The Most Influential First Ladies in U.S. History


As a proud wife whose husband serves as the leader of the free world, being the first lady is one of the toughest jobs around. America’s first ladies have filled social, educational, and political roles since the beginning, helping to bring justice to causes that serve the American people. Here are a few examples of some inspirational women who have helped shape the world.


1. Betty Ford

When President Richard Nixon resigned and made Vice President Gerald Ford the acting president, First Lady Betty Ford stepped into her role. From 1974 to 1977, Ford took on many controversial issues of the day and assumed strong stances on equal pay, feminism, sex, abortion, drugs, the Equal Rights Amendment, and gun control. She rallied behind the Equal Rights Amendment and lobbied for its passage. She fought hard for women’s rights which led to her being named Time magazine’s Woman of the Year. In the late 1970s, Betty Ford faced the battle of her life. Her struggle with addiction came to the surface after the Ford family staged an intervention and forced her to confront her dependency on alcohol and pain pills. She entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital for drug and alcohol rehabilitation and through the experience realized she had the power to do some good. In 1982, she helped establish the Betty Ford Center. She became dedicated to helping all people, with a special focus on women suffering from a chemical dependency. This led her to understand the connection between drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. From there, she went on to vocalize her support for gay and lesbian rights in the workplace, speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage. Betty Ford passed away in 2011, leaving behind a legacy of bravery, compassion, and perseverance.


2. Hillary Clinton

Before she was secretary of state, a U.S. senator from New York, and the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton served as first lady from 1993 – 2001. She transformed the role of the traditional first lady to become a major player in American politics. Before becoming the first lady, Clinton had a long history of breaking down barriers. She graduated from Wellesley College and then went on to Yale Law School. Clinton secured a grant and went to work for what would become the Children’s Defense Fund due to her interest in how the law affected children. After she married Bill, she accepted an offer from President Carter to serve as chair of the Legal Services Corporation. She did amazing work chairing the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee, conducting studies on teacher performance and academic testing, and recommending ways to overhaul the state system. Her work was so important to her that she established her own office in the West Wing. Within the first five days of stepping into the White House, Bill named her head the President’s Task Force on Health Care Reform. She ended up becoming the third first lady to testify before Congress, appearing before the House Committee on Health Insurance Reform. She helped raise awareness about the rising problem of uninsured Americans and as one of her greatest accomplishments, she initiated the children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997; a federal effort that provided state support for those children whose parents were unable to provide them with health coverage. She tackled women’s equality, adoption reform, human rights, and continued to take on an important advisory role all throughout her time as first lady.


3.Michelle Obama

As if being a lawyer, University of Chicago dean, and a mother weren’t enough, Michelle Obama became the first African-American first lady in 2009. When she refers to her time at the White House and her accomplishments, she calls it the “Greatest Honor of My Life.”  Her message from the beginning was always about empowerment and education. She became a role model for all women, an advocate for poverty awareness, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating. From the start, she worked with local elementary school students to plant a 1,100-square-foot vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House and then started the Let’s Move! Initiative. In 2011, she co-founded the Joining Forces program which helped to expand educational and employment options for veterans as well as raise awareness about the difficulties military families currently face. Michelle Obama pioneered the movement of engaging people through social media. Her achievements gave her the ability to reach the younger generation, leading by example and showing how to be all-around, good human.

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