More than a Hostess: The Role of First Ladies

A study of the country's First Ladies deepens understanding of their role in history.

By Erin Bailey

Martha Washington on the bill

As Presidents’ Day approaches, an interesting twist to studying the holiday is to research the role of the First Lady. Historically, that role has been as the official hostess of the White House. The title, “First Lady,” was not widely used until after the Civil War. Martha Washington was referred to as Lady Washington. Successors were often called Mrs. President or Mrs. Presidentress. It is believed that President Zachary Taylor’s eulogy speech for Dolley Madison popularized the term we commonly use today.

Lessons from Primary Sources

Primary sources, such as letters, are important research tools. Before telephones and e-mail, letters were the preferred mode of correspondence between people. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John about women’s suffrage and a few of these letters are published on the Liz Library, a website for the research of women’s suffrage. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a scathing letter to the Daughters of the American Revolution after they forbade Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall. The letter can be viewed on the National Archives webpage. A letter from Dolley Madison to her sister the day before British soldiers burned the White House can be found at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Read these letters together and pick out the important themes:

  • How can letters be used to understand an issue?
  • How does the information about an event differ between letters and textbooks?
  • What words does the writer use to emphasize her message?

Have your students write a letter to someone about a current event and place it in a time capsule. Afterward, have them predict how their feelings about the topic may change and why.

Connections to Math and Geography

One way to integrate a study of our First Ladies into other curriculum areas is to research where each woman was born. Pupils will discover that an early concentration from the East Coast gradually widened to include Iowa (Mamie Eisenhower), Missouri (Bess Truman), Texas (Lady Bird Johnson and Laura Bush), and California (Pat Nixon).

To integrate geography and mathematics, your class can investigate how First Ladies traveled in the 19th and 20th centuries. From horse and carriage, to automobile, to Air Force One, changes in transportation have meant changes in what it means to be the First Lady. Divide the class into groups and assign a First Lady to each. I suggest you select women from various eras to make a more interesting study:

  • Where might the First Lady need to travel?
  • How would she get there?
  • How long would it take her?

You can have the children assume the following travel speeds:

  • 9 miles per hour by horse and carriage.
  • 40 miles per hour by automobile in the first half of the 20th century.
  • 65 miles per hour in the second half of the 20th century.
  • 600 miles per hour by airplane.

What Did She Stand For?

As the nation grew, so did the role of the First Lady. Most of these women had causes that were dear to them that they promoted with their position. Some of the issues addressed included education and literacy (Barbara Bush and Laura Bush), the care of veterans (Mary Lincoln and Lucy Hayes), racial and gender equity (Eleanor Roosevelt, Lou Hoover, and Betty Ford), and health issues (Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Rosalyn Carter). Have your students select a First Lady and research the causes that she promoted. Then have them create a quilt square to symbolize her accomplishments.  The squares can be joined together and hung in the hallway in March to commemorate Women’s History Month. The White House website offers short biographies for each of the women as does

For more detailed lesson plans, consider these:

Leading Ladies

A New York Times lesson that is geared for middle and secondary learners. Objectives include defining the qualities of a successful First Lady and examining the lives of one of these women. After researching a list of questions, pupils compile their findings into a biography geared for younger grades.

"Lady Washington:" Inventing the First Lady's Role

Intended for secondary grades, this lesson has learners delve into the creation of the role of First Lady from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. They select one First Lady, and after investigating several websites, they are asked to conclude how she filled that role.  Assessment is a written paper and an oral presentation.

The Education of Abigail Powers Fillmore

Elementary children will learn a good bit about the fourteenth President’s wife through learning about education during the nineteenth century. Participants practice research skills as well the synthesize information as they investigate how education was carried out before public schools were common. A list of websites is included to aid in research.

Presidents Picture Book

This is written to celebrate the presidents of the United States. Youngsters read an age-appropriate biography about a president and then draw a picture of him and write one fact on the page. The pages are compiled into a book. Extend the activity to include the First Ladies, and pupils will gain another perspective of the period studied.