A recent piece I wrote in The Mirror was concerned with the presidential portraits and what we could learn from them. Yet I was motivated to learn more about the other side of the president—the first lady and her role in defining the position. I was intrigued to learn that those who held the title of First Lady of the United States, were just as capable as their husbands and managed to carve their names into history as well. Still riding on the emotions of our own country’s election, and as the old idiom tells us, “behind every great man is a great woman,” the following are three first ladies whose careers I thought deserved to be mentioned. 

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams is probably one of my favorite figures in American history, and was the wife of John Adams, the second president of the United States. She played a very active role in the founding of the new, young republic.

It is sometimes difficult to separate John and Abigail from each other because of the nature of their relationship. Where other couples’ roles were defined, theirs were blended. They each relied upon each other for advice and intellectual stimulation. Together they ardently participated in the politics of the new nation. Being more liberal than many of their colleagues, the Adams family never owned slaves and found the whole institution repulsive. Abigail Adams was John Adams’ closest political advisor; they shared and respected each other’s opinions, as can be seen from their correspondence. She served as first lady from 1797 to 1801.

Abigail Adams was an early advocate for women’s rights in holding property. In a letter to her husband she wrote, “remember the ladies… Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.” She desired women to be represented in the management of the new nation, which was of course consistent with the dialogue of a nation built on human rights. However, her rally for full representation would not be answered until two centuries later. 

Her portrait, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1801, depicts her at a later stage in life. She is dressed in the traditional outfit of the day, yet there is certain determined tenderness to her expression. Her lips are pursed, as if patiently waiting to prove her point in a debate, yet it is clear that she respected the social norms of her time. 

Abigail Adams died in 1818 at the age of 73, from typhoid disease. She is buried beside her husband and their son, John Quincy Adams. Her last recorded words were: “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.”

Eleanor Roosevelet

As the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor served as first lady from 1933 to 1945, however her career spans much longer than that. Eleanor Roosevelt was a political activist for women’s rights, and was a representative of the United States in the United Nations after World War II, continuing her advocacy for human rights. 

Eleanor’s life was marked with hardship and struggle early on. She lost both of her parents at a young age. She then went on to attend boarding school where the seeds of her future activism were planted. Her marriage to the future president, Franklin D Roosevelt, began in 1905,  and was one filled with struggle too. She dealt with both her mother-in-law’s dominating presence and her husband’s affair later in the marriage. Eleanor found a passion in politics and public life, and was the one who persuaded her husband to run for office, even after his paralysis. In his place she remained active on the political scene, gave speeches and completely reshaped the role of a First Lady of the United States of America. After her, the position was transformed to one of activism alongside the president. Eleanor used her platform for reform that would benefit those who were disenfranchised in society.

During her 12 year tenure as first lady, she gave a light to issues never before regarded, such as those faced by women and minority groups, paying special attention to child welfare and the plight of the poor and displaced. These issues were brought to the public eye through her widely popular column called “My Day,” in which she wrote about her experiences travelling the country and meeting these minority groups. 

After her husband’s death, Eleanor was appointed the first delegate to the United Nations by President Truman and had an active role in preparing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Her portrait is an impressive testimonial to her life’s work. It was painted by Douglas Chandor in 1949, and places her in the center of a blue themed canvas. What I find most thought-provoking and unique about the portrait is the focus on her hands and face. We get four different facial expressions from Eleanor—one of laughter, pensive thinking, ardent listening and professionalism. Those are probably the best qualities for a leader, and it explains why so many people looked up to her. Along with her face, we also see her hands at work, which is a metaphor for her work ethic and achievements. We get a glimpse into her hobby of knitting through the depiction of her hands, which are also painted taking off her glasses and holding on to her ring.

Eleanor Roosevelt died at the age of 78, in 1962, leaving behind a life dedicated towards public good, earning her the title “First Lady of the World” from Harry Truman. She is buried at the family home in Hyde Park, and in her obituary, the New York Times said she was “the object of almost universal respect.”

Betty Ford

Although being the wife of, arguably, one of the most inconsequential presidents, Gerald Ford, Betty Ford followed in Eleanor Roosevelt’s footsteps in utilizing the power of her position to spread social awareness of taboo topics in 1970s America. 

Betty served as first lady from 1974 to 1977, after her husband assumed the presidency following Nixon’s resignation. She used her own life experiences to talk about issues that many Americans could relate to, but did not previously have anyone in a position of power who could relate to their struggles. After her mastectomy, she was praised for raising breast cancer awareness in the public eye, and she even tackled the drug abuse problem in America when she revealed to the public her own struggle with alcoholism and rehabilitation. At the time, she was noted as being one of the most vocal first ladies because of her tendency to take a stance on almost every controversial issue of the day, including the Equal Rights Ammendment, abortion, women’s rights, the feminist movement, drug abuse and gun control. 

In 1982, after her husband’s term in office, she founded the “Betty Ford Center,” where she served on the Board of Directors. This is a rehabilitation destination for individuals struggling with drug addiction that is still in operation today. 

Her portrait is a more traditional take on her outgoing political style. It was painted in 1977 by Felix de Cossio. In it, Betty has a humble smile, yet there is a busy atmosphere to the calm blue veneer. She faces the viewer of the portrait with an empathetic gaze, one that almost says, “I’ve been there, I got through it, and so will you.”

Betty Ford died in 2011, at the age of 93, leaving behind a legacy of social activism. She summed up the power of her role as first lady with this lasting quote: “Not my power, but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help.”

As we have seen, first ladies often carry as much weight, if not more, than their presidential spouses. They too are the main characters in politics, for where the president goes, the first lady is not far behind. These women have shown us how very influential they were in the history of our country and how wrong it would be to overlook them. Through their portraits, we may understand the women behind the canvases, how they dealt with the society of their time and how those seeking political power may learn from them.

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