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Partner in Chief: Three First Ladies Who Redefined the Role

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First Lady Michelle Obama is making bold moves lately, and we don’t just mean her hair-whipping boogie-down on the White House lawn. She sparked a heated national debate recently when she broke precedent by inviting a rapper to read at a White House poetry event. She also scored a big victory for her campaign to end childhood obesity in January when she convinced the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, to eliminate trans fats and reduce sugar and sodium in its packaged foods. All of this just a few months after Forbes named her the most powerful woman in the world and after Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, and General Mills pledged to lower the calorie content of their foods at her behest.

Like all presidential spouses before her, Michelle is navigating a tricky role in the White House. The First Lady has no official job description and no constitutional mandate; precedent is her only guideline, and historically, the most common role for wives of the commander in chief has been White House hostess and perennial fashion plate. Though the role has evolved over the years, with many adopting causes of their own, few first ladies have had the moxie to shake things up and act as a transformative political force in their own right. Michelle, an Ivy League–educated lawyer and successful community organizer, is doing just that, adding her name to a list of trailblazing women who dared to be ambitious in the White House and forced the country to rethink what it meant to be the president’s first mate. Check out these other presidential partners who revolutionized the role.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1933–1945
Eleanor Roosevelt described herself as the “ears and legs” of her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but history revealed her to be much, much more. She was primarily concerned with human rights and the plight of the disadvantaged, something she made known in her daily column, “My Day,” which chronicled her travels around the nation and kept the public up to date on White House policies, and was syndicated in 180 newspapers nationwide. She became the first First Lady to testify before a congressional committee and caused a ruckus in 1939 when she stepped down from her role with the Daughters of the American Revolution to protest its decision to not allow a black singer to perform at Constitution Hall.

Her husband died while in office, but Eleanor’s commitment did not: she went on to be elected chairperson for the Commission of Human Rights at the newly formed United Nations in 1946 and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights two years later. Eleanor’s contributions to civil rights and world peace earned her a place as of one of the greatest humanitarians of her time.

Rosalynn Carter 1977–1981
Rosalynn Carter’s impressive accomplishments as First Lady often fly under the radar—possibly because she downplayed the glamorous parts of the job in favor of the nitty-gritty—but Rosalynn was one of the most overtly political of all U.S. presidential spouses. She broke with precedent by declaring an agenda of her own while on the campaign trail—to reform legislation on behalf of the mentally ill. She also set a tone in sharp contrast to two of her predecessors, Jackie Kennedy and Pat Nixon, who largely stuck to beautification projects—both of themselves and the White House—by wearing an old gown on inauguration day.

Within a month of taking office, Rosalynn was appointed Active Honorary Chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, and in that role, she helped draft the Mental Health Systems Act, which was passed into law in 1980. In 1977, she broke another precedent and sparked controversy when she toured Central and South America, sans husband, to meet with heads of state and discuss—in Spanish—weighty issues of human rights, drug trafficking, nuclear energy, and weaponry.

Rosalynn remains active in humanitarian efforts to this day as cofounder of the Carter Center and has kept mental health in the spotlight by writing numerous books on the topic.

Hillary Rodham Clinton 1993–2001
Unlike her predecessor Nancy Reagan, who famously said, “My life really began when I married my husband,” Hillary was a political force to be reckoned with long before she met Bill. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1969 with a degree in political science and then went on to pursue a law degree at Yale, where she served on the editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action. She served as staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund and later joined Rose Law Firm as the first female partner, a position she held throughout her tenure as First Lady of Arkansas.

Once in the White House, Hillary showed the nation that she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty by taking on the controversial issue of universal health care as head of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. Hillary was the first First Lady to hold a postgraduate degree and was the first to move her office out of the East Wing, where first ladies traditionally set up shop, and into the West Wing, where the boys play.

After her stint as First Lady, Hillary became the first female senator to represent New York and is currently serving as secretary of state for the Obama administration. When Bill was campaigning in 1992, he said voters would get “two for the price of one” if they elected him. If Hillary’s precedent-breaking record is any indication, we may someday see that twofer in the Oval Office again—just be sure to call him Mr. First Man. 


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