A polished, poised, and celebrated icon of her generation, the First Lady of the United States (AKA: FLOTUS) is a job cast in a seemingly glamorous light. Necessary skills and experience: must be armed with impressive intellect, hold an enviable résumé, and demonstrate devotion to causes such as women’s rights, global education, and healthcare advances. In small print at the bottom: Amidst nation-wide turmoil, international terrorism, and public personal scandal, FLOTUS MUST keep feet planted in the unforgiving lime-light of the political arena. Representing our nation during massive change and inevitable times of trouble isn’t a job for the faint of heart, but it’s a role these fierce women have made all their own, proving to be as influential as their presidential husbands. The 2016 election could bring a new FLOTUS into the spotlight, and it even holds the potential for a role-reversal—a female president and her First Gentleman (official title is up for debate, there is no precedent here, people!). Looking at Ladies of Presidents past gives us good insight into the impact this position has on the nation and the opportunity it holds to set an example for this country’s women.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Lady of the Traditionalists
“Women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.”
Serving for a record-breaking 12 years in office, (1933–1945) Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt first entered the White House during the pinnacle of The Great Depression when the nation’s morale was dismal at best. Eleanor took an active role in her husband’s New Deal and was laser-focused on bringing about positive social change. A well-known humanitarian, civil rights champion, and true feminist, Eleanor fought tirelessly for women’s rights. She was the first First Lady to hold internal women-only press conferences simultaneously gaining press exposure for causes near and dear to her, while jump-starting the careers of aspiring female journalists.
Jackie Kennedy: Lady of the Boomers
“What is sad for women of my generation is that they weren’t supposed to work if they had families. What were they going to do when the children are grown—watch the raindrops coming down the window pane?”
The picturesque Kennedy family exuded health, wealth, and stability; an archetype of the idealized 1960’s American Dream. For many Americans, their lavish lifestyle reinforced the “keeping up with the Joneses” mantra of that era. One of Jackie Kennedy’s first orders of business was the historic preservation of the White House, scouring for art and furniture owned by presidents past. As kids, many Boomers remember sitting in their living rooms watching Mrs. Kennedy host a live television tour of the newly updated White House, as she proudly showcased the refurbished estate. Publicly revered for her fashion sense, poise, and ability to speak multiple languages, there’s no doubt that Jackie contributed to JFK’s record-breaking 70% national average approval rating. Jackie Kennedy spent only two years as First Lady prior to JFK’s heartbreaking public assassination in 1963, but her legacy far outlived her brief time in The White House.
Nancy Reagan: Lady of the Xers
“Feminism is the ability to choose what you want to do.”
The Reagans ruled the White House from 1981–1989. Nancy was much more conservative both in political ideology and in mannerism than past First Ladies. The widely celebrated sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll lifestyle ran rampant in movies and TV shows like Die Hard and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The resulting peer-pressure teens faced in using drugs and alcohol sparked Nancy’s interest in educating youth on the matter, famously quoted as saying, “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare, and it’s time we in America stand up and replace those dreams.” She traveled the country to speak at schools and recorded PSA’s and commercial spots for her “Just Say No” campaign, which became mainstream in nearly every Gen Xer’s anti-drug school assembly.
Hillary Clinton: Lady of the Millennials
“Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”
Hillary Clinton is arguably the most publicly politically-active First Lady. During Bill Clinton’s first term, she was appointed to chair the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, breaking down barriers, as this task was historically carried out by the president. Criticized by some for her active role in Bill Clinton’s political endeavors, Hillary did gain support for her commitment to issues affecting women and children. She authored “It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us,” an eventual bestselling novel chronicling her own experience as a mother with insight into how our nation can empower youth to become successful future leaders. She initiated the Children’s Health Insurance Program to provide low-cost health insurance to families. Superseding her years in the White House, she continued to be a presence in the political sphere. She was the first First Lady elected to the US senate from New York in 2000, and she’s now the first First Lady to run for President of the United States. Only time will tell if she’ll defeat the Republican nominee this November. (#FLOTUStoPOTUS?)
Michelle Obama: Lady of the Edgers
“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.”
Michelle Obama made history in 2008 when she became the first African American First Lady. Despite beginning her career in law, Michelle was highly impassioned by youth and family education, shifting her career sights on aiding these causes. With the childhood obesity rate tripling in the past three decades, Mrs. Obama attributes much of this epidemic to the changing of the times. Citing the generational lifestyle shift which began decades ago, kids used to walk to school and enjoyed proportionate home-cooked meals. Now, kids eat school lunches full of preservatives and sugar and lead a sedentary, screen-heavy lifestyle. She kickstarted the Let’s Move initiative in 2010, intended to battle the bulge by providing healthy alternatives, and she even appeared on Sesame Street to ensure her efforts resonated with youth. Most recently in 2015, Michelle started Let Girls Learn, a cause committed to helping provide education to girls around the globe.