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10 Most Influential First Ladies in Modern Times

Every First Lady who moves into the White House brings their unique personalities into the role. For some, they bring attention to a cause they believe strongly in order to make the country a better place. Most are seen as a stabilizing force as they provide emotional support for their husbands as they tackle one of the most difficult, stressful jobs imaginable. Whatever the case may be, each First Lady leaves behind a particular legacy. Here’s a look at 10 First Ladies who used their role to make a difference.

10. Rosalynn Carter

The wife of the 39th president Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn was both a devoted mother (her youngest child Amy was 9 when her father was elected president) and wife. But she didn’t confine herself to the role of hostess. She was very involved politically in the Carter`s administration. In fact, she was her husband’s closest advisor, even sitting in on cabinet meetings. She was an advocate for both women’s rights and civil rights. She also supported initiatives related to mental health. 

9. Laura Bush

In contrast to such First Ladies as Carter and Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush preferred to stay out of her husband George W. Bush’s political affairs and instead focused on being more of a traditional First Lady. She was a librarian by trade, so it makes sense that she advocated literacy. She is responsible for establishing the National Book Festival in 2001. Two decades later, it’s still going strong. 

8. Lady Bird Johnson

Highly educated for a woman of her era, Johnson was a high achiever who actually purposely allowed her high school grades to slip so that she wouldn’t have to give a valedictorian speech. She had experience as a manager and investor, even bankrolling her husband Lyndon B. Johnson’s first congressional race. As First Lady she advocated for improving cities and highways. She was also the second First Lady to insist on her own press secretary. For her efforts, President Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

7. Nancy Reagan

While Nancy Reagan generated some controversy for being out of touch at the beginning of her husband Ronald’s term (she accepted free gifts of expensive designer clothing and spent more than $200,000 on fine China at a time the country was going through a recession) there’s no question that she and the 40th president had a strong bond. She played a major role in some of his diplomatic and personnel decisions. She was seen as pragmatic in her later years, accepting then First-Lady Michelle Obama’s invite to a White House luncheon and not wanting anything to do with Donald Trump. 

6. Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama grew up in a lower-class neighborhood in south Chicago, but had a stable, loving upbringing. Both she and her older brother ended up skipping 2nd grade due to their academic abilities. She received her undergraduate degree from Princeton and law degree from Harvard. As First Lady her initiatives centered on fighting poverty and encouraging fitness and healthy eating. Much like the 44th president, Michelle is a gifted speaker and writer. In 2020 she was named Gallup’s most admired woman in America for the third consecutive year.

5. Betty Ford

Although her husband Gerald — the accidental president who served after Richard Nixon resigned — only served 2 years, the First Lady managed to accomplish a lot in that brief time. A survivor of breast cancer, she brought awareness to this disease. She was also outspoken on a variety of issues including equal pay, abortion, sex, drugs and gun control. She was the first First Lady to publicly announce her battle with alcohol and substance abuse. She established the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California to help others overcome their addictions.

4. Barbara Bush

The wife of one president and the mother to another, Barbara Bush is only the second First Lady to hold that distinction (the other being Abigail Adams). She held a lot of liberal positions including gay rights, civil rights, and access to abortion. Literacy was her major initiative. She established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and even “ghost wrote” a best-selling children’s book on behalf of her beloved Springer Spaniel Millie. 

3. Hillary Clinton

While it’s certainly an understatement to say Clinton was a polarizing figure, anybody who insists on denying her accomplishments is drinking the Kool-Aid. A partner at a prestigious law firm while her husband was governor of Arkansas, the Yale Law graduate had always been ambitious. As First Lady she advocated for a better healthcare system as well as gender equality. After the 42nd president left office, Hillary made history by becoming the first former First Lady to be elected to the Senate. She subsequently served as Secretary of State in the Obama administration and in 2016 became the first woman to be nominated as president from a major political party. 

2. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Kennedy was best known for restoring the White House and creating the beautiful gardens on the property. She was also elegant and fashionable, and she was the first First Lady to have her own press secretary. At the time her husband was serving as president, she was raising two young children. She made it a priority to keep them out of the spotlight and give them as normal an upbringing as possible given the circumstances. 

1. Eleanor Roosevelt

The wife of FDR was far ahead of her time. She is regarded as the most influential first lady. In fact, there have even been suggestions that she was running the country when her husband began experiencing failing health. Eleanor was on the board of the NAACP, helped establish the United Nations after World War II and was the first chairperson of the UN Human Rights Commission at a time when most women were in the kitchen baking stuff.