A history of accomplishments from every first lady
Washington. Lincoln. Roosevelt. Kennedy. These iconic surnames don’t solely belong to the men who have held served America in the nation’s highest office. 47 first ladies have served over 45 U.S. presidencies: an all-star lineup of women who continue to shift the course of history.
At Stacker, we’re celebrating these extraordinary women with a list highlighting their accomplishments. Included are the wives of the presidents, and the women who occasionally filled in for them: nieces, daughters, and family friends. The women listed here fought for and with their husbands. Many did so amid unimaginable loss and suffering, especially before the advent of modern medicine and technology. Although they receive recognition as first ladies, a few never lived to serve in the role—dying before their presidential husbands took office.
According to many accounts, the term “first lady” didn’t surface until 1849, when Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, is said to have used it to eulogize Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison. Today, the term is as American as the White House. “First lady” has come to symbolize strength, stature and service.
Click through our gallery to read more about these irreplaceable women in history.
#1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
The nation’s original first lady made perhaps her biggest and bravest accomplishment before her husband became president. For much of the Revolutionary War, she stayed with George Washington for long periods over the winter in brutal encampments. For that reason, that he asked Congress to reimburse expenses for his wife’s travel to and from the encampments. As first lady, she initiated a weekly reception where politicians and dignitaries mingled with citizens. But also she once bemoaned the limitations of her responsibilities, calling herself a “state prisoner.”
#2. Abigail Smith Adams
The wife and third cousin of President John Adams was also the mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president. She was an early champion of women’s causes, expressing concern to her husband while he was a member of the Continental Congress about how women would be treated in the new republic. In one letter, she wrote: “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” She advised her husband frequently, and also advocated for the abolition of slavery.
#3. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
The only wife of Thomas Jefferson never saw him become president. She died in 1782, two decades before her husband took office, though organizations and historians saw it fit to posthumously give her the title of first lady. Many accounts say that the president would call on Dolley Madison, wife of future president James Madison, to help with social matters. Others say that his daughter, pictured here, served as an informal first lady since she often lived at the White House. Jefferson kept records that call that into question, according to the White House Historical Association.
#4. Dolley Payne Todd Madison
Dolley Madison remains among the most celebrated first ladies—so significant of a culinary icon that she later inspired a dessert brand. She championed social issues, had the executive mansion redecorated to emphasize the importance of the presidency and—through her charm and popularity—helped win over many of President James Madison’s foes. During the War of 1812, she saved a historic White House portrait from destruction as British troops advanced. Anthony S. Pitch, author of “Exclusively First Ladies Trivia,” calls Dolley Madison “the most beloved woman ever to occupy the White House.”
#5. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe
An enthusiastic hostess, the wife of President James Monroe brought increased formality to the White House. She allegedly burned her correspondence prior to her death, with only two of her letters known to exist. For much of her husband’s presidency, Elizabeth Monroe curtailed her activities due to poor health, often shunning dignitaries’ visits. Earlier, while her husband was a diplomat, the Monroes moved to France, where she visited the imprisoned wife of the Marquis de Lafayette near the end of the French Revolution. The visit is said to have earned the release of the French aristocrat's wife.
#6. Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams
The wife of John Quincy Adams wasn’t born in the U.S. Born in London, Louisa Adams came to the U.S. four years after she married the future president, according to the White House Historical Association. She was a prolific writer, as the New York Times pointed out in a review of the 2016 book “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams.” “She left behind not only an abundant correspondence, but also a diary, poetry, plays, fiction and—remarkably—three fragmentary autobiographical accounts.”
#7. Rachel Donelson Jackson
The wife of President Andrew Jackson died before his inauguration, so her niece, Emily Donelson, took on the duties of first lady. Accounts show that Rachel Jackson could tame her husband’s famous temper, according to The National First Ladies’ Library. Emily Donelson was 21 when she entered the White House, where she cared for her uncle, her husband and her children. She died of tuberculosis in 1936, before Jackson left office. The role of first lady then fell to Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of the president’s son Andrew Jackson, Jr.
#8. Hannah Hoes Van Buren
Related through her mother to former first lady Elizabeth Monroe, Hannah Van Buren died of tuberculosis long before the election of her husband, who never remarried. President Martin Van Buren omitted her name from his autobiography, apparently in standing with a tradition of making no public references to women, supposedly to prevent shaming. A niece remembered “her modest, even timid manner.” Dolley Madison—who else?—played a key part in finding a replacement to serve as first lady. She introduced a relative by marriage, Angelica Singleton, to Van Buren’s eldest son, Abraham. The two married, and Singleton took on the role.
#9. Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison
The wife of William Henry Harrison earned a sorrowful distinction: the first to be widowed as first lady. Anna Harrison also was the first woman to become wife of a president and grandmother of a president: Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president. Anna Harrison found herself hardly eager to become the wife of a president, saying, according to C-SPAN: “I wish that my husband’s friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement.” William Henry Harrison hadn’t been in office a month when a cold developed into pneumonia, and he died at age 68. She never made the journey from Ohio to Washington, D.C.
#10. Letitia Christian Tyler
At age 51, the first wife of President John Tyler—the man who served as President Harrison’s vice president and successor—became the youngest first lady to die in the White House. Because of poor health, Letitia Tyler didn’t take part in the administration’s social affairs, yet she directed White House entertaining and household management. She attended the wedding of her daughter Elizabeth, but otherwise made no public appearances. She informally received visitors like authors Charles Dickens and Washington Irving.2018 All rights reserved.