What does the first lady of the US do and who are the women who've held the title?

To date, 46 women have served in the position – which is unofficial – leaving these trailblazers to define their own role

Former first ladies Jackie Kennedy, Rosalynn Carter and Michelle Obama all made their mark on the role with their initiatives. Getty Images
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As tributes continue to pour in for the former first lady of the United States Rosalynn Carter, who died on Sunday aged 96, the spotlight has been shone on the role of first lady and the women who have held it.

The wife of President Jimmy Carter who held office from 1977 to 1981, Rosalynn has been praised by former first ladies including Michelle Obama, Melania Trump, Hillary Clinton and current post holder Jill Biden.

“She was a champion for equal rights and opportunities for women and girls; an advocate for mental health and wellness for every person; and a supporter of the often unseen and uncompensated caregivers of our children, ageing loved ones and people with disabilities,” said Biden in a statement.

While much of Carter’s advocacy work was carried out after she left the White House, Obama noted in her tribute that the role of first lady was something each holder of the title had to make their own.

“You learn very quickly that there is no handbook or rules to being first lady,” she wrote on Instagram. “Technically, it’s not even an official position. And while there are spoken and unspoken expectations that provide some structure, the role is largely shaped by the passions and aspirations of the person holding it. First lady Rosalynn Carter understood that well.”

Here, we look at the role of the first lady, the women who have held and shaped it and some of the groundbreaking and taboo initiatives they put under the spotlight.

Where does the term 'first lady' come from?

As Obama says, the role that falls to the spouse of the president isn’t an official position. The position of Flotus (First lady of the United States) as she is known (and they have all been women) hasn’t been codified or defined in US politics. However, it is considered an influential one, and first ladies have had to forge their own path while championing their passion projects.

The term “first lady” wasn’t used for Martha Washington, the wife of the first President George Washington (1789-1797) and the first woman to hold the post. She was known as “Lady Washington”, “the President’s wife” or “Mrs President” and was only posthumously called first lady.

The first time the full title of “The First Lady of the Land” was used was for Frances Cleveland, the wife of President Grover Cleveland (1886-1889), who was only 21 when she came into the role for the first of two separate tenures.

Her successor, Caroline Harrison, who held the position from 1889 to 1892, was also called “First Lady of the Republic.” It wasn’t until Lou Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), arrived at the White House that the title was shortened to first lady.

Who established the Office of the First Lady?

Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt, who held the role from 1901 to 1909, started the custom of hiring her own staff, bringing in a social secretary to manage her engagements.

It wasn’t until Eleanor Roosevelt took up the post – when her husband Franklin D Roosevelt became President in 1933 – that the office was expanded beyond social and administrative secretaries, when she brought in a personal secretary.

Eleanor’s approach to the post wasn’t without its setbacks. Two days after her husband’s 1932 election win, she told a reporter for The Washington Post that she didn’t like the idea of being called first lady, saying: “I never wanted to be a President’s wife and I don’t want it now.”

The office was expanded further by Jackie Kennedy – first lady from 1961 to 1963 – who was the first to employ a press secretary.

It was under Carter that the role became more official and her staff became known as the Office of the First Lady. Carter organised the department into four sections: projects and community liaison; press and research; schedule and advance; and social and personal. She was also the first to add a chief of staff and to move the office to the East Wing of the White House, where it remains today.

It should be noted that not all first ladies are wives of presidents. When a president was unmarried or a widower, he would often ask a female relative to step into the role.

There are nine instances of non-wives taking on the position, including widower Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), who asked his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph to take on the role, and Harriet Lane, who was the niece of President James Buchanan (1857-1861).

What does the First Lady do?

First ladies usually seek to champion initiatives that are close to their heart. For Obama, who held the role from 2009 to 2017, childhood health, girls’ access to education worldwide and the Reach Higher Initiative – aimed at inspiring young people in the US to continue their education beyond high school – were her main focus.

Many first ladies tackled issues that were considered taboo at the time, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s dedication to women's rights and civil rights.

Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson made environmental development and protection her focus, introducing the Highway Beautification Act, which included planting and maintaining roadside areas.

Betty Ford, whose name is synonymous with the Betty Ford Centre, which she founded, was outspoken on issues such as women’s rights, feminism and equal pay. After undergoing a mastectomy in 1974, she raised awareness about breast cancer. Her advocacy work continued after she left office when she talked publicly about her struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse in a bid to remove the stigma around seeking help.

Clinton, who was first lady from 1993 to 2001, made healthcare, welfare reform and international women’s rights her focus. She even moved her office from the East to West Wing of the White House to be nearer where the political decisions were made.

Updated: November 21, 2023, 5:49 AM