A Brief Overview of Influential First Ladies

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Throughout the course of the 21st century, there has been a plethora of books, podcasts, videos, articles and other forms of media published surrounding the accomplishments and oftentimes controversies of the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS). The role of the First Lady has evolved significantly since the 1790’s when Martha Washington, wife of George Washington, served in the Oval Office to over two centuries later. Today, the role of the First Lady includes involvement in political campaigns, management of the White House, advocating for social causes, and representation of the president at official and ceremonial occasions. Still, many dismiss the importance of the First Lady since it is categorized as an unofficial job term, but throughout history, the role of the First Lady has proved to be a crucial counterpart to any president.

World War I was a desolate time for America and had profound effects. Initially when the Great War broke out, Americans were Isolationists; an American foreign policy enacted by Republican governments that focused on self-advancement and to make the United States self-reliant while maintaining peace in other countries. However, several key factors prompted Woodrow Wilson to abandon his famous slogan, “He Kept Us Out Of The War” including Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, the publication of the Zimmerman telegram in which Arthur Zimmerman, a German foreign secretary promised Mexico to help regain California if they allied with Germany against the US, and Wilson’s claim in his message to Congress stating that “the world must be safe for democracy” led Woodrow Wilson, who was elected as president for the first time ever by primaries in the Democratic Convention of 1912, to declare war on April 2, 1917, three years into the war. In his address to Congress, he states:

Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people. We have seen the last of neutrality in such circumstances. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.

The major reforms of his presidency were instituting the Federal Income Tax, establishing the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commision, the National Park Service Act, and the eight hour work-day. During the re-election in 1916, the incredibly close race between Wilson and Charles-Evan Hughes came down to 4,000 votes in California that gave Wilson his second term. Wilson famousely issues his fourteen points, and at the Versailles Conference of 1919, the League of Nations was formed. Wilson returned to the United States, determined to convince the public of ratifying the treaty and joining the League of Nations, he decided to embark on a national speaking tour and stuck to it for three weeks even though he had been suffering from terrible headaches and uncontrollable twitching in his facial muscles.

Wilson’s efforts to promote it earned him the Nobel Peace Prize that year, despite America’s agreement to join.

However his wife, Edith Wilson played a very significant role in her husband's presidential term, eventually coining the term as “the first female president” With war declared, Edith led fundraising efforts by selling the wool sheared from sheep that grazed on the White House lawn, volunteered at the Red Cross canteen at Union Station where soldiers were departing for ports and eventually the war front, and released a public service statement warning soldiers against the dangers of venereal disease they might encounter in war-torn Europe. To encourage rationing, she set an example for many Whitehouse meals to be served without meat or bread. She organized friends and cabinet wives to sew pajamas for the Red Cross, she even used her own sewing kit. However, In October of 1919, Wilson was paralyzed on his left hand side, and with a facial impairment that confined Wilson to his bed, for several months. Edith Wilson decided to somehow continue the Administration by conducting a disinformation campaign, misleading Congress and the public into believing that the President was only suffering from temporary exhaustion which required extensive rest. She became the sole conduit between the President and his Cabinet, requiring that they send to her all pressing matters, memos, correspondence, questions and requests. After deciding that Wilson should not resign and that Vice President Thomas Marshall should not assume even temporary responsibility, she described her role more modestly:

So began my stewardship. I studied every paper, sent from the different secretaries or senator, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the president. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband

She decided what she felt was important enough to trouble her husband about as he lay disabled in his sickroom. The result was often a confused response from the Cabinet, accompanied by their original papers with often-indecipherable notes in Edith Wilson's handwriting, which she claimed were verbatim notes she took of the President's answer to their questions. In the winter of 1920, one crisis after the other faced the nation, laborer arrests, riots, the Palmer raids, women wanted to vote, the cost of living was skyrocketing, thousands of war veterans seeking work. On December 6, 1920 two months after Wilson’s stroke, senator Albert Fall arrived at the White House in order of the Senate. He was to observe the Presidents contempacy and file a report if either Edith or Wilson failed to comply, the Senate could impeach him. Edith had meticulously covered his left arm for the visit. In 1920, when Wilson’s term was over, the couple moved to Washington. The couple rarely ventured into public but when they did he was warmly received America had not forgotten what Wilson had done for the country Wilson finally perished in February of 1924. Prior to his funeral, Edith sent a note senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Wilson’s bitter adversary during the League of Nations debate, requesting for him not to attend, as it would be “embarrassing” and disgraceful.

Just decades before the Great War, another influential, lesser-known First Lady lady, Varina Howell Davis emerged during the Civil War Era in the 1860’s. Unlike Edith, Davis raised controversy surrounding her husband, Jefferson Davis. Jefferson Davis never served as president of the United States, but he was the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, while Abraham Lincoln represented the Union. Varina, although faced with public scrutiny and ill-prepared for her role as First Lady, she demonstrated a great strength and endurance when she lobbied for her husband’s release from prison in 1865, similar to Edith when he husband suffered from his debilitating strokes.

However, Edith and Wilson maintained a strong and loving relationship during the eight years they were together, and Varina was terribly unhappy with Jefferson Davis and this life she was forced to live, constantly under the public, (and her own husband’s) eye like a bug under a magnifying glass. Varina’s aberrant ideologies on women, slavery, politics, war and other prevalent issues of the time were deeply frowned upon. But it is also imperative to take in consideration the more than fifty year gap between the lifespans of these extraordinary women and all the changes that occurred in the country during this time. The Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox, slavery was outlawed by the thirteenth amendment, the first transcontinental railroad was completed, and we finally go to war against Germany during 1917.

These along with were the defining events that revolutionized America. Varina, although she had contrasting viewpoints from those of her husband was expected to take on the roll as a traditional southern belle, did not voice most of her opinions until after the was over, living in fear of her husband and the confederacy. It wasn’t until her husband's death in 1889 that she felt completely free and liberated from this bubble of confinement that had dimmed her colorful mind and spirit. Edith Wilson and Varina Davis, although two different women from different eras, they were linked by possessing similar personality characteristics, such as loyalty and strength.

The women were able to apply these through different events during their husbands’ terms. However, contrary to Varina, who developed her support for woman suffrage early before it showed any signs of progress, the very active woman suffrage movement won no support from Edith Wilson. When her husband ordered the arrest of suffragists demonstrating in front of the White House in 1917, she referred to them as “those devils in the workhouse.” Her husband’s shift on the suffrage question—he eventually favored a national amendment granting women voting rights—which resulted from political convictions not from any influence of his wife. Varina made her own convictions herself. Following the death of her husband, she continued to speak in interviews and received an angry letter from a Confederate cabinet officer, claiming she said that “secession was treason and war was a needless tragedy”, to which she addressed immediately saying she never said succession was treason but did say that war was indeed “a needless tragedy”

Another remarkable woman, and one of the most well-known and respected first ladies in American History, Eleanor Roosevelt, was commonly regarded by historians as the “Most Iconic First Lady.” Roosevelt, unlike any other first ladies before her, was an avid advocate for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. Two years after the end of World War I in 1919, Eleanor’s husband and Franklin Roosevelt developed polio, which handicapped him. However, Varina led a more seperate life from her husband.. The following year Eleanor joins the League of Women Voters. Shorty after her husband, Franklin Roosevelt gets elected as the thirty-second president of the United States in 1933, Eleanor quickly gets to work and used her platform to help people.

The following year, Eleanor begins work with the NAACP in the fight for equality. In 1946, she is elected to the United Nations as the head of the Human Rights Commision. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a difficult time for millions of Americans, with the unemployment rate in 1933 at almost 25%. Franklin sent Eleanor around the country to talk to them. She visited coal miners, veterans,and sharecroppers. Before her, no First Lady had ever done what she did. She reported back to Franklin about what she saw during these trips and stated that the Government has a responsibility to defend the weak. Eleanor spoke up for what she believed in she insisted all American deserved decent housing, healthcare and education. She spoke out against racism and anti-Semitism and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Even after her husband's abrupt depth, Eleanor continued to circle the globe and make an impact. The First Lady of the United States had become the First Lady of the World.

In conclusion, all three of these extraordinary women helped shape the United States to the great country it is today. Not to demerit their husbands’ accomplishments as presidents, but their wives were working just as hard to help them through any trials and tribulations through their terms. Varina Davis, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Edith Wilson were three very different women. Eleanor was an inspiring activist, Edith was an undercover president, and Varina was a quiet hero. All three of these women went through some challenging times, and it wasn't easy to be outspoken like Eleanor while facing adversary or lie to Congress like Edith Wilson did while rumors about her husband’s position as president began to emerge and impeachment was threatened. Or Varina Davis, enduring a gueling, unhappy life and being forced to conform to the beliefs of the Confederacy to please her demanding husband and to fit the ideal that was expected of her. All of these women, and all of the First Ladies for that matter, have made their mark in history, and they will never be forgotten.

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A Brief Overview of Influential First Ladies. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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