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From Dolly Madison to Michelle Obama: Fierce First Ladies You Should Know About

The wives of the fearless leaders of our country often fall into the shadows of their husbands. However, there were many First Ladies in the history of our country who have contributed much more than you may think. When we think of First Ladies, women like Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie O. first come to mind.  While these ladies have no doubt left a mark, we wanted to also take a look at some other fearless females who once lived in the White House. We all idolize Michelle Obama and her biceps, but she’s not the only First Lady who’s worth knowing about! Here are a few fierce First Ladies who should definitely be on your radar! 
Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama (current First Lady)

Michelle Obama has not been First Lady for long, but she is already making her mark on this country. She has made it known that her most important role is as a mother of her two daughters. However, she has still managed to contribute a lot as First Lady. She plans to focus on helping other working mothers like herself strike that balance between work and family commitments. She also strongly encourages volunteering and community service and she is passionate about supporting military families.
Words of wisdom: “Policies that support families aren’t political issues. They’re personal. They’re the causes I carry with me every single day.”
Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes
First Lady from March 4, 1877 to March 4, 1881

Lucy Hayes was the first First Lady to receive a college degree, and she was a strong believer in women’s rights. On the issue of abolition, Hayes was firm. She taught her free black servant Eliza Jane how to read and write, and also attended a Methodist Church that held racially integrated services, which led to her support for the pro-abolition Republican Party. When the conflict over slavery began, Hayes encouraged her husband to join the Union Army. She wished she herself could have done so.
“It is a hard thing to be a woman,” she once wrote, “and witness so much and yet not do any thing.” But she was able to become more involved once her husband was elected President in 1877, especially in regards to women’s rights. She may have convinced her husband to support the right of women attorneys to appear before the Supreme Court. Hayes also aided in placing two individual women in federal positions at the Agriculture Department and the Patent Office.
Words of wisdom: “Woman’s mind is as strong as man’s…equal in all things and is superior in some.”
Sarah Polk, wife of James K. Polk
First Lady from 1845 to 1849

According to The National First Ladies Library, “Mrs. Polk enjoyed wide popularity as well as deep respect.” Even though she banned dancing and drinking from the White House, Sarah Polk got no rap from the fellow females of her time. Polk was able to expertly blend her domestic skills with her political interests, earning respect from many. She attended Moravians’ “female academy” at Salem, North Carolina, one of the very few institutions of higher learning available to women in the early 19th century. She acquired an education that deemed her fit to assist a politically involved man. Though not publicly, Polk did aid her husband’s political career by helping him with his speeches and giving him sound advice.
Words of wisdom: “If I get into the White House, I will neither keep house nor make butter.”
Dolly Madison, wife of James Madison
First Lady from March 4, 1809- March 3, 1817


Although she’s most well known for saving a famous painting of George Washington from the White House, Dolly Madison was also a fierce First Lady who headed up a project to found a Washington, D.C. home for young orphaned girls. Madison was the first First Lady to officially associate herself with a public project. Madison also took pleasure in being the President’s wife, believing that her role was just as important as her husband’s. She was known for engaging in conversations with important political figures, and convincing them to see things the way her husband did. She was a fabulous hostess, always putting her guests at ease and making them feel welcome.
But she did more than just host wonderful dinner parties. She was rumored to have played a very important role in many big decisions during her husband’s presidency. Some claim that Madison convinced the President to allow Francis Scott Key to board a ship so that he could help a friend obtain freedom, and that this led to Francis Scott Key’s witnessing the firing on Fort McHenry, and consequently, writing the Star Spangled Banner. It is also suggested that Madison played a vital role in convincing her husband and Congress to have Washington remain the capital city, rather than Philadelphia. Perhaps Madison didn’t receive enough credit for her influence on our country.
Words of wisdom: “There is one secret, and that is the power we all have in forming our own destinies.”
Rosalynn Smith Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter
First Lady from January 20, 1977- January 20, 1981

An extremely involved First Lady, Rosalynn Smith Carter had her own office in the East Wing of the White House, where she managed routine First Lady duties and special projects. But Carter took her involvement to the next level as she was specifically interested in aiding the surrounding community, the elderly and the mentally ill. She was the Honorary Chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health from 1977 to 1978. She used her position as First Lady to focus attention on the performing arts on a national level, inviting prominent classical artists from all over the world to the White House.
After serving as First Lady, she went on to write her own autobiography, entitled First Lady From Plains, which was published in 1984. She is still extremely involved today, serving as vice chair of The Carter Center in Atlanta, focusing specifically on promoting greater access to mental healthcare. She leads a program to eliminate stigma against mental illnesses. The organization was founded in 1982 and its goal is to “promote peace and human rights worldwide.” Carter still works closely with her husband on projects in roughly 65 countries, resolving conflict, promoting human rights, improving health worldwide and trying to build democracy.
Words of wisdom: “I don’t think that there is any doubt that the First Ladies have some influence on their husbands, because they are close to them, they talk with them all the time, they have the presidents’ ear. I don’t think there is any doubt about it.”
Helen Herron Taft, wife of William Howard Taft
First Lady from March 4, 1909- March 4, 1913

William Taft described his wife Helen as “a treasure, self-contained, independent, and of unusual application.” She gladly accepted the challenge of travelling the world with her husband and their children as he moved through the ranks in the political world. When he was elected President of the United States in 1908, Mrs. Taft acquired a position that she had long hoped for. She took an interest in politics, but focused on the social side of the administration. Although she suffered from a stroke two months into her husband’s career, her resiliency had her up and running in a year. She continued for four years to host famous social events at the White House, always appearing as a graceful and cheerful figure.
Words of wisdom: “I had always had the satisfaction of knowing almost as much as he about the politics and intricacies of any situation in which he found himself, and my life was filled with interests of a most unusual kind.”
“First Ladies of the United States.” National First Ladies’ Library. Web. 01 Apr. 2010. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies
“The First Ladies |.” The White House. Web. 01 Apr. 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies

Gabriela Szewcow is a freshman Print and Online Journalism major at Elon University in North Carolina. She is originally from Pittsburgh, PA. She is the Design Chief of Elon University’s award-winning newspaper, The Pendulum. She is also a designer for Elon’s yearbook and has a weekly radio show. She is a Spanish minor and hopes to study abroad in Spain sometime during her next three years at Elon. Some of her favorite things include York Peppermint Patties, Jane Austen novels, anything involving Hello Kitty and The Morning Benders. She hopes to someday be a page designer for a newspaper or magazine.
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