How the First Lady Works

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."
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.