October 17, 2021
And that's the tee... on the most badass First Ladies in U.S. history
Happy Monday, Feministas. For this installment of “And That’s the Tee”—where we spill the tea on all things empowering and feminist in pop culture and throughout history—we’re reflecting on that old adage: “behind every great man stands a great woman.”
It’s a saying that traces back to the 1940s and to say we’ve come a long way since then would be the understatement of the century… but we could still do a better job of celebrating the women who not only stand behind the great men in history, but stand up and make change from the sidelines.
Traditionally, the job of the First Lady has been ceremonial—organizing and hosting parties and government functions, making public appearances on behalf of the President, performing the role of the lovely and supportive wife. But the women who made this feminist list used their cultural clout and proximity to power to push for legislation, fight for equal rights, and advocate for the what they cared about. So without further ado, we’d like to introduce you to our top five picks for most influential FLOTUS, the unsung heroines of American diplomacy.
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
We know, we know. Our first pick surprises no one. She’s the longest-serving First Lady, fulfilling the role from 1933-1945 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms, and she was one of the first to use the job as a platform for the causes most important to her. Among the many causes she cared most about were civil rights and the rights of women—she believed that everyone deserves access to a quality education and equal employment opportunities.
To advance these ideals, she toured the country, meeting with and offering support to people most affected by the Great Depression, holding press conferences and appearing on radio shows, and even writing a newspaper column called “My Day” six days a week, starting in 1935 and continuing through 1962, well after her time as First Lady.
In it, she kept people informed about what was happening in her own life and in D.C., shared her ideas, and called upon citizens to show up and vote if they cared to make change. At the White House, she also served as one of FDR’s closest advisors, and played a big part in shaping the New Deal as the country dealt with the tragedy of World War II.
When her husband passed away in 1945, she pressed on. She joined the board of directors for the NAACP, encouraged the U.S. to join the United Nations, and then served as its first delegate following WWII, helping draft the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and becoming the first chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission. We could go on and on, but Eleanor Roosevelt’s refusal to sit idly by and let her platform go to waste changed the game for every First Lady that followed, and her dogged advocacy for the rights of others makes her a feminist icon and an easy first in the category of FLOTUS revolutionaries.
2. Betty Ford
Speaking of feminist icons... Betty Ford may go under the radar in history class, but she was an important voice in the women’s rights movement in the mid-seventies, especially in her more progressive stances on abortion rights and gun control. Gerald Ford served as President from 1974-1977, and Betty didn’t waste any time as First Lady. She was known for being very candid in her support for the Equal Rights Amendment, equal pay, and other issues outside of the norm for their otherwise conservative beliefs, believing staunchly that “the search for human freedom can never be complete without freedom of women. “
She was also remarkably open with the public about her own life, including the psychiatric treatment she underwent when she was young, as well as her experience as a survivor of breast cancer and a mastectomy. She brought awareness to these things not for sympathy or attention, but in a clear effort to destigmatize mental illness and raise funds for cancer research. She also opened several clinics offering treatment to those addicted to drugs because, in her own words, “that’s what we’re here on this earth for: to help others.” Amen, FLOTUS.
Throughout her time in the White House, she was undaunted by those who opposed her activism—including many of her husband’s Republican supporters—ultimately earning her Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year award in 1975 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. Not bad, Betty :)
3. Michelle Obama
We all know and love this (s)hero and cultural icon, Michelle Obama. She spent eight years as First Lady from 2009 to 2017 alongside President Barack Obama, supporting his policy initiatives and starting her own. From Let’s Move! and Reach Higher to Let Girls Learn and Joining Forces, her programs aim to reduce childhood obesity, support military families, promote equal access to education and the arts, and raise poverty awareness, respectively. And because her philosophy was to show and not tell, she started an organic garden on the White House lawn—showing the world that healthy eating and sustainability are achievable, even in your own backyard—and was the first First Lady to speak out in support of LGBTQ+ rights.
In style and grace, she rivals Jackie O., and in compassion and humanity, she’s followed in the footsteps of Eleanor Roosevelt, so it’s no wonder that she’s become such an extraordinarily popular role model for young women in this country. You’ve probably heard her quote, “when they go low, we go high,” but here’s another of our favorites from Michelle, that perfectly demonstrates her humanity and strength, and makes her one of our all-time faves among FLOTUS and feminist icons: "when you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you." A.k.a. empowered women empower women :)
4. Lady Bird Johnson
Claudia Alta “Lady Bird" Johnson became First Lady after the death of John F. Kennedy and the swearing in of her husband Lyndon B. Johnson. She had already been a fairly active Second Lady to LBJ as Vice President, which allowed her to hit the ground running when the time came. She was the first FLOTUS to hire her own press secretary and to interact with Congress directly, pushing her agenda around environmental conservation—an early ecofeminist!—and what became the Highway Beautification Act (also known as Lady Bird’s Bill).
This advocacy was rooted in her belief that “where flowers Bloom, so does hope.” In other words, a more beautiful place to live inspires a more beautiful existence, where people can flourish and thrive. For her efforts, she too received some of the highest honors available to an American citizen, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988. Pow-her-ful stuff.
5. Hillary Clinton
As a former U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Presidential candidate (remember when 45 called her a "nasty woman"?!), First Lady is hardly the most impressive role on HRC’s resume, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t make some waves while her husband was in office. She was first in the role with a postgraduate degree and a professional career that she kept until she became FLOTUS and continued afterward, despite being told on the campaign trail that she should have "stayed home and baked cookies.” (We know, our eyes are rolling too.)
Bill Clinton was president from 1993 to 2001, and while he ran the country, Hillary made universal healthcare her mission. In fact, she was so involved in the day-to-day advising and decision making that she moved her office to the West Wing (all of the former First Ladies worked out of the East Wing) to be closer to the action.
And yes, we all know that the Clintons went through a scandal or two while they lived in the White House, but that shouldn't overshadow Hillary's inspiring legacy, especially when it came to helping American women and families. To name just a few of her important feminist projects, she helped create the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice, and was instrumental in passing the Adoption and Safe Families Act as well as the Foster Care Independence Act.
HRC went on to have a major political career of her own, showing that the sky's the limit when it comes to turning the platform of the First Lady into real political power and change.
Final thoughts on the feminist FLOTUS...
Oh, and one quick reminder before we go: none of these women is perfect (who is?!), and we certainly don’t claim to agree with every little thing they’ve said and fought for over the years. What we do believe, whole-heartedly, is that these feminist First Ladies have changed the role for the better, as well as the way women and wives are perceived in society.
So here’s to all of the influential women who choose not to sit idly by when they have the power to do more. And here’s to electing a female President sooner rather than later, so we can start our list of feminist First Gentleman ;)
Thanks for reading, Feministas. See you next week for more of The "F" Word, our weekly newsletter and blog on all things feminist, from activism to fashion and beyond. Want it delivered? Scroll down, sign up, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox.