with Mrs. Madison’s enthusiasm but not her success. Mary Lincoln was and still is the most unpopular First Lady in American history; Julia Grant, now nearly forgotten, shared the popularity of her lionized general in his lifetime, and his fall from public favor after his death.

Mrs. Lincoln is said to have aimed at the White House from the time she was a girl. Whether or not that is true, as First Lady she behaved most disagreeably toward any woman who seemed to be competing with her for public deference. In January 1861 she went to New York City to outfit herself for her new position and behaved like a greedy child let loose in a candy store. She spent two thousand dollars, then a huge sum, for her inaugural ball gown. In one four-month period she bought three hundred pairs of gloves. By 1864, unknown to her husband, she owed some twenty-seven thousand dollars to dressmakers and mantua-makers. To a confidante she pleaded: “I must dress in costly materials.… The very fact of having grown up in the West subjects me to … searching observation.”

The Civil War public believed she could do nothing right, but of all her offenses the gravest was meddling in politics. Her public remarks had embarrassing or even dangerous political implications; her importunate letters to generals and politicians demanding jobs for her favorites added to her husband’s heavy burdens. Later she excused these transgressions by saying, “A deep interest in my idolized husband and country alone caused me ever to trouble myself about other than womanly matters.” But at another time she confessed, “My husband always enjoined upon me to be quiet.”

Julia Grant, not the foolish, or tragic, person Mary Lincoln was, still was no heroine. She too was from the West and uneasy about what the capital’s society would think of her country ways. In the White House she developed a taste in clothes and parties that was overblown even for a mid-Victorian, and she exploited her position to raise the money to pay for them. But unlike her extravagant predecessor, she did not spend money she did not have. Her stumpy figure inspired Henry Adams to say she looked like an isosceles triangle, but if people laughed at her, she somehow managed to escape any taint from the corruptions and scandals of her husband’s administration. And if she went job hunting for her family and friends, unlike Mary Lincoln she did it with discretion. Extravagant and ridiculous, perhaps—but she never broke the rules that delimited women’s sphere.

Mrs. Grant heartily enjoyed her eight years in the White House. In the memoirs she wrote a few years before her death in 1902, she said: “I love the dear old House.… Eight happy years I spent there.… It still seems as much like home to me as the old farm in Missouri, ” her childhood home. Indeed, when her husband’s term ended, she was so reluctant to leave the White House that she insisted on welcoming President Hayes there by giving him and his inaugural party a luncheon, as if it were still her house. As the train taking the Grants back west pulled out of the station, the ex-President found his wife weeping in her compartment. When he asked what the matter was, she said, “Oh, Ulys, I feel like a waif.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s refusal to play a passive role remade the position of First Lady.

The nineteenth-century view of what a First Lady should be and do was remarkably durable. Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt’s immediate predecessor, majored in geology at Stanford in the 189Os—a most unusual choice of subject for a woman—and was an accomplished linguist. In 1899 she went to China as a bride, just as the Boxer Rebellion was gaining force, and helped defend the besieged foreign compound in Tientsin. When World War I began, she was in London and there led the organization of the American Women’s Hospital. Yet in the White House this dauntless woman fitted herself quietly into the traditional posture of female passivity. It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s refusal to do the same, and her success in winning first a grudging public respect and then widespread admiration, that remade the role of First Lady.

Thus today’s presidential wives, whatever their preferences and talents, live with a new set of rules. To some—Rosalynn Carter comes first to mind—politics are second nature. For others the new rules may be as wearisome and constraining as the old ones were to such a person as Abigail Adams. And while all contemporary wives, whatever their natures, follow the new rules during campaigns, as Nancy Reagan gamely did, once in the White House the traditionalists edge back out of politics into interests they find more congenial.

Still, as so often in history, there is one exception, one modern First Lady who refused to make herself over in any way whatsoever to suit public taste. That woman was Bess Truman.

When Mrs. Truman died in October 1982, the New York Times obituary eulogized her as a “quiet and unassuming woman” who “fought efforts by the press and the public to pry her out of the place she had chosen for herself … in her husband’s shadow.” While at first “Mrs. Truman resigned herself to trying to emulate the Eleanor Roosevelt style, she soon recognized that that was impossible.” A first press conference was scheduled but she canceled it and never scheduled another. Asked what qualities she judged most necessary for a President’s wife, she answered, “Good health and a sense of humor.”

The obituary ends with a story about President Truman finding his wife burning some of his love letters to her. Why was she burning them? “Why not,” she said. “I’ve read them several times.” “But think of history,” he admonished. “I have,” she replied.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.