As we wind down this Women’s History Month, it’s important we remember some of the most well-known and influential women in modern history. Of course, there are the suffragettes and incredible movement leaders who fought for – and continue to fight for – women’s rights. But you may not know that these First Ladies were (and are) surprisingly tenacious women in their own right.
From trailblazing education to forming treatment centers and so much in between, these badass women defined being a First Lady.
So it only seems appropriate that we take the time to honor them. Obviously, there are so many awesome First Ladies. And many of them worked tirelessly in service of the American people. But here are a handful that really stood out among the rest.
You know that iconic portrait of George Washington that sits in the White House? Well, you can thank James Madison’s wife and courageous First Lady Dolley Madison for saving it from burning during the War of 1812. She also dedicated herself to helping charities and causes she believed in. And, in doing so, pretty much set the precedent of being of service that most First Ladies would follow in the future.
Betty Ford became well known in her tenure as First Lady for two things: Being more outspoken about social issues than her predecessors, and having some pretty great dance moves (including her signature move, “The Bump”). After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she changed the national conversation about health by openly sharing her own journey. But one of her most lasting impacts happened after her tenure in the White House. Overcoming her own struggle with addiction, she established of The Betty Ford Center in 1982. It continues to help people – especially women – overcome substance addictions.
The second wife of President Woodrow Wilson basically acted as a de facto presidential steward after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke. She decided what would items would come to the president’s attention and what would be passed over. Even before his stroke, she was his constant companion and joined him in Europe for peace talks after WWI ended.
4Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
It’s hard to overstate the popularity and influence of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Her resurgence in pop culture, most notably with Natalie Portman’s recent portrayal, helps to educate later generations about this incredibly graceful and intelligent woman. She helped to make the White House the historical and cultural monument it is today. And she was the steadfast brave face of a shocked nation in mourning.
Highly involved in her husband’s political career, Sarah Polk used her influence to change her husband’s policy likely more than any woman before her. When James Polk served as president, she often acted as intermediary between him and legislators. She was also a scholar, receiving and education from one of the few higher educational institutions available to women during her time.
6Lady Bird Johnson
A relentless advocate women’s rights and equality, Lady Bird Johnson was outspoken about causes she believed in. She supported the Headstart Programs to help people in impoverished situations. And she actively worked in beautification of D.C. during her years in the White House and after. She even published and 800 page (!!!) book, called A White House Diary, chronicling her and her husband’s experience in office.
One of the first women to hold a degree in geology from Stanford, Lou Hoover loved the outdoors. She even served as the National President of the Girl Scouts. And, she was broke precedent by delivering radio speeches as First Lady. She also spoke Mandarin, and still holds the record for being the only First Lady to speak an Asian language.
8Helen “Nellie” Taft
When he husband William Howard Taft was elected president, Nellie Taft joined him in the inaugural parade. Despite intense weather conditions, she became the first First Lady to do so. She also loved the arts, attended Cincinnati College of Music, and would eventually oversee the construction of a bandstand for an outdoor concert series. Her published memoirs, Recollection of Full Years, were the first of their kind, though many women would follow in her footsteps.
There’s a reason Michelle Obama won the heart of former President Barack Obama so many years ago. She’s hilarious, charming, and extremely sharp. The Ivy-League educated former lawyer was actually Obama’s mentor when they first met. Her incredibly influential speeches and ongoing work for both health and women’s equality inspired so many others to do the same.
A powerful and outspoken woman, Eleanor Roosevelt is basically synonymous for “badass woman.” Born into a influential family as the niece of former President Teddy Roosevelt, she advocated and supported numerous humanitarian causes throughout her lifetime. Intelligent, well-educated, and fearless, she was a diplomat, prolific writer, and teacher. A modern woman herself, she redefined what it meant to be a modern First Lady.
When you hear her famous quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” it’s even more inspiring knowing how incredibly impressive this woman really was.
11Hillary Rodham Clinton
As if we really need to say much about the former First Lady turned first woman nominated by a major political party for President of the United States. In her time as First Lady, she reminded the world that “women’s rights” are “human rights,” a belief she would live thoroughly throughout her public service career. She served as New York Senator, Secretary of State, and, most recently, was the first woman to be nominated by a major party for POTUS. Though she lost the election, she remains an active influencer and tireless public servant.