By: Sydney Kovach
As we reflect this #PresidentsDay, JCI Worldwide celebrates influential and powerful First Ladies that broke traditional conceptions of what a First Lady should be. Despite having a major impact on Americans' lives, these women's work often goes unnoticed and underappreciated.
Granting her access to classified documents and secret wartime codes, Woodrow Wilson entrusted Edith to advise him on some of his most important decisions, including those made in World War I. Towards the end of the war, Edith went with her husband to help negotiate and sign the Treaty of Versailles. Not long after, Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke, preventing him from carrying out the duties of his office by himself. Against advisors' wishes, Edith refused to let her husband step down, as she thought it would make him depressed. Edith quickly stepped in to ensure the executive branch of the government was functioning, pre-reading all policy papers and pending decisions before she read them out loud to Woodrow. Until the end of her husband's term in 1921, Edith effectively ran the executive branch of the government.
As her husband Franklin grew his political career, Eleanor Roosevelt also established her own voice in public service. Unsatisfied with the traditional expectations of a first lady, Eleanor dramatically altered the role when her husband was sworn in as President in 1933. Eleanor hosted all-female press conferences, spoke out against inequality, advocated for children's and women's issues, and worked on behalf of the League of Women Voters. She also wrote her own newspaper column entitled, "My Day" and traveled abroad to visit U.S. troops. After her husband passed away in 1945, President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, where she became chair of the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission and helped to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A few years later, President John F. Kennedy reappointed her to the U.S. delegation to the U.N., and eventually appointed her as chair of the President's Commission on the Status of Women and to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps.
Elizabeth Anne “Betty” Ford:
Elizabeth Anne Bloomer studied modern dance in college and eventually joined the prestigious Martha Graham Dance Company in New York City. Before marrying Gerald Ford, Betty also supported herself as a fashion model for the John Robert Powers firm. She brought authenticity to the White House, discussing vulnerable topics including her radical surgery for breast cancer in 1974. Betty once said, “maybe if I as First Lady could talk about it candidly and without embarrassment, many other people would be able to as well.” Moreover, she was not hesitant to speak out about controversial issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, which she fervently supported. After her husband left the White House in 1977, Betty brought attention to Americans’ struggles with addiction, discussing her successful battle against drug and alcohol dependency. She later helped establish the Betty Ford Center for treatment at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.
After graduating from Harvard Law, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson worked as an associate in the Chicago branch of the firm Sidley Austin. While working at the firm, she met Barack Obama, a summer intern she advised. In 1991, she left corporate law to pursue public service, where she became a Chicago city administrator and community outreach worker. During her time as first lady, Michelle focused on supporting military families, empowering women, emphasizing the importance of education, and encouraging healthy living. In 2009 she planted an 1,100-square-foot garden of fresh vegetables and beehives on the South Lawn of the White House. A few years later in 2012, Michelle announced a new fitness program for kids as part of her Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity.
Dr. Jill Biden:
After marrying Joe in 1977, Jill Biden worked as an English teacher at St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington, Delaware, later teaching at a psychiatric hospital while working towards a master's degree in education at West Chester State College (now West Chester University of Pennsylvania). In 1991 she earned another master's degree in English from Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She eventually became a professor at Delaware Technical Community College, where she taught from 1993 to 2008. At the same time, Jill earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware in 2007. Once her husband was sworn in as vice president in 2009, Jill became a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, being the first wife of the vice president to continue her paying job during her husband's time in office. During her time off, she worked with the Obama administration to support community colleges and the families of members of the military. She is now the first wife of a sitting U.S. president to hold a paying job outside the White House.