Many first ladies were called Mrs. President or Mrs. Presidentess. The term “first lady” was not used until Dolly Madison’s funeral, when President Zachary Taylor is reputed to have called her “America’s First Lady.”
The first lady has not always been the wife of the president. Some presidents were unmarried or widowed. Martha Jefferson Randolph fulfilled the many of the duties of First Lady when her widowed father Thomas Jefferson was President. Until his marriage to Frances Cleveland, Grover Cleveland’s sister was his acting hostess.
While Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor, aka Mrs. Zachary Taylor, was still alive, she declined the social duty of First Lady and their daughter, Mary Elizabeth Taylor Bliss took on the role. Not unlike Melania Trump, who is staying in New York while Ivanka Trump fulfills many of the duties of White House hostess for her father Donald Trump.
Martha Washington was often referred to as Lady Washington when her husband was president. She outlived all four of her children and both of her husbands. A wealthy society woman, she had a fabulous collection of stylish shoes and was considered quite the fashion maven.
Abigail Adams wrote often to her husband, John Adams. Long before he would become the Second President of the U.S., while he was away working on the Declaration of Independence, she implored him: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, 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. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” She also suggested that husbands should “willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.” While they were in fact great friends and had a very successful marriage that lasted over 54 years, John Adams was not ready to grant any substantial rights to women. Nor were any of the other founding fathers.
While John Tyler was the first president to undergo impeachment proceedings, and he did have the nifty campaign song “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” but the women around him are quite notable as well. His first wife, Letitia was the first president’s wife to die in the White House, in 1842. His daughter and daughter-in-law served as hostesses in her stead. But not for long, he eloped with his second wife, Julia in 1844. Making her the first “First Lady” to marry a sitting President. She was also the first to have her photograph taken. Between Letitia and Julia, John Tyler is also the president that fathered the most children, a total of fifteen.
It is well known that Mary Todd Lincoln never quite recovered from the death of her husband and three of her four sons, but Jane Pierce witnessed the death of her last remaining son in a harrowing train accident, just two months before her husbands inauguration. She is said to have never recovered.
Helen “Nellie” Taft has an interesting string of White House firsts: She was the first to ride in her husband’s inaugural parade. She also owned and drove her own car, supported women’s suffrage, smoked cigarettes, and took an interest in workplace safety.
Barbara Bush is the second “First Lady” to be the wife of one President the mother of another. The first was Abigail Adams.
Michelle Obama was the first “First Lady” to announce the Best Picture winner at the 2013 Academy Awards. It was for Argo. She planted the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt and her focus was on healthy eating and exercise for children.