On five separate occasions, Siena College Research has conducted a study on First Ladies. Historians have been asked to rate each First Lady on a scale 1-5 in ten different categories. They were collated together to create a ranking.
I decided to do my own version using the Siena categories. To make it easier, I’ve only included First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt onwards, so favourites like Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams won’t be on here. Jill Biden will also not be added as she is the incumbent. Whilst the original did a value scale, I am sticking with the 1-5 divided by ten.
As you can imagine, the views are very subjective. I’ve drawn upon my knowledge, data and sources in order to come to a fair conclusion for each. Note that apart from the background, the categories pertain to their time as First Lady, so anything legacy wise is not included.
Background- Her life before being First Lady, including education, work and advocacy
Value to the Country- Ambassador both at home and abroad
Being The White House Steward- Caring for their presidential residence
Courage– Bravery in times of adversity
Accomplishments– Her work as First Lady, afterwards and her legacy
Integrity– Her morality
Leadership– Good qualities as de facto consort of the country
Being Her Own Woman- Being a separate entity to her husband
Public Image– Her popularity with the public
Value to the President– How much she assists her husband personally and politically
1) Eleanor Roosevelt – 4.6/5
Eleanor Roosevelt easily topped the leaderboard. She had the highest marks in all but one category. I rated her highest for her courage, integrity, accomplishment, leadership and being her own woman. Roosevelt is remembered for her activism in regards to civil rights, her advancement of women’s rights and assisting the poor.
Her lowest score is in White House stewardship. Roosevelt was not particularly known for her interest in the White House or its preservation. She was of great value to her husband, but her score would have been increased if he’d actually listened to her.
I’d rank her at Number 1 on my personal list.
Personal Accolade: Most Empowering
2) Jacqueline Kennedy – 4.21/5
One of the most beloved First Ladies and my idol, Jackie Kennnedy received consistently good marks across the board. She received excellent marks for Stewardship of the White House due to her interest in preserving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Her public image is also high due to her immense popularity, fashion sense and class. I also ranked her highly for courage due to the hardships she faced in office. Her lowest score came in being her own woman.
On my personal list, she’d be third after Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams. She’s my favourite person who’s been First Lady.
Personal Accolade: Most Iconic
3) Betty Ford – 4.0/5
One of the most candid and outspoken women to ever reside in the White House, Betty Ford comes out third here. Her integrity, courage and value to the President receive the highest marks. Ford was open about the issues facing women that were usually taboo, such as mental health and breast cancer. Her openness about her mastectomy helped thousands of women check themselves. Whilst she was sometimes disparaged, her polling numbers were sky high. Ford did say she’d give her life for her husband to have her polling numbers.
Ford’s lowest score was in the Stewardship of the White House, as she did not take much of an interest.
I’d personally put her in my top 10.
Personal Accolade: Most Honest
4) Michelle Obama – 3.95/5
One of the most recent First Ladies, Michelle Obama just misses the podium. Her background and being her own woman gets her the biggest marks – she graduated from two Ivy League colleges and had a successful career. Obama also did well in the public image category due to her general popularity.
Her weakest category was Stewardship of the White House.
I would rank Obama within the top half of First Ladies at least.
Personal Accolade: Most Family-Oriented
5) Laura Bush – 3.93/5
Laura Bush is often forgotten due to being sandwiched between Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, but managed to get fifth place. Her public image, value to the President and integrity got her the highest marks. She remained very popular due to her uncontroversial nature and issues raised whilst First Lady.
Her lowest score is in background – whilst fine, it does not compare to others.
I’m personally a fan of Laura and would rate her in the Top 10.
Personal Accolade: Most Refined
6) Lady Bird Johnson – 3.9/5
A formidable and intelligent woman who made the family millionaires, Lady Bird Johnson comes in at a respectable sixth. This contributes to her high background score. Her value to her husband cannot be overstated – she vetted his speeches, gave counsel and calmed him down when he went into a mood. Her lowest score is in being her own woman, as it was said she put her husband’s needs above everything.
I’d rank her quite highly on a personal level.
Personal Accolade: Most Savvy
7) Hillary Clinton – 3.8/5
A controversial First Lady, Hillary Clinton is exactly halfway down the table. Her best scores came in her background – an Ivy League educated lawyer at a top law firm – and being her own woman. Whilst Bill Clinton said that they were a two for one combo, Clinton was definitely her own woman.
Her value to the country’s score is lowest due to the scandal and her failed healthcare reform. I was unsure about public opinion due to her eventually being able to be voted to the Senate, but she was also very Marmite.
Whilst I’m not a fan of the woman herself, she did make some impact. She’s not in my Top 10 but she’s far from the worst First Lady.
Personal Accolade: Most Feminist
8) Barbara Bush – 3.78/5
Slightly underneath her immediate successor, Barbara Bush makes eighth place. She scores highly for being a Steward of the White House due to her affability, humour and excellent social skills. Bush’s integrity, public image and value to the President also rank highly. She was popular for her candid nature and had strong moral values.
Her background is generally unremarkable, though I cannot fault her commitment to family.
I like Barbara Bush – she had her traditional values but was witty and cared about the issues. I’d put her higher than Hillary Clinton.
Personal Accolade: Most Sharp
9) Rosalynn Carter – 3.7/5
A true Steel Magnolia, long-lived Rosalynn Carter gets ninth place. Her courage and accomplishments get high marks. She bravely spoke up about mental illness and encouraged the nation to understand the taboo. Her advocacy helped pass the monumental Mental Health Act of 1980. Carter would also sit in on her husband’s cabinet meetings and wasn’t afraid to spar with him on policy, making her a huge value to the President.
The background and being her own woman categories were her weakest.
Personal Accolade: Most Underestimated
10) Pat Nixon – 3.6/5
A true lady, Pat Nixon gained tenth place. She scores highest in public image, value to the President and Stewardship of the White House. Nixon took great care of the residence, personally guided tourists and ensured the disabled had equal access. She was also well regarded for her dignity, though she was often derided as ‘Plastic Pat.’ Nixon was also a huge help to her husband through her successful trips abroad.
Her lowest score is in being her own woman. Nixon was often seen as being an extension of her own husband and ensured she did nothing to ruin her husband’s career.
I’d personally put Pat Nixon quite high as she was a pretty remarkable woman who people often dismissed. She was also extremely warm hearted and kind. I’d put her above several others on this list.
Personal Accolade: Most Underrated
11) Nancy Reagan – 3.43/5
Few can think of Ronald Reagan without thinking of Nancy Reagan. She scores best on value to the President. Few can argue that Reagan wasn’t absolutely dedicated to her husband and his career. Reagan also does well on being a Steward of the White House as she dedicated significant resources to its restoration.
Her lowest scores came in public image and being her own woman. Reagan put her husband above everything, even her own children at some points. Her popularity also waxed and waned due to her apparent snobbishness and spendthrift nation.
Whilst not a spectacular First Lady, Reagan did make her own mark in the role.
Personal Accolade: Most Devoted
12) Mamie Eisenhower – 3.4/5
Known for her love of the colour pink, Mamie Eisenhower makes it to number 12 on the list. She scores best in leadership, value to her husband and public image. As a former army wife, Eisenhower knew how to run the White House with a firm hand. She was also a very popular housewife whose recipes were widely copied.
Her lowest score comes in her background and being her own woman, as she seemed to another extension of her husband.
Not the greatest First Lady but played well with the gender roles of the time. I also can’t fault someone who likes pink.
Personal Accolade: Most Domestic
14) Bess Truman- 3.02/5
An unexpected First Lady, Bess Truman is first from bottom. Truman did best in the value to the President as she was a constant support and helpmate to her husband. She was generally average in most categories, for Truman didn’t particularly want to be First Lady.
Her weakest scores were in public image and accomplishments simply because we didn’t see much of her.
I wouldn’t rate her too highly.
Personal Accolade: Most Private
15) Melania Trump – 2.96/5
The most recent former First Lady, Melania Trump sadly ranks bottom but received a respectable score. Her best rating is in Stewardship of the White House. Trump did a lot of work when decorating and restoring the residence, including the controversial garden project. Her public image is ranked fairly well- she was more popular than her husband and seen as a very elegant figure.
Trump’s remaining scores were average to low. This is generally because she wasn’t interested in being First Lady and picked a simple issue to champion.
It’s a bit too early to vote on her legacy but she’s probably not the absolute worst First Lady.
Personal Accolade: Most Reserved
What do you think? What would be your ratings for each category?