How the First Lady Works

Dolley Madison, a renowned socialite, saves the Declaration of Independence from the besieged White House in this illustration.
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On any given day, the first lady of the United States (FLOTUS) is under pressure. From sunrise to sunset, she may be hosting a tea for visiti­ng dignitaries, testifying before Congress, advising the president (her husband), delivering a statement before a few dozen TV reporters and directing the renovation of a room within the White House -- all while wearing a pantsuit that critics may later say was a bad color choice for her.

When Martha Washington became first lady in 1789, there were no points of reference for the position. Like other upper-class ladies of the time, Martha Washington's chief duty was serving as mistress of her house. But now, she would be mistress of the house of the U.S. president, and she'd be receiving and entertaining men of rank and their families. She was called Lady Washington, partly out of affection but mostly because the fledgling United States hadn't devised an official title for her.


Subsequent presidential wives would be addressed as "lady" or even Mrs. President. Those who were objects of the public's ire were called such unflattering titles as Her Majesty and Lady Presidentress -- throwbacks to British monarchical titles. The first documented use of "first lady" is when President Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison as "[the United States'] First Lady for a half-century" [source: Watson].

In 1858, bachelor President James Buchanan's niece Harriet Lane agreed to serve as his White House hostess, and the press, uncertain of what to call her, was led by Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in dubbing Lane the first lady. Just three years later, the New York Herald and the Sacramento Union used that title for Mary Todd Lincoln, and when Lucy Hayes, the first presidential wife with a college education, came into the position, it was used almost exclusively to pay homage to her [source: National First Ladies Library]. While it's not a formal title, "first lady" has been used to address the wife of the president (or the appointed White House hostess) for at least 26 administrations.

Much of the information on the first lady is anecdotal; scholars haven't devoted as much research to the position as they have to the presidency. But as we'll see, burgeoning theories about the office prove that it's quite a powerful position.


The Office of the First Lady

On Oct. 7, 2008, Laura Bush pushes a button to bathe the White House in pink light in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
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The American public has no say in the first lady's assumption of her position. The office is extraconstitutional: The U.S. Constitution doesn't outline any parameters for the first lady's role, duties or power [source: Watson]. It can only be attained through marriage (or in the cases of bachelor or widowed presidents or those whose wives are unable to fill the position, a special invitation to serve as White House hostess). For the last 200 years, first ladies have been interpreting the office according to their personalities, the state of the union and the tone of the administration.

While there is freedom in how the first lady elects to fulfill her office, there are also many historic precedents that she is expected to follow. Perhaps the most imperative function she serves is White House hostess. The early first ladies, like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison, set a careful tone for this role. Given the United States' separation from England's monarchical traditions, it was important that the first lady be a woman of the people -- but for the sake of being taken seriously by other nations, she had to imbue the role with some queenly prestige [source: National First Ladies Library].


Being the White House hostess meant -- and means -- more than throwing parties at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As Washington style expert Sally Quinn explains, "People […] think that that entertaining in Washington politically and diplomatically is frivolous, but it is not. It is part of the work" [source: Wallace]. The first lady is also the nation's symbolic hostess. Today, the public may take cues from Hollywood, but in years past, the first lady was the ultimate icon of style, values and social graces.

Along with entertaining in the White House comes managing the household affairs. The first lady oversees renovations to the residence, as well as seasonal decorations and preparations for important visitors and events held on-site. Because the White House is a monument as well as a private residence, the first lady must also serve as its curator.

The first lady is an international celebrity, and she can leverage her title to serve as an advocate for social issues. That's why the first lady traditionally has a platform (or pet project, as some historians call it) for her term in office. Whether it's animal rights (Florence Harding), environmental beautification (Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson) or literacy (Barbara Bush), the first lady's influential advocacy of her chosen cause will typically continue even after her term in Washington ends.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the first lady espoused more political roles, acting as a campaigner for her husband and drawing up support for his policies. In many instances, she acts as the president's informal adviser. That raises the question: How much power does the first lady have? Next, we'll take a look at how she exerts her influence in Washington and beyond.


The First Lady's Sphere of Influence: Budget, Staff and Activities

Jackie Kennedy, shown with her family at the White House in 1961, was so well-loved by the press and the public that she hired a press secretary to handle the media attention.
John F. Kennedy Library/John F. Kennedy Library/Getty Images

Even though the first lady of the United States (FLOTUS) isn't a salaried position, she is given a budget to carry out her work. (Her husband, by contrast, makes $400,000 -- an amount signed into legislation by President Bill Clinton in September 1999. You can read more about the president's salary in "How much does the U.S. president get paid?") But she didn't always have a budget to work with: Until the 20th century, the president and first lady paid for entertaining costs themselves [source: Watson]. If the first lady needed funds for an event or required the assistance of a secretary, she had to suffice with small sums rationed from the federal budget and temporary aides sent from other departments around Washington. Some first ladies even asked their family members and the wives of other White House officials to lend a hand during the "social season" that lasted from November to April [source: National First Ladies Library]. But all that changed on Nov. 2, 1978, when President Jimmy Carter approved public law 95-570, which provided for the first lady's budget and staff [source: The American Presidency Project].

Robert P. Watson, professor of political science, categorizes the first lady's activities into three groups: social affairs, press relations and policy issues [source: Watson]. The size of a first lady's staff generally corresponds to the breadth of her activities. For instance, media darling Jackie Kennedy hired the first press secretary in U.S. history (she also had to appeal for the right to do so, given that the Kennedy administration preceded Carter's legislation). The first lady of the United States has the freedom to hire whomever she deems the best fit for a position -- and she can create positions based on her agenda. However, some positions remain a constant, no matter the first lady's activities. Professor Watson outlines these steadfast positions as chief of staff, press secretary, director of special projects and policy, director of scheduling and advance, and social secretary [source: Watson].


Her office is located in the East Wing of the White House, which was constructed to provide supplemental military offices during World War II. Since the Eisenhower administration, it has accommodated the first lady and her staff. In a maneuver that met much criticism, Hillary Clinton relocated her office to the West Wing in 1993 so that she'd be closer to her husband and his staff. But she wasn't alone: Sarah Polk, Edith Roosevelt and Florence Harding also kept their offices close by their husbands' [source: Watson].

While the size and roles of the first lady's staff may vary according to her agenda, they are also dictated by the era and the state of the union.


The Evolving Office of First Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most active first ladies in the history of the United States. Here, she autographs copies of her book "This Is My Story."
Peter Stackpole//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

When Martha Washington became first lady, the White House hadn't yet been built. In the 21st century, the private residence is in full swing -- and it even boasts a beauty salon that Pat Nixon installed and Nancy Reagan later refurbished. Aside from first lady coiffures, a lot about the office has changed over the years.

Professor Robert P. Watson identifies six distinct generations of first ladies. With each successive era, the office becomes more steeped in tradition and yet more progressive.


  • The first era begins with Martha Washington and concludes with Dolley Madison (1789-1817). Watson calls this the age of the queenly first lady. During these early years, the women who held the office were struggling to define it. Above all, they endeavored to earn respect and recognition for the United States -- and serving as a gracious hostess was one of the foremost ways to accomplish that goal.
  • From Elizabeth Monroe to Eliza McCardle Johnson (1817-1869), the first lady's role as hostess remained relatively constant. The presidents and their first ladies of this era had humble, American roots. If one characteristic typified these first ladies, it was their common, unpretentious ways. Also, several of them fell ill during their husbands' administrations and required substitutes to fill in for them. With the dawning of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed, a somber, serious tone reigned over Washington.
  • Around the time Julia Grant became first lady through Ida Saxton McKinley's first ladyship (1869-1901), the United States was undergoing some major cultural changes. For one, more educational opportunities were available to women, and the first ladies during this period brought to their position the merits of academic scholarship and various artistic talents. There were quiet murmurings in Washington of the suffrage movement, but the first ladies who identified themselves as suffragists did so privately so as not to harm their husbands' careers.
  • The next era, from Edith Kermit Roosevelt to Bess Truman (1901-1945), saw the dawning of what Watson calls the modern first lady. During this period, first ladies actively espoused many of the partnership roles that they play today, like campaigning alongside her husband, advising him and even speechwriting and corresponding for him. With first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt at the helm, the White House couldn't deny the first lady's political prowess. These women were valued for their contributions to policy, diplomacy and politics, as well as their social graces -- and at last, they could openly declare their support of suffrage.
  • But this perspective of the first lady waned in the next era in no small part due to the increasing presence of the media. From Mamie Eisenhower to Pat Nixon (1945-1974), the media began examining the first ladyship from a camera lens. Consequently, the first lady had very little privacy. On the whole, the first ladies in this era responded by giving the nation what it wanted to see: an attractive, dutiful hostess.
  • Times would change again in the next era, during which Watson postulates that the first lady became the president's political partner as well as his spouse. From 1975 until the present day -- that is, from Betty Ford to Laura Bush -- women in the White House rekindled their interest in policy with a zeal unseen since Eleanor Roosevelt. In particular, Hillary Clinton advanced the policy-making aspect of first ladyship with her appointment to the task force committee for health care reform.

As presidential approval ratings have indicated since their advent during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, the nation is a tough critic of its elected leader [source: Roper Center]. That's fair enough, but public approval of the first lady is a stickier topic, as we'll see next.


First Lady and Public Opinion

Mary Todd Lincoln was a controversial first lady, criticized for her excessive spending and for holding a seance in the White House.
Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Even if a low presidential approval rating stings a bit, the president has to bite his lip and go about his business. After all, he was elected to the position and he's beholden to the American people. But it's difficult to evaluate a first lady. As we've learned, she's not elected to the position -- she attains it by virtue of her marriage. This hasn't stopped the American public from offering its feedback, though.

One of the most poignant historical cases of first lady criticism involves Mary Todd Lincoln. The Lincoln administration coincided with the surge in typewriter manufacturing, unfortunate timing for Mrs. Lincoln, who received so much negative criticism from the public that a White House aide began vetting letters before they were turned over to her. Critiques of Mrs. Lincoln ran the gamut from her fashion sense and excessive spending to accusations of harboring pro-Confederacy sentiments.


Perhaps no first lady has been spared the public's ire. And the criticism she garners is usually more personal in nature. With the flexible parameters of her position comes a great deal of responsibility. She must balance her time among her three main duties, which you'll recall are social affairs, press relations and policy issues. The role is complicated even further if the first lady has children. Then, the public expects to see her prioritize her commitments to family along with her commitments to the nation. A first lady who devotes too much time to planning state dinners and hosting galas can be deemed a spendthrift; conversely, one who pours her energy into policy-making is judged for neglecting her traditional roles and encroaching on the president's territory. She can be viewed as idle or too active, impersonal or too candid.

After the first 100 days of a new administration, the public evaluates if the president is keeping the promises he made while campaigning. What changes has he affected? What goals has he accomplished? A first lady's performance can't be measured the same way because her goals for the first ladyship aren't as widely publicized -- if they're publicized at all. During her husband's campaign, the first lady generally espouses as her own causes whatever his platforms may be.

And much of the first lady's activity and appearance may be directly attributed to her husband. She is his humanizing half -- a stoic and withdrawn president's appearance can be bolstered by a lively and cordial wife. Grace Coolidge was a stylish counterpart to President Calvin Coolidge, for instance, and during President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for the presidency, he joked that with his driven, policy-minded lawyer wife Hillary, voters would get "two for the price of one" [source: Kornblut and MacGillis]. In the case of the Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt administrations, first ladies Edith and Eleanor were the lifeblood of their husbands, who were nearly incapacitated by a stroke and poliomyelitis (polio), respectively.

Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that the first public opinion poll of the first lady was directed by Gallup in 1939, during Eleanor Roosevelt's first ladyship. While Roosevelt commanded high approval ratings in the early 20th century, Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton became the most widely polled first ladies of the mid and latter halves. Pollsters even conducted an "unprecedented" approval rating poll of Hillary Clinton [source: Watson].

Until the United States elects a woman as president, the role of first lady will continue to be guided by the traditional feminine roles that gave birth to the position. How the next first lady chooses to exert her power and influence remains to be seen, and we can only speculate as to whether the era of political partnerships will continue or if a new era of first ladyship is coming.


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More Great Links

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