Who is a First Lady?

Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama
Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama in 2009 at a White House luncheon.

Official White House Photo/ Samantha Appleton

"I hope someday someone will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wife of the president, and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and the controbutions she makes." - Harry S. Truman


Who is this entity we call "First Lady"? Since 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated as the first United States president, our society has struggled with a title to describe the role of a presidential wife. A uniquely American institution, names like Presidentress, Mrs. President, Lady Ladyship, First Ladyship, and First Lady have been used to describe the position. Never declared an official government duty, the role of the First Lady has evolved into its own active, prominent position, as she performs duties and services recognized throughout the world.

A director of social affairs, presidential liaison, symbol of strength, policy advocate, political reformer, keeper of "the People's House," partner, and confidant, the First Ladies of the United States have taken on numerous roles throughout American history. As the cultural milieu shifted, so did the expectations and responsibilities of a first lady.

The extent of the activities, power, and influence of any first lady has been determined by each of these women and her spouse, based on the talent and desires of the first lady and the political and social climate of the era. While their choices may have been guided by political considerations and the evolving role of women in American society, whatever roles first ladies have assumed each contributed to the larger history of the American presidency in their own way.

 
Official portrait of Dr. Jill Biden

Current First Spouse

Wife of President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden is the current First Lady of the United States.

Portrait of Ida McKinley holding fan

Ida McKinley

Ida McKinley proved to be influential in her role as First Lady, despite frequent hardship and history's portrayal of her as an invalid.

Portraits of Abigail Adams, Mary Lincoln, Edith Wilson, Mamie Eisenhower, and Barbara Bush

First Ladies of the United States

Over 48 women have held the role of First Lady as of 2021. Who are they?

Last updated: May 20, 2021

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