Why First Ladies Are Crucial to Understanding American History—and 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Them

by Kathleen Krull

You probably know a lot about our nation’s presidents, but how much do you know about the First Ladies of the United States? Kathleen Krull, author of A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies, shares some of the fun facts from the book and why these women’s accomplishments are still relevant today.


Martha Washington was a true-blue hero of the American Revolution. Her many patriotic duties included boosting the morale of George and his weary soldiers. She spent time with them, singing, chatting, and drinking tea. When some wanted to desert, she helped keep them united in their efforts.

Dolley Madison was famous for throwing fabulous parties, true, but her parties had a purpose: building up Washington, D.C., doing more than just about anyone to establish it as a capital city worthy of a great new country.

At eleven Mary Lincoln was already declaring her political opinions — she was passionately anti-slavery — and her career goal, which was to marry a president.

Helen Taft was the only woman to be both First Lady and wife of a Supreme Court justice — that had actually been her husband’s dream in life until she pushed him to shoot for the presidency first.

Eleanor Roosevelt received various offers to run for office, even for president, and always declined. She thought the country wouldn’t be ready for a woman president for a long time.

The first First Lady to have a distinguished career post White House, Jacqueline Kennedy became a book editor. (Her very first book was a nod to Abigail Adams: “Remember the Ladies”: Women in America, 1750–1815.)

Rosalynn Carter was so fierce about getting more women into senior government positions that almost one in four appointments during the Carter administration went to women — a record.

Nancy Reagan, starting out as an actress, made her first appearance in a short film to raise money for a group headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. (After eleven feature films, she met fellow actor Ronald Reagan.)

Laura Bush traveled to seventy-five countries — with multiple trips to Afghanistan — with the goal of encouraging girls and women to pursue education.

Michelle Obama, hating to leave her job as a vice president at University of Chicago Hospitals, had to be talked into letting her husband run for president. (But she turned out to be so good at campaigning that some wondered if she should be the candidate instead.)


“Remember the ladies”– it’s important to include the First Ladies while we’re teaching kids about American history. As you’ll discover while reading A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies, each one had an impact.

Most of them acted as their husbands’ eyes and ears, giving guidance behind the scenes. More than a few were more popular and appealing than their husbands and were the decisive factor on their road to victory.

And many of them used their spotlight to advance the progress of women, doing as much as they could for women’s rights, trying to break or at least loosen the rules.

Abigail Adams was the one who got the ball rolling when she pleaded with her husband to “Remember the ladies!” (doing her best to ignore his laughter.) Lady Bird Johnson kept it going when she asked her husband every night, “Well, what did you do for women today?”

This Presidents’ Day, let’s celebrate some of the most intriguing women of all time — the ones who helped shape our country.


Which First Lady is your favorite? Share with us in the comments below!

For a full list of all America’s First Ladies, check out this infographic or test your knowledge with this epic quiz.

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