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Unique First Ladies Through History

A look back at some of the women who’ve called the White House home

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Lady Bird Johnson (1963-1969)

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Ahead of her time for her commitment to conservation and the environment, she actively supported the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 — known as “Lady Bird’s Bill” — which called for clean water, air and roadsides, as well as the preservation of parks and wilderness areas. She also founded the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital. “Where flowers bloom, so does hope,” she said.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-1945)

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The longest-serving First Lady, she elevated the position far beyond White House hostess, championing civil rights and the rights of the poor, and establishing her own powerful role alongside husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ever-eloquent, she said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

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Abigail Adams (1797-1801)

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The first First Lady to live in the White House, Abigail was wife to second president John Adams — who was also her third cousin — and mom to the country’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams. She was politically involved enough to be called “Mrs. President” rather than Lady Adams, and called for women’s rights and the end of slavery.

Elizabeth Anne “Betty” Bloomer Ford (1974-1977)

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Once a part-time model who studied dance with Martha Graham, she married Gerald Ford at age 30 (her second marriage). While in the White House she supported progressive causes such as abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. In later years she spoke openly about her struggle with alcoholism, hoping to remove its stigma.

Nancy Davis Reagan (1981-1989)

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A one-time actress, she, along with movie-star-turned-president husband Ronald Reagan, was credited with bringing glamour back to the White House, with projects including renovating the private quarters and buying new china. “Hollywood on the Potomac,” as the White House was dubbed, played host to many big-name celebrities and royals. But Nancy was not all about style but interested in advocacy, too — her famous “Just Say No” antidrug campaign encouraged American youth to steer clear of drugs and alcohol.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1861-1865)

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Known for her tragic life — including husband Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — and signs of mental illness, Lincoln grew entranced by spiritualism (the belief, popular in the 19th century, that the dead are ever-present). Her son, Robert, later had her committed to an insane asylum, but a trial found her sane, and she was released.

Frances Folsom Cleveland (1886-1889)

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She was the youngest First Lady, only 21 when she married and moved into the White House. Husband and family friend Grover Cleveland was a bachelor when he took office, and 28 years older than his new wife — whose mother, Emma, was considered a more likely mate. “Frankie,” became a favorite subject in the press and a fashion icon.

Edith Wilson (1915-1921)

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The second wife of Woodrow Wilson — she married the then-widowed president in 1915 after a brief courtship — was one of his closest advisers, and later labeled the “Secret President.” When Wilson suffered a massive stroke and became bedridden, she assumed “stewardship” of the presidency, guarding her husband from guests and meetings until the end of his term. In her memoirs, she claimed she “never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs,” but only about what she did and didn’t show her husband.

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Abigail Powers Fillmore (1850-1853)

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She was a bookish teacher in a New Hope, New York, school, when she met future hubby Millard Fillmore — her student, though at 21 she was just two years his senior. As First Lady she was hardly the life of the party; she preferred reading to socializing. Prone to illness, she died of pneumonia 24 days after leaving the White House.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (1993-2001)

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A Wellesley- and Yale-educated lawyer, Hillary’s life is series of “firsts.” After eight years as First Lady to husband Bill Clinton, she jump-started her own political career and became the only First Lady to become a U.S. senator (from New York) and then U.S. secretary of state. During her 2016 bid for president, she had the distinction of being the first woman nominee for a major party. “I’ve been called many things by many people,” she has said. “Quitter is not one of them.”

Helen (Nellie) Herron Taft (1909-1913)

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Wife of one of our more rotund presidents, William Howard Taft, she reportedly pushed him toward the presidency (he was interested in the Supreme Court, where he later served). The ambitious Nellie attended the 1912 Democratic convention to stifle personal attacks on her Republican husband — and it worked. But he lost the re-election to Woodrow Wilson nonetheless.

Florence Harding (1921-1923)

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Hard-working and independent, she built a newspaper business in her early years of marriage to the Warren G. Harding — though while campaigning for him she said, “I have only one real hobby: my husband.” When he died suddenly in office at the age of 58, conspiracy theorists claimed she poisoned him, but historians think it was a heart attack.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1961-1963)

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Maybe best known for enduring her husband President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (among other tragedies), the gorgeous Jackie became a style icon during her brief role of First Lady. “She epitomized elegance in the post-World War II era,” according to historian Douglas Brinkley. “No other first lady in the 20th century will be able to have the aura.”

Michelle Obama (2009-2017)

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The writer, style icon and graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School is the only African American to become First Lady. A political powerhouse called “The Closer” for her ability to wow campaign audiences (despite her outward disdain for politics at large), her White House time was dedicated to Let’s Move! — an initiative that targeted the nationwide epidemic of childhood obesity. “This is my mission,” she declared. “I am determined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition.”