Throughout the history of the United States, there have been more than 40 presidents. And alongside those presidents have been their wives. The position of the First Lady is mostly ceremonial in nature, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been well-known or active in their communities. Of all of them, these are the most well-known First Ladies.
39. Jane Pierce
C-SPAN actually called Jane Pierce the most tragic First Lady. By the time Franklin Pierce had become president, three of their sons had already died. Jane wasn’t even a fan of politics and din’t want her husband to run for the office. And because of her religious beliefs, she saw their sons’ deaths as divine retribution. Understandably, she suffered from depression from that point forward. Although, she also was stated to be “hooked on being ill” with minor ailments. She would even let things like colds keep her from attending functions. Neither Jane nor Franklin did well in their official duties. Hence why Jane Pierce isn’t looked too favorably upon as a First Lady.
38. Eliza Johnson
Eliza Johnson was the wife of the first president to get impeached, Andrew Johnson. She notably well-read and intelligent, and her skill in managing finances and raising their five children is said to have helped Andrew’s rise to power. Eliza actually taught Andrew arithmetic early in their relationship. She was ill with tuberculosis upon arriving at the White House, but that didn’t stop her from becoming an important advisor to her husband.
37. Letitia Tyler
Letitia Tyler was the first wife of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States. However, she was only the First Lady for a few months at the beginning of John’s term. She had already survived a stroke when her husband took over the position following the death of William Henry Harrison. She was known as a determined woman that had raised eight children and continued to manage her family’s affairs, even after the stroke. But she was also a natural reticent and homebody. It’s likely she wouldn’t have been inclined to host grand receptions like the other First Ladies. But in 1942 she suffered another stroke and died in September of that year. She was the first First Lady to die in the White House.
36. Florence Harding
Florence Harding was the First Lady to do a couple of things. For starters, she was the first one to actually vote. She was also the first one to get divorced. She was known to care deeply for World War I veterans and would regularly hold parties for their benefit. She had worked very hard on her husband’s election campaign. Florence had even said, “I have only one real hobby – my husband.” The media often found her to be “difficult”, however, so she was given relatively low ranks for public image and integrity by historians.
35. Margaret Taylor
Margaret Taylor was First Lady for only about a year between 1849 to 1850. The Taylors were a military family and Margaret had become accustomed to traveling from garrison to garrison as she accompanied her husband. Although, she didn’t really want to be the First Lady. She wasn’t a big fan of crows, so she delegated a lot of her official duties to her daughter, Betty. Although her husband died less than two years after he had assumed office during a Fourth of July celebration. She was at least freed from being the First Lady. Although, she still wasn’t remembered particularly favorably.
34. Ida McKinley
Ida McKinley was already born into a politically radical family, although they were well-off. She was well-educated, considered to have the best education of all First Ladies by that point. She married William McKinley in 1871, but, unfortunately, both of their daughters died before they were even five. In addition, Ida suffered from epilepsy and deep vein thrombosis. She was perceived as an invalid off-and-on from 1876 onward. She would always sit next to her husband during state dinners, despite it being against protocol, where she would allegedly take bromide salts to avoid seizures. While people focus more on her ailments, Ida was an advocate for women’s rights, supporting Crittenden House, a shelter for abused women, and the Red Cross.
33. Abigail Fillmore
Abigail Fillmore was married to Millard Fillmore, who is one of the worst presidents in United States history. Although, she was at least marginally more well-remembered period as the First Lady. She was actually a teacher, being the first First Lady to have a job after she was married. She had actually met Millard while he was her student, having returned to school after being laid off from a factory job. Abigail had a particular focus on literacy while the First Lady. She selected the first White House library and would often host “literary salons”. Although, she would often share her hostessing duties with her daughter, Abby. However, her chronically poor health led to her having a poorer public image and she didn’t accomplish much while the First Lady.
32. Pat Nixon
Pat Nixon had once stated her “only goal” was to “go down in history as the wife of a president”. Well, she got her wish, and wasn’t remembered for much else. Her and her husband were a team when it came to getting Richard Nixon elected, but not much else. She would take guests on tours of the White House’s private quarters and even encouraged them to touch things. Despite being one of the most well-traveled First Ladies, however, Pat wasn’t well-known for any particularly accomplishments. She acted as an ambassador and aide and publicly supported equal right, but not much else. However, Pat was also the person that suggested Richard destroy the incriminating tape recordings while they were still private property. And she had even argued for him to fight the charges made against him instead of submitting his resignation.
31. Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln was the wife of, arguably, the most beloved president. However, she was also one of the most criticized First Ladies. She earned a reputation for her bad temper and extravagant spending while in the White House. She was trying to improve the White House, but the look wasn’t particularly good with the Civil War going on at the time. Private security had even taken to calling her the “hellcat”. She had four sons, but had to watch three of them die, in addition to her husband. As such, she was never able to emotionally recover.
30. Elizabeth Monroe
The White House Library even refers to the marriage between Elizabeth and James Monroe a “love match”. However, Elizabeth was still known to have some diplomatic skills of her own. Albeit, after James was actually elected, Elizabeth’s poor health made it difficult for her to take advantage of these skills. As such, Elizabeth began living a more reclusive lifestyle and the family became alienated in Washington.
29. Caroline Harrison
Some people consider Caroline Harrison to be an underrated First Lady. Even after marrying William Henry Harrison, she knew that she could be politically active through entertaining. The Harrisons were known for hosting many receptions. As a matter of fact, if Caroline had had her way, the White House would have undergone a serious expansion, had she not been shut down by the House of Representatives. She contracted tuberculosis in the winter of 1891 and eventually died October 1892. She was the second First Lady to die in the White House.
28. Lucretia Garfield
Lucretia Garfield wasn’t particularly keen on becoming First Lady, but she didn’t have to serve that long. She did believe her husband, James Garfield, was the right man to lead the country, she just didn’t want to go herself. But after only a few months in the White House, Lucretia fell ill. She was away from Washington, recovering, when her husband was shot. She tried to nurse him back to health, but he died three months later of an infection.
27. Julia Tyler
Julia Tyler was the second wife of John Tyler, and much younger than his first. They had been married after a secret courtship in 1844. She ended up only being First Lady for eight months at the end of John Tyler’s presidency. She had brought back the traditional formality of other presidencies, but wasn’t well-known for anything else while in the White House. She’s actually looked upon less favorably because her husband decided to back the Confederacy in 1861 after a peace conference failed to broker an agreement.
26. Frances Cleveland
Frances Cleveland was actually the first First Lady to get married inside the White House. And she was also the youngest one. She married Grover Cleveland in 1886 at the age of 21 (he was 49). Their marriage and relationship was actually quite strange. Grover had actually been caring for her as her legal guardian since she was 11 after her father died. But her charm and youth made her beloved image in the public. Because of Grover’s views on what a wife’s responsibilities were, however, Frances’ other potential contributions to history were stopped or prevented. She didn’t get to be much more than a pretty face.
25. Helen Taft
Helen Taft was First Lady from 1909 to 1913, and was the wife President William Howard Taft. She was known to be a real firecracker back in the day, smoking and drinking somewhat regularly. She was the first First Lady to ride beside her husband in the Inauguration Parade, as well as the first to own and drive her own car. She was also the first one to denote her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian Museum and was responsible for planting the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin of the Potomac.
24. Mamie Eisenhower
Mamie Eisenhower was the First Lady of President Dwight Eisenhower. As far as First Ladies go, Mamie is often considered the best dressed due to her bubblegum pink, Nettie Rosenstein inauguration dress. She was also notable for being the last First Lady born in the 19th Century. While a style icon, she still wasn’t particularly well-known for her involvement in the affairs of the state. Although she was always ready to entertain guests of the White House.
23. Sarah Polk
Sarah Polk isn’t one of the most memorable of the First Ladies. Although, she came from a well-off family that allowed her to receive a better education than most of her contemporaries. However, she was also a devout Presbyterian. This led to her having a more sedated entertainment style, especially in comparison to her predecessor, Julia Tyler. While Sarah wasn’t publicly helpful to her husband, behind closed doors she was known to help with his speeches, copy correspondence, and provide him with general advice.
22. Julia Grant
According to the White House Library, Julia Grant considered her time as the First Lady to be the happiest period of her life. Due to Grant’s military service, the two weren’t able to finally marry and be together until Grant was put into the White House. Julia was known for her opulent style and parties. She was the first First Lady to write and autobiography for publication. She was also known to be self-conscious about a slightly crossed eye, hence a vast majority of her photos were taken from her “good side”.
21. Grace Coolidge
Grace Coolidge wasn’t known for her easygoing and fun personality. And she was able to manage both her household and Washington society as her husband rose the political ladder. She worked hard and was a rather affluent socialite, capable of charming all potential political allies. She was well-known and popular with younger people due to her boisterousness and support of organizations like the Red Cross.
20. Lucy Hayes
Lucy Hayes had a long and happy marriage with her husband, raising five children to adulthood. While Hayes served in the military, Lucy would visit and tend to the wounded, earning her the nickname “Mother Lucy”. Despite supporting the temperance movement, meaning that the parties she hosted were alcohol-free, she was known as a lively and gracious host. Due to her beverage of choice at her parties, she was given another nickname by the media, “Lemonade Lucy”. She was still rather politically active, active in charities around Washington focusing on helping the city’s poor. She was also a staunch abolitionist.
19. Ellen Wilson
Ellen Wilson was the first wife of Woodrow Wilson. She was only First Lady for one year, but she managed to make a strong impact during that time. Even if, per her own admission, an unambitious woman. She rose awareness for the people living in slum, predominantly filled with black citizens, and used that awareness to help pass a federal bill that set minimum housing standards in D.C. Unfortunately, she died of Bright’s Disease in August of 1914.
18. Louisa Adams
Louisa Adams was the first First Lady to be born outside of the U.S. She functioned as her husband’s unofficial campaign manager and advised her husband, John Quincy Adams. After Adams was elected, he began to rely less on Louisa, essentially only having her help him host receptions. While she wasn’t a fan of this change in function, she was an active volunteer, working with the Washington Female Orphan Asylums. Overall though, she wasn’t a fan of her time in the White House, referring to it as a prison.
17. Lou Hoover
Lou Hoover was unique for her time, enjoying outdoor hobbies often considered “masculine”. She also graduated from Stanford. As her time with Hoover caused her to travel the world, she refined her hosting skills and became fluent in multiple languages. She also served as a champion for physical fitness for girls and women. She was also the first First Lady to speak on the radio and invited the Black wife of a Black U.S. congressman to the White House.
16. Bess Truman
It was difficult to follow the precedent made by the previous First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, but Bess Truman did her best. Even if she didn’t enjoy the publicity of being the First Lady. While she advised her husband in private, she believed that in public her was to sit in silence beside him. It’s hard to know exactly what her inner thoughts were, as she destroyed many of her letters.
15. Nancy Reagan
Like her husband, Nancy Reagan was also a former actress. While she was essential to Reagan’s rise from Hollywood to the White House, she’s a particularly controversial figure. She ordered several designer dresses without declaring them on her personal taxes (which went against the Ethics in Government Act she had sworn to live by), ordered an expensive renovation to the White House, and consulted an astrologist after her husband’s attempted assassination. And while she used her position to spread awareness on drug abuse, it was also the Reagan administration that reduced federal funding for drug abuse programs. She had said that raising awareness was more important than funding.
14. Edith Wilson
Edith Wilson was the second wife of Woodrow Wilson. They had met after they had both been widowed. She was known to be an adept hostess, but found the traditional responsibilities of her role completely overshadowed by World War I. She had submerged own life in her husband’s to help mitigate his stress and had so much power within the White House people nicknamed her the Secret President.
13. Edith Roosevelt
Edith Roosevelt was the second wife of President Theodore Roosevelt. She was the first First Lady to employ a full-time social secretary with salary. Edith also acted as an unofficial adviser to her husband. She’s well-known for making significant renovations to the White House, even overseeing the construction of the West Wing. She also preserved the posterity portraits of the previous First Ladies and their china services.
12. Laura Bush
Laura Bush is the wife to former President George W. Bush, promoting literacy programs and supporting the well-being of woman around the world. Although, she wasn’t as active as some of her predecessors when it came to taking on political roles. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush described Laura as a pillar of strength that was able to make the right, calming message. And she was also the first presidential spouse to deliver the White House weekly radio address in 2001, speaking about the Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women.
11. Barbara Bush
Barbara Bush was the First Lady to George H.W. Bush. She had high favorability ratings while Bush was in office and was even dubbed “The National Treasure” by aides. Like Laura after her, she promoted literacy, but also visited homeless shelters and hospitals, spread awareness about AIDS, and supported programs for the elderly. She didn’t directly involve herself in politics, but Barbara did try to do something positive with her office every day. Although, while she was grandmotherly and gracious in public, she was known to be a little bit less approachable in private.
10. Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter established and organized the official Office of the First Lady. She was also the first First Lady to hire a chief of staff with a rank and salary comparable to other West Wing staffers. She also sat in on cabinet meeting and advised her husband. She even traveled to Latin America as the president’s envoy in 1977. When Carter opted to remain in D.C. to deal with the Iranian hostage crisis instead of campaigning for reelection, Rosalynn traveled in his stead. She championed women’s rights and mental health issues. At age 95, she’s currently the oldest, living former First Lady.
9. Martha Washington
Martha Washington was the first First Lady. She’s the one that defined the role by hosting receptions, entertaining callers and guests, and supporting veterans and the poor. She didn’t voice her political opinions that often, but did attend debates and supported education for girls. She was on top of current affairs and maintaining a tradition of reading the papers aloud and discussing their contents with her husband. Although, she considered herself more like a state prisoner than a citizen while George Washington was in office.
8. Betty Ford
Betty Ford wasn’t afraid to tackle controversial topics and was known to be a powerful force. She once said, “I do not believe that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my ideas”. She discussed people undergoing psychiatric counseling, lobbied for equal rights for women, suggest premarital sex lowered divorce rates, and supported the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Betty did suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, but was able to successfully complete a treatment program. As such, she later co-founded the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse.
7. Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson advocated for working women and urged her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, to appoint women to government positions. She committed herself to beautifying the country, pushing for the removal of distracting billboards on highways and the preservation of California’s redwood trees. Speaking of trees, she loved the outdoors. Her love of flowers in particular led to her founding the Wildflower Center at the University of Texas. Tapes she recorded daily were later used as the basis for her memoir, A White House Diary.
6. Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton’s the only First Lady on this list that has the distinction of also being a presidential candidate. She’s a bit more well-known for her accomplishments in Former President Barack Obama’s staff, but she did plenty while her husband was in office. She was involved in policy making and advocated for women and children’s rights in other countries. Her importance to her husband’s administration often had he be referred to as his co-president.
5. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama was the first African-American First Lady in US history. And she was also one of the most popular presidential spouses in in recent memory. As the First Lady, she tackled issues like childhood nutrition, exercise, and education and advocated for military families and LGBTQ rights. She also made sure to get out of the federal bubble, attending local theaters, her daughters’ soccer games, and local dinners with friends. She’s made a variety of public appearances as well, not just on talk shows, but even a small appearance on iCarly.
4. Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison is most well-known for her actions during the War of 1812. That being that she grabbed several government documents and a portrait of George Washington before she finally evacuated. Dolley was very well-liked, holding political dinners. And she was the first First Lady to renovate the White House. She also supported welfare for orphans. There was a saying during her husband’s presidency, “Everybody likes Mrs. Madison, because Mrs. Madison likes everybody”.
3. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Jackie Kennedy was a fashion icon. She’s the one that popularized pillbox hats in her time. She renovated and restored the White House, increased the number of books in the library, and supported civil rights and the American Cancer Society. After her husband’s assassination, she was instrumental in preserving his political and legislative legacy, so that he wouldn’t only be remembered for his death. She sat down and eight to ten hours and taped interviews that gave an oral history of his time in office.
2. Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was the second First Lady, wife of one president and mother to another. She supported independence and education for women. She’s well-known for the many letters she wrote to her husband, allowing historians a great picture of what her personal life was like at the time. Critics at the time referred to her as “Mrs. President”, due to her outspoken manner and influence over her husband.
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt had never wanted to be a president’s wife. Yet, she’s one of the most influential First Ladies in US history. She was often attacked by political enemies for her support of liberal causes, but that support and activism is what made her so important. She advocated for civil rights, low-income housing, and women’s equality. She didn’t shy away from the limelight and used her position to hold weekly press conferences with female reporters. As well as speaking on the radio, writing in newspapers and magazines, and traveling the country.
??? – Melania Trump
In that 2014 study mentioned, Melania Trump wasn’t actually ranked in it. After all, the study was made in 2014 and Melania didn’t become First Lady until 2016. However, CNN did a poll in 2021 that showed she had the lowest favorability rating in regards to her time as First Lady. She wasn’t particularly visible or involved in White House affairs. Not to mention her, “I really don’t care. Do U?” shirt in relation to detained migrant children didn’t earn her any points. Not to mention, when she tried running an anti-cyberbullying campaign, people were quick to point out how her husband’s behavior had gotten him banned from Twitter. It’s hard to be unpopular as the First Lady, but somehow Melania managed.