Throughout much of our nation’s history, first ladies have worked in a variety of ways to help improve the lives of others. While some chose causes that were controversial, most have not, but the one thing that most have in common is that they addressed issues of the day.
In Michelle Obama’s open letter to the parents of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary last year, she could have been hinting at a desire to take on a new cause — keeping children safe. And by heeding some of the lessons from her predecessors, the first lady can rise from her well-intentioned children’s vegetable garden and stand for something that literally can keep them alive — tighter gun laws and an increased focus on mental health awareness.
Presidents’ wives have long taken up causes ever since Dolley Madison first used her position in the pseudo-bully pulpit to improve the living conditions of orphans in the nation’s capital following the War of 1812.
Madison was also not afraid to delve into political matters. The “Lady Presidentress,” as she was known by her detractors, often held meetings and luncheons at the White House to discuss political affairs. In fact, the President’s Wife, as first ladies were known then, was dabbling in congressional chatter even prior to her husband’s administration while she acted as part-time hostess for President Jefferson. Her luncheons were dubbed “dove parties” and at them Dolley worked the room while coyly discovering what was going on in Congress, which she immediately reported back to her husband.
First lady Lucy Hayes’s popularity outside the White House did not dovetail with her lack of popularity with dignitaries and certain party guests inside the White House. A proud and defiant leader of the temperance movement, Hayes banned all alcohol from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, earning her the nickname, “Lemonade Lucy.”
First ladies, however, have mostly played it safe. Pre-environmentalist Lady Bird Johnson’s successful Federal Highway Act put in place a “beautification” program, which eliminated junkyards and excessive billboards from public view while promoting wildlife conservation. And though Laura Bush’s devotion to child literacy (like her mother-in-law before her) was the primary focus of her eight years of first ladyship she didn’t always play it safe: Following a trip to Burma in 2007, the first lady frequently spoke out in support of the pro-democracy movement and of freeing Aung San Suu Kyi .
By some estimates Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign was a success, though her slogan was repeatedly mocked. Additionally “Just Say No” became a lead-in to President Reagan’s discriminatory Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that called for heftier sentences for crack users (lower income blacks) as opposed to cocaine users (upper income whites), which dramatically increased the number of incarcerated minorities.
When President Reagan was shot in 1981 in an assassination attempt that also left his press secretary Jim Brady partially and permanently paralyzed, the need for stricter guns laws rose to the surface. Nancy Reagan would later support the Brady Bill, which instituted federal background checks on purchasers of firearms, and was later signed into law by President Clinton twelve years later
Many first ladies chose hard-hitting platforms that still matter today. Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion for civil rights, women’s rights, and tirelessly fought for social programs. And when African-American opera singer Marian Anderson was disallowed a chance to sing for the Daughters of the American Revolution, not only did Roosevelt publicly revoke her membership in the D.A.R. in protest, but she asked Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the White House.
Few first ladies, have had heavier boats to row than Betty Ford and much to her credit, rather than wallowing in the ills that befell her, she rose to the occasion. Ford fearlessly addressed her psychiatric treatments, her breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy, and — most famously — her battle with substance abuse. She was an outspoken proponent for the Equal Rights Amendment and, in a time when the subject was even more divisive than it is now, was staunchly pro-choice.
The subject of mental health wasn’t popular in the 1970s, but Rosalynn Carter had long been a banner-waver for the cause even when she was first lady of Georgia. During her husband’s governorship, Mrs. Carter increased the number of mental health facilities ten-fold. During the final few months of the Carter administration, the first lady, testifying in congress, fought for legislation to increase, and improve, mental health clinics. (It should be noted, however, that President Regan defunded the program only months into his first term.)
In Mrs. Obama’s letter, which was published in The Hartford Courant a week following the massacre, she wrote:
“And I want you to know that this is just the beginning. As my husband has said, in the coming weeks, he will use all the powers of his office to engage citizens from across this country to find ways to prevent tragedies like this one. And please know that every minute of every day, we are thinking of you, and praying for you, and holding you and your families in our hearts as you begin the slow and wrenching work of healing and moving forward.”