- The wife of a President whilst he was in office
- The hostess of a President who was widowed before his time in office or a bachelor
- Does not include ‘fillers’ like Margaret Wilson or Letitia Tyler Semple
- Does not include women who were married to presidents after the administration like Mary Lord Dimmick Harrison or women who were divorced from the President beforehand, like Ivana Trump
- Jill Biden is not included as her term has not yet finished and hence I do wish to wait until passing judgment
In ascending order:
47. Anna Harrison (1841)
Anna Harrison never got to even step foot in the White House. She was packing to go when news came of her husband’s death. Unfortunately, that placed her straight at the bottom.
46. Jane Pierce (1853-1857)
Jane Pierce suffered a lot in life. One of the biggest tragedies occurred just before the inauguration when their son Benny was the only casualty in a train wreck. He was basically decapitated and Jane saw the body. Jane would spend nearly the entirety of her husband’s presidency in a state of deep depression. She’d always suffered badly in life and her devout faith made her believe the deaths were a result of sin. Pierce did not enjoy socializing and gave responsibilities away. This unfortunately meant she was not in the right headspace to be First Lady.
45. Margaret Taylor (1849-1850)
Margaret Taylor was uninterested in life as First Lady-she’d actually prayed for her husband’s defeat. She avoided most of the obligations of living in the White House and delegated tasks.
44. Rose Cleveland (1885-1886)
Rose Cleveland was White House hostess as a favour to her brother. She did not, however, enjoy it. Rose was likely thrilled when her brother married Frances Folsom.
43. Lucretia Garfield (1881)
Intellectual and educated, Lucretia Garfield seemed to do well in her short time as First Lady. Unfortunately, her tenure was interrupted by a nasty bout of malaria and terminated by her husband’s assassination. She likely would have been a good First Lady had she had more time in office.
42. Ida McKinley (1897-1901)
Having suffered the death of both of her children as well as the murder of her brother, Ida McKinley was not a well woman. She also suffered from epilepsy. Whilst Ida travelled with her husband, her illness prevented her from doing more.
41. Emily Donelson (1829-1834)
The niece of Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel, Emily took over as hostess due to her aunt dying before the Inauguration. She seemed to do alright until the Petticoat Affair, which led to her being asked to leave.
40. Martha Jefferson Randolph (1801-1809)
Though praised for her charm and sociable nature, the role was essentially part time for Jefferson’s daughter, as she had her own family plus Monticello to sort out. A lot of work was done by Dolley Madison, a family friend.
39. Mary Lincoln (1861-1865)
A very intelligent woman who was more of an abolitionist than her husband was, Mary Lincoln sadly entered the White House after many tragedies. The further death of another son plus injury from an assassination plot made Mary a very sad figure. History has mocked and misunderstood her, but unfortunately she does not have the best legacy as First Lady.
38. Angelica Van Buren (1838-1841)
Initially popular, President Van Buren’s daughter-in-law saw a reversal of fortune upon returning from a European trip. Angelica became pompous, turning the White House into a semi-royal court. Her attitude turned many off and even rubbed off on her father-in-law.
37. Ellen Wilson (1913-1914)
Ellen Wilson did a lot of charity work in her year as First Lady, but her sudden death meant she was not able to achieve a strong legacy.
36. Eliza Johnson (1865-1869)
Poor health prevented Eliza Johnson from taking full responsibility, but she kept abreast of political events and continued to support her husband. She also supported charitable causes.
35. Letitia Tyler (1841-1842)
Letitia Tyler was another victim of poor health, but she would accept important visitors and talk politics. She was remembered as an extremely kind, unselfish and a talented delegator.
34. Julia Tyler (1844-1845)
The young and vivacious second wife of President Tyler, Julia served eight months in the role. She ensured there was an active social scene at the White House and supported her husband. Julia often overshadows her predecessor as a result.
33. Louisa Adams (1825-1829)
Another intellectual, Louisa Adams suffered from personal issues, a difficult family and an unhappy marriage. She was nevertheless a gracious hostess who enjoyed music.
32. Melania Trump (2017-2021)
Melania Trump took a less active role as First Lady, as it was reported that she wasn’t too interested in the role. She did appear at public events and did a lot of White House decorating.
31. Elizabeth Monroe (1817-1825)
Elizabeth Monroe’s poor health meant that she often had her daughter do the hosting. She also hosted receptions in an exclusive French style, which caused ire. Elizabeth nevertheless grew into the role and was popular with visitors like Lafayette.
30. Helen Taft (1909-1913)
Helen Taft was a deeply ambitious lady who’d pushed her husband into the presidency. Plans for an active role were scrapped after Helen suffered a stroke early into the administration. Helen still spoke out politically (she was in favour of women and civil rights) and managed White House affairs).
29. Mary McElroy (1881-1885)
As President Arthur’s beloved wife had died before he entered office, Arthur asked his sister Mary to be hostess. Due to family obligations, Mary only hosted during the busy social season. She was a popular hostess despite her shyness, her receptions were praised, she honoured former First Ladies who visited, and she took over formal events.
28. Abigail Fillmore (1850-1853)
Abigail Fillmore’s greatest contribution was her creation of the White House Library.
27. Bess Truman (1945-1951)
More private and less interested than her predecessor, Bess Truman was more at home in Missouri than in DC. She was nevertheless a huge help for her husband due to her constant advice and wisdom. Despite her desire for privacy, Bess was well-liked.
26. Caroline Harrison (1889-1892)
Caroline Harrison implemented a lot of reforms in her tenure as First Lady. She also nearly completely renovated the decaying White House and installed electricity. On top of this, Caroline was a champion of women’s rights and encouraged education.
25. Julia Grant (1869-1877)
Julia Grant ensured a sense of prestige at the White House and in the role of First Lady itself. She was seen as lavish sometimes, but was welcoming to all visitors (when properly dressed). Julia absolutely adored being First Lady and was devastated when her husband declined to run for a third term.
24. Edith Roosevelt (1901-1909)
A well-bred society lady, Edith Roosevelt sought to add a touch of class to Washington. She ensured that social occasions were extraordinary and that nobody beat her events. Edith also helped her husband broker peace in the Russo-Japanese War.
23. Lou Hoover (1929-1933)
An academic fluent in six languages, Lou Hoover focused on a traditional First Lady role. She was a strong supporter of women’s rights and continued her role in supporting her beloved Girl Scouts. Lou was criticized for apparent splurging during the Great Depression, but in fact quietly donated to charity.
22. Frances Cleveland (1886-1889/1893-1897)
Enormously popular in her day, Frances Cleveland was the first celebrity First Lady. Enormous crowds gathered to see her, so much so that she was a security risk. She enjoyed the role of hostess and was protective of her husband. Frances was so popular that it made opponents worry about attacking the administration.
21. Hillary Clinton (1993-2001)
Never one to shy from the limelight, Hillary Clinton was one of the most dominant First Ladies. She was involved in scandal and failed healthcare reform, but also championed women’s rights and was well-travelled. Hillary received support for her conduct during the Lewinsky campaign.
22. Sarah Polk (1845-1849)
Brilliant, intelligent and witty, Sarah Polk continued to be her husband’s most important advisor as President. Whilst her devout faith prevented her from lavish parties, Sarah’s charm and sociability made her a popular First Lady.
19. Florence Harding (1921-1923)
Believed by some to have killed her husband, Florence Harding was in fact an excellent First Lady. She was fiercely intelligent and not afraid to hide her views on anything. Florence supported women’s rights, opposed racism and was a strong advocate for veterans. She was known for her warmth when hosting.
18. Rosalynn Carter (1977-1981)
Probably the most popular woman in the Carter administration, Rosalynn Carter was admired as a ‘steel magnolia.’ She fought for those with mental health issues at a time where a huge stigma was attached to it. Rosalynn would sit in on Cabinet meetings and make notes.
17. Mamie Eisenhower (1953-1961)
A military wife who ruled with a soft fist, Mamie Eisenhower was an extremely skilled hostess and homemaker. Her hospitality was excellent and her recipe for fudge was widely printed. Mamie took no interest in politics but made the White House look good with her hospitality.
16. Lucy Hayes (1877-1881)
Despite historical mocking of her abstinence from alcohol, Lucy Hayes was an extremely popular and well-liked First Lady. She was devoted to charity and was a generous giver. Many liked her sincere nature and she was known as a nice boss. She encouraged remembrance of First Ladies and invited many of her predecessors to visit.
15. Nancy Reagan (1981-1989)
Fiercely devoted to her beloved husband, Nancy Reagan was an unstoppable force. She was criticised for her expensive taste and renovations but was the most powerful person in her husband’s life. Her hosting skills impressed the Gorbachevs, whose visit helped relations during the Cold War.
14. Grace Coolidge (1923-1929)
Vivacious, witty and lively, Grace Coolidge was a sought-after hostess. She didn’t talk about politics, but her devotion to the deaf and disabled continued even after she’d finished teaching. Grace enjoyed new technology and hosting.
13. Lady Bird Johnson (1963-1969)
Lady Bird Johnson had a tough task in following Jackie Kennedy, but she performed the role with grace and tenacity. She was a keen campaigner and had in fact bankrolled her husband’s career. Lady Bird’s campaign for beautification showed her concern for the country. She expanded the First Lady role into what it is today.
12. Pat Nixon (1969-1974)
A severely underrated First Lady, Pat Nixon was a brilliant ambassador for her husband and his administration. She was sent abroad on many trips and received acclaim, especially after helping earthquake victims in Peru and meeting citizens in China. Pat was known for her warmth and kindness when greeting visitors, as well as her insistence on access for the disabled.
11. Edith Wilson (1915-1921)
Often called ‘The First Female President,’ Edith Wilson essentially took over after her husband’s debilitating 1919 role. She read his papers, met with cabinet members and did his admin. Despite controversy over it, Edith Wilson proved an extremely devoted First Lady who kept the administration ticking.
10. Michelle Obama (2009-2017)
As the first African-American First Lady, Michelle Obama was stepping into a difficult role. She nevertheless proved herself a popular woman who got involved in many activities. Her popularity was so large that some wanted her to run for President. Michelle dignified herself on foreign visits and used social media to open up the White House.
9. Martha Washington (1789-1797)
Despite her reluctance to be First Lady and her annoyance at the trappings of the role, the very first First Lady was a good one. Her humility and genteel nature made her a hit with guests. She was constantly greeted by large crowds and press. Martha was an unpretentious woman who did not shower herself in glory and instead just got on with the job.
8. Barbara Bush (1989-1993)
Maternal but with a feisty side, Barbara Bush was never one to back down. She was fiercely loyal to her family and her encouragement of literacy came from the dyslexia of her son Neil. Barbara had a friendly image and was loved by her staff.
7. Laura Bush (2001-2009)
Laura Bush’s gentle nature and decorum made her a hit. She advocated passionately for reading and women’s health. Her discussion of Afghan women’s rights brought it to the attention of many. Laura also comforted the children of America after 9/11.
6. Harriet Lane (1857-1861)
Harriet Lane was only a young woman when her uncle ascended the presidency, but she really stepped up to the plate. Her fashions were widely copied and songs were named after her. Harriet proved a gracious hostess who used her skills to avoid conflict at social events. She promoted charity and forwent early marriage in order to stay with her beloved uncle.
5. Betty Ford (1974-1977)
Never one to hide her opinions, Betty Ford’s outspoken nature and advocacy have made her a beloved First Lady. She gave her views on the hot button issues of the day all while partaking in the traditional role. Her openness about her breast cancer encouraged thousands to get mammograms, something unheard of due to the previously taboo nature. Even though her popularity couldn’t save her husband’s presidency, Betty was a heck of a woman.
4. Dolley Madison (1809-1817)
The White House never had a hostess like Dolley Madison. Sociable, graceful, lovely and charming, Dolley was revered by her contemporaries. Her parties were legendary and were famous for having rivals mix without violence. She is remembered for her insistence on saving the famous Stuart portrait of George Washington. Her skills made DC a more amiable place.
3. Jacqueline Kennedy (1961-1963)
The style icon was more than just that. Multilingual, artistic and a lover of history, Jackie Kennedy was absolutely beloved. She was a hit in foreign nations, where famous grumps Charles de Gaulle and Nikita Khrushchev were happier to see her than her husband. Crowds doubled if Jackie was there. Her insistence on restoring the White House ensured that the historic building remained preserved for future generations. The tragic death of her husband made her the focus of the nation’s grief, but she remained dignified and protective of her young children.
2. Abigail Adams (1797-1801)
Intellectual and brilliant, Abigail Adams’ strong opinions led many to call her ‘Mrs. President.’ She was fully involved in politics behind the scenes and pushed for equality for women, though her husband did ignore the latter. Surviving letters show Abigail’s influence and counsel, as well as the extremely loving marriage.
1. Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Eulogised as the ‘First Lady of the World,’ Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most extraordinary women in American history. She was fearless in her activism, passionate in her views and open in her praises and criticisms. Eleanor advocated against lynching and the internment of Japanese-Americans, directly contradicting her husband. She supported rights for all Americans. Eleanor travelled extensively and made use of media. Her women-only press conferences forced newspapers to hire women. Whilst her work before and after the presidency was extraordinary, her role as First Lady puts her in a league of her own.