The role of First Lady of the United States is unsalaried and carries no official duties, but that’s not to say that First Ladies wield no power. The role has evolved significantly since Martha Washington became the first American First Lady in 1789, and especially during the last 50 or so years. Rather than simply being the hostess of the White House, First Ladies are increasingly engaged in political activities, whether as champions of particular causes or, in some cases, directly advising the President.
Jill Biden became the 43rd official First Lady in 2021, but the total number of First Ladies is sometimes considered as high as 54, as some Presidents have had more than one First Lady. In some cases, the role was not held by the wife of the President. For example, Martha Jefferson Randolph, the eldest daughter of the widowed President Thomas Jefferson, served unofficially as First Lady, and Rose Cleveland was acting First Lady to her brother, Grover Cleveland, until he married Frances Folsom.
Over the centuries, many First Ladies have offered words of wisdom and encouragement, whether through private letters that later became public, or speaking directly to gathered assemblies or journalists. Here are some of those inspirational words, spoken by strong women who, in many cases, were not too keen on assuming a role primarily defined by their husband, but embraced it nonetheless, and made a significant contribution to American history in their own right.
I have learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.Martha Washington
When Martha Washington became First Lady at the age of 57, she wasn’t happy in the role. In a letter to her niece, she wrote of how dull her life was, saying, “I am more like a state prisoner than anything else.” Still, she was a gracious and welcoming First Lady (a title not yet used at the time) who recognized the importance of both her and her husband’s positions.
Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance.Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was wife to one U.S. President and mother to another, a feat matched only by Barbara Bush. Adams was a highly intelligent First Lady, as revealed in her many letters to her husband John Adams, who considered his wife his closest advisor.
Under all circumstances we must never desert ourselves.Louisa Adams
Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, was referring primarily to her fellow women in the quote above. She herself faced a hard time as the first First Lady to be born outside the United States (she was English) — a situation not repeated until 192 years later when Melania Trump became First Lady.
Woman’s mind is as strong as man’s — equal in all things and his superior in some.Lucy Hayes
When Lucy Hayes entered the White House in 1877 as the wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, she became the first First Lady to hold a college degree. As a staunch advocate for Black Americans, she was the first person to invite a Black musician to appear at the White House.
We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time meeting each thing as it comes up, seeing it as not as dreadful as it appears, discovering that we have the strength to stare it down.Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt remains the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, thanks to her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office. She’s also quite possibly the most quotable First Lady of all time, having shared many pearls of wisdom, including “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and “Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.”
Every moment one lives is different from the other. The good, the bad, hardship, the joy, the tragedy, love, and happiness are all interwoven into one single, indescribable whole that is called life. You cannot separate the good from the bad. And perhaps there is no need to do so, either.Jackie Kennedy
At 31, Jackie Kennedy was the third-youngest First Lady when her husband John Kennedy was inaugurated. She was a hugely popular First Lady, known for her intelligence and grace, and became an international fashion icon. Jackie Kennedy also oversaw the restoration of the White House, and upon its completion became the first First Lady to host a televised tour of the building, watched by more than 80 million viewers around the world. After her time at the White House ended in tragedy, she largely withdrew from the public eye and focused on her career as a book editor.
You never know what you can do until you have to do it.Proverb
Betty Ford was a fan of this proverb, including it in her 1978 autobiography, "The Times of My Life." As First Lady, Betty Ford set a whole new precedent when it came to being a politically engaged. She was happy to comment on all the major issues of the time, from women's rights to gun control. She was also the first presidential spouse to talk openly about her battle with alcohol, which led her to found the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction.
If human beings are perceived as potentials rather than problems, as possessing strengths instead of weaknesses, as unlimited rather than dull and unresponsive, then they thrive and grow to their capabilities.Barbara Bush
Barbara Bush spent a lot of time in or around the White House, having served eight years as Second Lady before her four years as First Lady. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and caused some controversy among conservative circles with her support of abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights.
Always aim high, work hard, and care deeply about what you believe in. And, when you stumble, keep faith. And, when you're knocked down, get right back up and never listen to anyone who says you can't or shouldn't go on.Hillary Clinton
As First Lady, Hillary Clinton was regarded as one of the most influential presidential wives in American history, and was actively involved in public policy matters. Later, she served as a U.S. senator, secretary of state, and was the first woman to represent a major party in a presidential election. “You have just one life to live,” she said in an interview with Marie Claire, “It is yours. Own it, claim it, live it, do the best you can with it.”
You may not always have a comfortable life. And you will not always be able to solve all the world’s problems all at once. But don’t ever underestimate the impact you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama made a huge impact as First Lady during President Barack Obama’s time in office. She was the first Black woman to serve in the position, becoming both a role model for women and a style icon. She also delivered a number of speeches that received widespread acclaim both at home and abroad. Her heartfelt messages of tolerance, empowerment, hope, and overcoming adversity came from her belief that we cannot accept the world as it is, but “have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be.”