In Depth

First ladies of the last 50 years: from Lady Bird Johnson to Melania Trump

A look back at the achievements of America’s presidential wives

More than a year into the job, it is still unclear what US First Lady Melania Trump’s legacy will be. 

While the role of first lady is not an elected one, the spouse of the US president has traditionally been a key figure in American politics, often championing causes close to her heart. Melania has kept a relatively low profile. She started an anti-cyberbullying campaign but this was quickly branded a “hypocrite” by critics, who cited her husband’s penchant for using Twitter to attack adversaries. Nevertheless, she still has time to make her mark on history.

Here, The Week looks back at the achievements of America’s other first ladies from the past 50 years:

Claudia Taylor Johnson (1963-1969)

Claudia Johnson, otherwise known as Lady Bird, was the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson. During her time as first lady, she supported the war on poverty and became a major supporter of Head Start, an ongoing government programme that provides early education, health and nutrition services to children and families on low incomes.

Thelma Patricia Ryan Nixon (1969-1974)

Thelma Patricia Ryan Nixon, or Pat, dedicated herself to social issues including education and volunteering. She became the first president’s wife to visit a combat zone when she went to South Vietnam in 1969. She also sought to make the White House more accessible, opening up the property for tours and creating brochures in languages other than English.

Elizabeth Bloomer Ford (1974-1977)

Elizabeth Bloomer Ford, otherwise known as Betty, was diagnosed with breast cancer only a few weeks after becoming first lady, and her openness about her illness raised awareness of a disease then rarely discussed pubicly in America. She became a strong advocate for women’s rights, lobbying for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. In recognition of her work, Time magazine named her one of its Women of the Year in 1975.

Rosalynn Smith Carter (1977-1981)

Rosalynn Smith Carter was more involved in the president’s political affairs than any previous first lady had been, scheduling her husband Jimmy’s appointments and attending cabinet meetings. She served as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, and created a task force that lobbied for the Age Discrimination Act, which lifted restrictions on the retirement age.

Nancy Davis Reagan (1981-1989)

Nancy Reagan championed drug abuse awareness and education with her major initiative, the Just Say No campaign. She visited prevention programmes and rehabilitation centres throughout the US and in several other countries. Her efforts helped bring about the National Crusade for a Drug Free America Act, which was signed into law by her husband, Ronald, in 1986.

Barbara Pierce Bush (1989-1993)

Barbara Pierce Bush is the only woman besides Abigail Adams to be both a wife (to George H. W. Bush) and a mother (to George W. Bush) to a US president. She is best known for starting her own literacy organisation, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. She also wrote a book about the White House from the perspective of her dog, titled Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush, sales of which raised nearly $1m for literacy programmes.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (1993-2001)

Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most politically active former first lady to date. While husband Bill was in office, she was named the head of the taskforce on national health reform. She became the first wife of a president to seek and win public office, and the first woman to be elected to the US Senate from New York. She won re-election in 2006 and ran for president in 2008, but lost. She then served as Barack Obama’s secretary of state in 2009 until 2013, before running for president a second time in 2016, winning the Democratic nomination and becoming the first woman to stand as a national presidential candidate. She lost to current US leader Donald Trump.

Laura Welch Bush (2001-2009)

During her time as first lady, Laura Bush supported education, childhood development and teacher training. She created a national initiative, called Ready to Read, Ready to Learn, to promote reading at an early age. Another issue she championed was the protection of US national treasures, by supporting the Preserve America campaign.

Michelle Robinson Obama (2009-2016)

Michelle Obama spent much of her time as first lady focusing on issues such as poverty, healthy living and education. In 2009, she worked with local students in Washington DC to plant an 1,100-square-foot garden of fresh vegetables and install beehives on the White House’s South Lawn. She also worked hard to fight childhood obesity, and in 2012 announced her Let’s Move! initiative, aimed at encouraging children to be more active.

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