8 First Ladies Who Kicked Ass

While they didn't work out of the Oval Office, the lives and accomplishments of some U.S. First Ladies have been felt the world over. Some first ladies were great hostesses, and others were loving mothers, but for President's Day, we highlight eight presidential spouses who truly kicked ass in their time.
By: Michelle Garcia
February 19 2013 5:00 AM

We all know the old adage: Behind every good man, there's a good woman. The same could be said for the 44 men who have led the United States in times of victory and darkness, prosperity and depression. While they didn't work out of the Oval Office, the lives and accomplishments of some U.S. First Ladies have been felt the world over. Some first ladies were great hostesses, and others were loving mothers, but for President's Day, we highlight eight presidential spouses who truly kicked ass in their time.

First Lady Dolley Payne Todd Madison (1809 – 1817)

We all know Dolley Madison loved ice cream, but Madison is credited with preserving early artifacts of American history. During the War of 1812, as the British approached Washington, D.C., Madison refused to leave the White House without saving as many historically significant items as possible. The White House may have been destroyed, but Madison ensured that George Washington's famous portrait and other valuables were safe from fire.

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First Lady Sarah Polk (1845 – 1849)

Polk was a conversationalist, as illustrated in this little gem: “If I get into the White House, I will neither keep house nor make butter.” Known for her passion for politics, she loved to talk politics with male political figures like Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Pierce, instead of talking over tea and biscuits with the ladies. Polk was even known to write her husband's speeches and correspondence.

 

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First Lady Helen “Nellie” Herron Taft (1909 – 1913)

Nellie Taft was radical in ways that we take for granted today. She was the first presidential spouse to ride a vehicle in the Inaugural Parade with her husband, viewed by many as showing her support for the suffragette movement. During her time in the White House, she hired black men as uniformed ushers, a prestigious position reserved only for whites. She also lifted the ban on divorced people, who were previously shirked from White House event guest lists. She was also pals with Walter Loving, a musician and African-American composer. Nellie even drew criticism when she announced that she would allow alcohol to be served at events, but she didn't back down, even when facing bad press and protests. An early proponent of unions, she was elected women's division honorary national chair of the National Civil Federation, where she stumped for workplace reforms and fairness.

 

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First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1915 – 1921)

Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith Wilson, took over for her husband after he suffered a stroke in 1919. And when he returned to the Oval Office, She essentially became his chief of staff, requiring all correspondence, and requests to go through her before reaching his desk.

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First Lady Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt (1933 – 1945)

Eleanor had the upbringing of your typical turn-of-the-century socialite with debutante balls and the best schooling available to her. Instead, influenced by her cousin and president Theodore Roosevelt, she defied he roots by embracing the early labor moment. She eventually married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano, but Eleanor took care of the New York Governor and Navy Secretary as he suffered paralysis. She somehow found time to lead and contribute to several organizations, including the Women's City Club of New York and Women's Trade Union League. By the time she became the First Lady of the United States, Roosevelt was already highly accomplished, but she continued her work in humanitarianism, race relations, and labor. Roosevelt was even a regular Maddowesque media figure for decades and even became a board member of the NAACP, despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

 

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First Lady Pat Nixon (1969 – 1974)

Like Nellie Taft, Nixon was First Lady during a time of revolution for women. She was even fairly progressive and despite her husband being THAT Richard Nixon. First of all, she was the first First Lady to publicly wear pants. Secondly, she was the first Republican First Lady to address the national convention during her husband's 1972 re-election campaign, shaping the way political spouses address their party's conventions. As the country was debating the fate of abortion laws, Nixon was a vocal pro-choice advocate before Roe. v. Wade. And when it came time to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court, Nixon appealed to her husband -- publicly and privately -- to appoint a woman, years before the first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, made the bench.

 

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First Lady Hillary Clinton (1993 – 2001)

After a run for the president, a term in the U.S. Senate and with her current post as Secretary of State, it's easy to forget that Hillary Clinton was a First Lady. But even during her time in office, she was derided by the right for being too radical, and too involved in her husband's presidency. Sure she backtracked a little, and all eyes were on her during that whole Monica Lewinsky/impeachment trial thing, but she's bounced back and forged a new path for herself, not backing away from her passion for advocating for women and children. Not only has she won a Grammy (for the audio version of her book, It Takes a Village), but she also does not apologize for wearing the pantsuit in the family.

 

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First Lady Michelle Obama (2009 – Present)

Her style, her success, her triceps -- Michelle Obama is a modern woman who happens to also be married to the President of the United States. Not only does our current First Lady care deeply for American's Middle Class, and our children's health, she can literally kick your ass on a basketball court, or court room.

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