Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 1809-1817

 

Dolley Payne Madison, by Gilbert Stuart, 1804

Courtesy of White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

 

Dolley Madison was the smiling public face and goodwill ambassador of the Madison administration. A popular figure in fiercely partisan Washington society, she used her skills as a hostess to win support for the president and to mute opposition.

 

Political party members in bitter opposition to each other found that the atmosphere in the first lady’s drawing room encouraged conversation and cooperation. Her celebrated weekly receptions became the perfect place to meet and do business and established the political importance of the White House hostess.

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Edith Carow Roosevelt, 1901-1909

 

Edith Carow Roosevelt, by Théobald Chartran, 1902

Courtesy of White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

 

Edith Roosevelt’s managerial approach was an important step toward defining the first lady’s duties as a real job requiring professional support. In order to make more time for her family, Mrs. Roosevelt handled her White House responsibilities in a businesslike style, setting guidelines and delegating details to paid experts.

 

The chief usher supervised the domestic staff and caterers organized menus. A government-salaried social secretary dealt with correspondence and partydetails and implemented the first lady’s newly developed strategy for managing press interest in her children.

 

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Claudia Lady Bird Taylor Johnson, 1963-1969

 

Claudia (Lady Bird)  Johnson, by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, 1968

Courtesy of White House Collection

 

Lady Bird Johnson wanted to be a “useful first lady.” As committed as the president to his administration’s Great Society domestic agenda, she identified the portions where she felt she could make the best personal contribution. She made “beautification” her signature project and expanded her East Wing staff to support it and to support War on Poverty projects.

 

It was the first time a first lady blended herself so seamlessly into the goals of the presidential administration.

 

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Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861-1865

 

Mary Todd Lincoln, by Mathew Brady, 1862

 

Mary Lincoln had been first lady for just over a month when Fort Sumter, South Carolina, was attacked on April 12 and the Civil War began. With the country in crisis it was more important than ever to reassure both the American people and foreign governments that the Union would prevail.

 

Believing that the White House and the first lady would be symbols of the Union and its cause,    Mrs. Lincoln constructed a schedule of entertaining and charitable work meant to instill confidence.

 

Changing Times, Changing First Ladies

 

Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt, and Lady Bird Johnson are four of the first ladies who fashioned their own ways of handling the White House, families, parties, and politics. Over different times and circumstances they crafted significant roles for themselves that they believed would allow them to best serve the president and the country.