Honoring America’s First Ladies

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

March is Women’s History Month.  This month, Americans celebrate and honor the numerous contributions and achievements of women throughout our history. Since our nation’s founding, women of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs have played pivotal roles in building and shaping America. 

With courage and dedication, America’s first ladies have been essential in advancing and defending America’s freedom, prosperity, and values for more than two centuries.

Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Nancy Reagan each brought their own approaches to the role of first lady and in doing so, left lasting impacts on our nation.  

Although the title “first lady” was not coined until after her passing, Martha Washington served as the United States’ premiere first lady. Before assuming this role, Martha Washington was a devoted wife who supported her husband, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army George Washington, through the American Revolution. 

Every winter, she traveled to the army’s encampment and served as her husband’s closest confidant, sounding board, secretary, and representative. She cared for sick and wounded soldiers and heightened morale at camp during the cold winter days. 

Martha brought warmth, kindness, and a welcoming demeanor as first lady when George was sworn in as America’s first president in 1789. Martha pioneered and defined the role as a gracious hostess and supportive spouse. She welcomed the American people to the presidential mansion at weekly gatherings attended by men and women from the community, members of Congress, and visiting dignitaries. 

Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, was the second first lady of the United States from 1797-1801. She was highly intelligent and a strong supporter of women’s rights and an advocate for women’s education. Like most girls at the time, Abigail didn’t receive a formal education. She taught herself various subjects from books in her father’s library and became one of the most well-read women in America in the 18th century. She was so intelligent that President Harry Truman later noted that Abigail, “would have been a better president than her husband.”

Abigail put her intellect to work as her husband’s closest confidant and advisor. When he was away, she regularly wrote him letters updating him on politics and the news of the day. Famously, she urged him to “remember the ladies” as he drafted the Declaration of Independence. 

When John was elected president in 1797, he wrote to Abigail, “I never wanted your advice and assistance more in my life.” She also saw the role of being a mother as critically important for teaching the next generation to be virtuous citizens and leaders. Abigail worked to advance the career of her son, John Quincy, who became a U.S. senator, minister to Russia, secretary of state, and after her death, the sixth president of the United States. 

The wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving first lady of the United States from 1933-1945. As first lady, Eleanor was particularly active in promoting civil rights, supporting women’s rights, and advocating for the poor and less fortunate. Known as “the President’s eyes, ears, and legs,” Eleanor traveled across America to visit relief projects, survey working and living conditions, and report what she found to the president. 

A vocal political activist, Eleanor held the first press conference hosted by a first lady in 1933, gave lectures and radio broadcasts, and wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.” After leaving the White House, Eleanor continued her public service and was appointed to the United Nations General Assembly by President Truman. While serving as chair of the Human Rights Commission, Eleanor was central to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on December 10, 1948. This milestone document enshrined, for the first time, the universal fundamental human rights and freedoms of every person.

As first lady of the United States from 1961-1963, Jacqueline Kennedy brought the arts, history, and culture of America to the forefront of the national stage. In a 1961 interview, Jackie remarked that, “All these people come to see the White House and they see practically nothing that dates back before 1948.” She established a White House Fine Arts Committee to fully restore the president’s mansion in a way that reflected America’s rich artistic and architectural history. Jackie and her committee dusted off and moved the Resolute desk into the Oval Office and located and brought numerous pieces of historic furniture and works of art to the White House. When her project was nearly finished, Jackie gave 56 million people a televised tour of the newly restored White House, which earned her an honorary Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Jackie also returned to the tradition of making the White House a social and cultural center of the nation, inviting popular musicians and artists to perform. Following a visit to the White House, world-renowned violinist Isaac Stern wrote to Jackie of “how refreshing, how heartening it is to find such serious attention and respect for the arts in the White House. To many of us it is one of the most exciting developments on the present American cultural scene.”

Nancy Reagan, like her husband, began her career acting. When Ronald Reagan was serving as governor of California, Nancy was active in numerous charitable efforts. As first lady of California, she regularly visited wounded Vietnam veterans, hospitals and homes for the elderly, and schools for physically and emotionally handicapped children. She became involved in projects involving prisoners of war and servicemen missing in action as well as the Foster Grandparent Program, which she later worked to expand on a national level as first lady of the United States.

After Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency, Nancy continued her charitable work while in the White House from 1981-1989. As first lady, Nancy was known for her “Just Say No” campaign that was aimed at teaching children the dangers of drug abuse. Nancy traveled approximately 250,000 miles across the United States and to numerous countries to spread awareness about the tragedies surrounding substance abuse and to offer encouragement to young people and their parents at prevention programs and rehabilitation centers. 

Nancy Reagan, Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abigail Adams, and Martha Washington are some of the incredible women who, through their courage, tenacity, and leadership have made significant impacts on our nation. This Women’s History Month, let us recognize, honor, and celebrate the many contributions of the first ladies of the United States who have shaped America’s history.