Friday, October 23, 2009

Top Ten First Ladies

When challenged to name the all time top ten First Ladies of the United States, I turned to my wife, the amateur presidential historian and the only person I know who can not only recite the presidents in order, but also the presidents' wives.  In chronological order, here are her choices for the All-Time Top Ten President's Wives.

1. Martha Washington - "Lady Washington" as she was named by the grateful troops whose welfare she tended during the infamous winter at Valley Forge, set the tone for those women who would come after her.  A dutiful wife, she supported him in war and peace and followed him in death just 2 years later.

2. Dolly Madison - The wife of James Madison, Dolly was the first celebrity First Lady, earning the admiration of Washington society and rescuing art and treasures from the White House, narrowly escaping in 1812 as the British burned the city and the White House during their brief capture of the capital.  For sheer guts, Dolly makes this list - that and I just love her cupcakes!

3.  Caroline Harrison - Wife of Benjamin Harrison, Caroline, herself a talented artist, was one of the first First Ladies to take on the renovation of the, by then, fading White House.  She fought rodents and insects, laid new floors, installed new plumbing, painted and wallpapered, and added more bathrooms. In 1891 she and the president installed electricity in the White House, even thought they were so frightened of it that they refused to touch the electrical switches.  Caroline put up the first Christmas tree ever seen in the White House in 1882.  She also worked tirelessly for a wide range of charities despite her struggles with ill health. She finally succumbed to tuberculosis shortly before the end of Harrison's term. 

4. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the wife of Woodrow Wilson, has called America's first female president.  When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in October 1919, Edith basically ran the government secretly while protecting her husband from publicity through his long, disabling illness. She studied all the paperwork that came to the president and decide what was important enough for him to handle. She opposed allowing the vice-president to take over and successfully defended Wilson's job during his illness. 

5. Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover was active in philanthropy and served as president of the Girl Scouts of America and was influential in establishing one of the first such organizations for girls.

6. Eleanor Roosevelt was literally FDR's legs. Unable to travel freely, FDR depended on Eleanor to do much of his visiting for him. She became a familiar figure at rallies, military bases, diplomatic affairs and public celebrations. Even after her husband's death, Roosevelt carried on an active career as speaker, author, politician, New Deal activist and proponent of the United Nations.

7.  Jackie Kennedy should get a medal just for putting up with Jack's shenanigans with grace. She ably supported her husband's diplomatic efforts with grace and style and became a celebrity in her own right. She conducted badly needed renovations in the crumbling White House and was the pivotal figure in bringing the nation through the trauma of John Kennedy's murder.

8.  Betty Ford was active in social policy and the most politically active first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Some think she had more impact on the history and culture of America than her husband did.  She raised awareness of breast cancer after undergoing a mastectomy herself.  She was more liberal than her husband supporting the Equal Right's Amendment and the women's movement.  She went public with her life long alcoholism and established the Betty Ford Clinic for addiction research and treatment. 

9.  Nancy Reagan acted as her husband's political partner and despite criticism from the press, played a role in vetting the people who surrounded the president. She led a determined "Just Say No" anti-drug program and raised the money to perform extensive renovations to the White House that restored the "people's house" as she called it to it's former glory.  No public funds were used in the construction. Her heroic care for her husband during his decline due to Alzheimer's captured the public imagination.

10.  Barbara Bush's husband once said, that if Barbara had run for his second term, she'd have won. An immensely popular figure, America's grandmother campaigned tirelessly for literacy and reading and raised a 25 million dollar endowment fund to preserve the White House for the future.

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