7 Fascinating First Lady Facts
(Last Updated On: May 26, 2021)


7 Fascinating First Lady Facts – Around the world, world leaders’ wives are called “First Ladies.” This title also applies to the wives of U.S. presidents. However, there is more to the title than being a wife, and while many of us can name a few of the more memorable first ladies (Martha Washington, Dollie Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama to name a few), who else filled the role of first lady? We found 7 Fascinating First Lady Facts you might find surprising.

1. There were Ten De Facto First Ladies

Several U.S. presidents were bachelors or widowers during their time in office. To maintain the official duties that the first lady usually provides, daughters, sisters, nieces, and even daughters-in-law stepped into the role. These de facto first ladies include:

  • Emily Donelson and Sarah Yorke served during Andrew Jackson’s terms in office.
  • Sarah Angelica Singleton was Martin Van Buren’s daughter-in-law.
  • During William Henry Harrison’s brief tenure (he died 31 days after taking the oath), daughter-in-law Jane Irwin Harrison fulfilled the first lady duties.
  • John Tyler’s first wife, Leticia Christianson, died while he was serving his first and only term in the presidential office. Daughter-in-law Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper stepped into her mother-in-law’s shoes.
  • The first president to have a sister step in as the first lady was Chester Arthur. His wife had died two years before he took his seat in the presidency, so Mary Arthur McElroy performed the first lady’s duties.
  • In the very next administration, the President’s sister, Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, served as Grover Cleveland’s first lady until he married a year into his term.
  • Mary Scott Harrison stepped into her mother’s shoes when Mary Demick Harrison passed away before the end of Benjamin Harrison’s term.
  • The last de facto first lady was Margaret Woodrow Wilson. She fulfilled the duties when her mother, Ellen Axson Wilson, passed a year into President Woodrow Wilson’s term in office.
2. Harriet Rebecca Lane

Actually, there is one more first lady who was not the spouse of the sitting president. The only president to never marry was James Buchanan. During his term, niece Harriet Rebecca Lane took on the official role of the first lady. Since Buchanan never married, Lane is tallied among the official first ladies.

2. One First Lady; Two Separate Terms

In 1885, President Grover Cleveland served his first term in office. His wife, Francis Folsom Cleveland, moved into the White House and began her first lady duties. She is the youngest first lady ever to hold the title, too. Then, during the 1888 election, Cleveland ran as the incumbent against the Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison, and he lost. However, following Harrison’s administration, Cleveland rejoined the campaign trail and won the 1892 election. He and his first lady moved back into the White House.

3. Three First Ladies Married into the Role

Some of the widowed or bachelor presidents took marriage vows during their presidency.

  • Remember Frances Folsom from above? How could you forget? Well, when Grover Cleveland took office the first time, he was a bachelor. However, in 1886, the two wed in a ceremony at the White House. They are the only presidential couple to do so.
  • Before Cleveland’s presidency, however, another president wed while in office. In 1844, widowed John Tyler married Julia Gardiner, making their marriage the first presidential nuptials.
  • In 1914, Woodrow Wilson was in office when his wife Ellen died. A little more than a year later, he and Edith Bolling Galt wed while Wilson was still in office.
4. The First First Lady to Live in the White House

Builders completed the White House in 1800 just in time for John Adams and Abigale Adams to take up residence. However, besides Martha Washington, four more first ladies never lived in the White House.

5. Four First Ladies Who Were Never Able to Fill the Role

Sadly, four first ladies passed away before their husbands took office. Even though they never lived in the White House nor performed any official duties, these women are still considered official first ladies.

  • The first was Martha Jefferson. She died several years before the country elected the author of the Declaration of Independence to the presidency.
  • Just before Christmas of 1828, Rachel Donelson Jackson died. Her husband, Andrew Jackson, took office the following spring.
  • At the young age of 36, Martin Van Buren’s wife, Hannah Hoes Van Buren, died of tuberculosis.
  • Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur died in January of 1880. Chester Arthur continued campaigning and won the election.

Following the deaths of their wives, none of the four presidents remarried.

6. Wife, Mother, Grandmother

Two first ladies were also mothers of presidents. Another first lady was the grandmother of a president, too. Do you know who?

  • Abigail Adams served as the second first lady during President John Adam’s term in office. Then, in 1824, their son John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency.
  • In 1990, George H. W. Bush began his first term in office as the 41st President of the United States alongside his wife, Barbara Pierce Bush. Their son, George W. Bush, was elected as the 43rd president in the 2000 election.
  • When William Henry Harrison took his seat as president in 1841, Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison chose to remain in Indiana. (See Jane Irwin Harrison above.) She may have regretted her decision. Harrison died 31 days into his term, making her the sixth first lady to never live in the White House. However, in 1888, their grandson Benjamin Harrison was elected to the presidency.
7. First Lady Firsts 

Of course, number 7 should be Fascinating First Lady Firsts. First ladies enchant the American People and almost always have. From Martha Washington to Melania Trump, the first ladies’ duties have evolved and changed, usually because the first ladies took action. They are also women of many firsts – beyond being the First Lady.

  • Following James Madison’s presidency, Congress granted the former First Lady Dolley Madison an honorary seat on the floor of Congress.
  • Louisa Adams was born in England, making her the first first lady born in a foreign country.
  • The first first lady to own and drive a car was Helen Taft. She was also the first first lady to support women’s suffrage, among many other less than “lady” like behaviors.
  • Lady-like or not, Florence Harding became the first first lady to vote. She also invited movie stars to the White House for the first time.
  • During her husband’s presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt took a very active role as the first lady. Not only did she hold press conferences, but she also wrote for newspapers and a magazine and hosted a weekly radio show.
  • As First Lady, Hillary Clinton hosted the first White House webcast. Following her husband’s term in office, she also became the first former first lady to hold a public office and run for president.
  • Michelle Obama became the first first lady who was of African-American descent.

Of course, there are more than 7 Fascinating First Lady Facts out there. With nearly 250 years of history, the first ladies have influenced and shaped a nation. What other fun facts do you know?

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