Fierce First Ladies and Their Legacies that Continue to Influence Our Lives Today
Updated: May 22, 2021
As this year is the centennial celebration of a woman's right to vote, shining a light on the most prominent women in White House History seems like an appropriate way to celebrate this year's Election Day.
If you want to dive deep into these women's history, both personally and professionally, no one does it better than CNN. First Ladies' show paints a vivid description of each of the women profiled; Michelle, Jackie, Nancy, Eleanor, and Lady Bird. No last name is necessary for this lady line-up.
These women were far more than spouses. They were political powerhouses in their own right, as they stood side by side with their partners.
In this centennial year, on the most critical election day of our lives, let's take a look back. Here's hoping that as we move forward in these next 100 years, that we too can go forth in a similar vein where women have personal and political power over their legacies, lives, and bodies.
First Lady Michelle Obama
T seems fitting to start this series with our most recent First Lady, Michelle Obama. Michelle famously said about her living in the White House, "I wake up every morning in a house that slaves built, and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, Black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."
As the notable breadwinner in the Obama family, with a high-powered career as an attorney and then as the associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago, Michelle Obama was initially uncomfortable leaving her career behind and stepping into what seemed like a supporting role. Once settled into the position, she leaned way in, tackling several causes and issues.
Her focus mainly revolved around youth, as she was at the forefront of the Let's Move! Initiative. This initiative, which was enacted to combat the otherwise ignored childhood obesity crisis, created a far healthier generation. Let's Move! Impacted the nutritional standard of school meals and increased physical activity for students across the nation.
Michelle also launched the Let Girls Learn initiative in March 2015. Its goal was to engage and aid young girls towards better education. Many girls experienced more difficulty in accessing a quality education than boys due to gender stereotypes. This incentive helped alleviate that issue.
In a similar vein, the Reach Higher initiative was designed to encourage students to pursue higher education beyond the high school level. This initiative was inclusive of any programs, including a tech or trade school, in addition to the more traditional college and university options.
Michelle was also passionate about bringing attention to those who have served in the military and their families. Dr. Jill Biden and Michelle Obama began Joining Forces to offer assistance and support to military families in need. Joining Forces focused on wellness, employment, and education to ensure veterans' personal and professional wellness and development.
Michelle's genuine commitment to kids, girls, veterans, and military families, and the otherwise disenfranchised in our country will have a lasting impact on our nation for several generations to come.
For more info on this fabulous First Lady, pick up her inspirational book, "Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice," check out her documentary, "Becoming," based on the book, or tune in to "The Michelle. Obama Podcast." We have not heard the last of her legacy yet.
First Lady Hillary Clinton
Hilary Clinton had a long line of accomplishments long before her White House residency. Before becoming First Lady, Hillary was a trained lawyer with a thriving career in the private and public sectors. She also had a long history of championing women, children, and health care issues, (before and during her tenure as First Lady of Arkansas, while her husband Bill was governor.)
She co-found the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF). Several initiatives and services fall under The AACF umbrella, including Protecting Children, Improving Children's Health, Fighting for Early Education and Out-of-School Opportunities, and Promoting Economic Security, among other things.
She, too, needed to find her footing in this First Lady position. She quickly stepped up as a critical leader in the Violence Against Women Act, which combats any violence against women. She was instrumental in raising awareness for more health insurance coverage, particularly for women and children.
Hillary Clinton was also the first First Lady (1993-2001) to be elected to the U.S. Senate in our nation's history. She was a U.S. senator for New York (2001 - 2009) and later became Secretary of State (2009 - 2013) during President Barack Obama’s administration. She was a presidential candidate in 2008 and again in 2016 when she nearly won the presidential election.
First Lady Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan's history has a more theatrical slant than Michelle and Hilary's. Nancy began acting in high school, then earned her B.A. in Drama at Smith College. She continued to Hollywood, where she was seen in movies, one in which she co-starred with her husband. In 1968 she was titled Time's Woman of the Year.
While in the White House, Nancy Reagan focused heavily on her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. This campaign was during the height of crack cocaine use. Nancy's campaign targeted America's youth. She toured the country, giving speeches, visiting rehab centers, and talking on T.V. about this campaign. In 1985, she extended her outreach by hosting the first ladies of 17 countries in an international conference on youth drug abuse.
Behind the scenes, Nancy was a formidable force. Anyone who got to Ronny had to go through Nancy first. She was instrumental in many of his decisions. After his years in the White House, she fiercely protected him through his dementia and defended his legacy following his death. Nancy Reagan passed away in March of 2016 at the age of 94.
Lady Bird Johnson
As Lady Bird Johnson, Claudia Alta Johnson was a woman in her own right, outside of her husband's political positioning. Her power and purse played a significant role in his success as she used her inheritance to fund her husband's early campaigns, and she was a noted force on the campaign trail.
Once settled into the White House, she hired her press secretary, chief of staff, and East Wing, employee, which was unprecedented at the time. She was also quick to establish her purposes. She was involved in the Highway Beautification act in 1965. It was enacted to make the nation more picturesque, as it put restrictions on advertising that could be seen along the highway.
She was also a great supporter of her husband's Head Start Project, which helped children under the age of five from low-income families to get support to lessen the war on poverty.
She brought attention to the growing crisis of habitat and species loss long before it was trending. She also lent her voice, fighting for equality for women. This fight awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 1977, and she was given the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.
After her White House tenure, she, alongside Helen Hayes, co-founded the National Wildflower Research Center to protect natural flora and fauna. It was later named the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. She died in July of 2007 at the age of 94.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy
The mere mention of Jackie O conjures up the iconic image of the stunning woman and the once wife and later widow to JFK. Yes, she was an icon of style, class, and an impeccable eye for design, but she was far more than that. She also had a love of horses, history, linguistics, literature, and she was committed to raising her children right in the White House.
Jackie took on the daunting task of restoring her new home by returning historical artifacts, including paintings, furniture, and books, back to The White House. She recognized the depth and historical relevance far beyond aesthetics. Several significant pieces ended up back home at The White House because of her valiant efforts.
She also founded The White House Historical Association, which created an Official White House Guidebook that had never existed previously. Jackie Kennedy did a then-rare behind the scenes sneak peek in her televised tour of The White House with the restoration nearly done. This tour led to an honorary Emmy Award.
During her tenure at The White House, there were many celebrations, performances, and achievement displays. Not only were politicians commonly seen, so were musicians, poets, and artists.
Jackie was fluent in French and far from fluffy, as her power and persuasion with Khrushchev regarding the U.S. and Russian relations continued past her husband's death. She was fiercely committed to her husband's legacy on several levels.
In 1963, she started work on the John F. Kennedy Library as a memorial to her late husband. Jackie Kennedy died in May of 1994 at the age of 64.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
As Michelle Obama kicked off this series, we thought it best to end it with Eleanor, as the rewriting of the role of First Lady began with this trailblazer.
Where does one begin with the life and legacy of Eleanor Rosevelt? She was a powerhouse and one of our earliest activists.
Before even stepping foot into The White House, Eleanor Roosevelt was making a difference. During World War I, she lent her talents to the American Red Cross and Navy hospitals, where she spent time volunteering. She remained busy with teaching as well as her commitment to organizations like the League of Women Voters.
The Roosevelts administration began during the Great Depression. Throughout her tenure as the longest-standing First Lady in U.S. history, Eleanor worked tirelessly for political, racial, gender, and social justice. She was a strong, vocal, and controversial supporter of civil rights for African Americans, viewing discrimination as morally wrong.
At the time, she received backlash regarding these views, but it did not deter her from doing what she could to advocate for an equal nation, particularly her support of the anti-lynching bill. These moves made her a target in her own right.
She had a hand in the appointment of many African Americans into a variety of important leadership roles. She also became a member of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League.
Eleanor Roosevelt also advocated for gender equality. She expanded relief programs to help aid and support women who were facing unemployment. Many of her frequent conferences were women-specific and focused on the struggles and requirements of women. She believed that women working in the household were entitled to the right to work and get paid, just like men.
She wrote a daily newspaper column, a magazine column, hosted a radio show, and held frequent press conferences in the White House, an unprecedented practice at the time.
The first-ever press conference held in the White House during her husband's presidency was hers, ahead of her husband. Women writers and reporters were not allowed to cover the president's press conferences. So, she launched her own press conferences for women writers only. She also supported government-funded programs for artists and writers.
She is seen as the first blogger or perhaps influencer of our time, as she wrote a syndicated newspaper column entitled "My Day" from December 1935 until shortly before her death in 1962. She used her platform as First Lady and her column to share her day and express her positions on various social and political issues.
After her residency in the White House, President Truman appointed Eleanor to be part of the first U.S. delegation to the U.N. She chair the Human Rights Committee.
In September 1948, Eleanor delivered her most notable speech, "The Struggle for Human Rights." She urged U.N. members to pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a defining document on the global stage that remains to this day.
She died in November of 1962 at the age of 78. Her legacy lives on in the U.S. and the world over and is as necessary and resonant now as it was then.
Written by Katie Hulce and Karen Loftus