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First Ladies and Fashion

First Ladies and Public Projects, Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower

Mary Todd Lincoln and Slavery

The Women's Christian Temperance Union and the two wives of Woodrow Wilson

First Ladies and Public Projects, Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower

Martha Washington was known by those veterans of the American Revolution who were suffering from poverty or starvation or other difficulties as a benevolent figure who sought to help them with either charitable donations or referring them to those who could do so.

Abigail Adams, as reflected in her letters to her husband, implored him to always consider the rights of women, including access to equal public education, although she suported no specific institiution in line with this.

Dolley Madison became a patroness of the Washington Female Orphans Asylum, an orphanage that took in young girls, by not only donating money and lending her name, but donating a cow for fresh dairy foods for the children, and even volunteering by cutting and sewing their uniforms; as the wife of Jefferson's Secretary of State, she also led a Washington effort to gather the hundreds of necessities required by Lewis and Clark as they began their western exploration.

Louisa Adams, as a former First Lady, aided her husband - then elected to Congress - in circulating letters and publications advocating for the abolition of slavery.

Julia Tyler became a public supporter of her husband's joint resolution to make Texas a state, encouraging statesmen to include references to "Tyler and Texas" in their toasts at public events, and also lobbying through letters to her political contacts in New York

Margaret Taylor became an honorary member and supporter of the Sunday School Union, an organization of church groups that educated children in religious subjects on Sunday mornings.

Abigail Fillmore aided her husband in creating the first permanent reference library of the White House

Harriet Lane, the niece and hostess of her bachelor uncle, James Buchanan, became an advocate for the protection of Native American Indians living on reservations.

Mary Lincoln became a supporter and contributor of the Freedman's Bureau, an organization which helped find housing, education and employment for freed African-American slaves

Lucy Hayes supported several institutions that aided orphans, the education of Native American and African American girls, and Civil War veterans

Frances Cleveland was a board member and active organizer of the Washington Club, a charitable group that aided indigent African-American children of Washington, D.C. As a graduate of the women's institution Wells College, she served as a board member there for many years and also helped to found the New Jersey College for Women

Caroline Harrison became the first president-general of the Daughters of the American Revolution, then more of a women's political organization, and also supported the founding and funding of the new Johns Hopkins Medical School on the promise of the school admitting women students.

Ida McKinley headlined a fundraising effort to benefit the widows and children of those servicemen killed during the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine, which prompted the Spanish-American War. She also helped in job placement and career promotions for single, widowed or divorced women who had to support themselves.

Edith Roosevelt sent contributions to Jacob Riis, the prominent New York reformer who helped alleviate the suffering of immigrant families who lived in cramped tenaments. She oversaw the 1902 renovation of the White Hosue and helped to create the ground floor hallway as a gallery of portraits of past First Ladies.

Helen "Nellie" Taft became the first First Lady to publicly advocate and prove successful in lobbying for federal legislation - a presidential order to executive departments which created health and safety standards and regulations in the federal workplace, passed in March of 1912.

Ellen Wilson successfully lobbied Congress for passage of a bill which demolished the unsanitary and unsafe housing around the U.S. Capitol Building, although to much criticism it did not provide for any relocation of the displaced families.

Edith Wilson, First Lady during World War I, led the nation's home in food and fuel rationing programs by insitututing the limits in the White House, and aided Red Cross fundraising efforts, including permitting sheep to graze on the White House lawn and their wool shorn and auctioned to raise funds. She also became the first First Lady to serve as honorary president of the Girl Scouts, a tradition which continues.

Florence Harding was a highly outspoken and forceful advocate of humane treatment of animals, anti-vivisection of animals, and care for neglected, abused and abandoned animals, doing so through interviews, in correspondence, and at public events. She called into question some public laws that harmed sea animals on federal property. She was secondly, a strong national leader on behalf of the care and rehabilitation of wounded and disabled World War I veterans, visiting and making inspections of federal veterans' hospitals, involving herself in the internal affairs of the then newly-formed Veteran's Bureau and acting as a point of reference for veterans and their families to whom concerns and problems could be sent for resolution. Finally, she also was an outspoken advocate for the economic, political and social equality of women, encouraging the creation of women's political groups, sponsoring events at the White House that highlighted women's abilities and talents, encouraging the increase of women in the professional workplace and the inclusion of young women in all forms of sports and physical competitions.

Grace Coolidge, a former teacher of the deaf, led a national capital campaign to create a foundation for the Clarke School of the Deaf in Northhampton, Massachusetts where she herself had trained. She also successfully influenced Congress to pass a bill which permitted the White House to accept and solicit antiquities for its permanent collection.

Lou Hoover was national president of the Girl Scouts and used this position to rally troops of the young women to aid in neighborhood efforts and civic drives intended to alleviate some of the suffering that resulted from the Great Depression.

Eleanor Roosevelt was involved in numerous efforts and projects that sought to aid a wide variety of constituencies in a wide variety of ways. Besides supporting traditional charities like the Salvation Army, Campfire Girls and the Red Cross, she also took on the various projects, programs and lobbying efforts of the disenfranchised and unemployed World War I veterans, African-Americans employed in domestic work, women and African-Americans seeking employment with the federal government, student unions, European refugees, coal miners and their families, U.S. servicemen during World War II stationed in the South Pacific and Europe. She was also instrumental in the creation of various New Deal programs, most specifically the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the National Relief Agency. She became the first First Lady to assume a federal post, serving as the working but unsalaried co-chair of the Office of War Preparedness. She also assumed full responsibility for a federal experiment in creation of new housing and industry called "Arthurdale" located in West Virginia.

Bess Truman lent her name to traditional charities such as the March of Dimes, USO, Red Cross, Girl Scouts, Muscular Dystrophy and Cerebral Palsy.

Mamie Eisenhower served as both a local Washington and national leader of the Heart Fund, which annually raised money for new research and efforts to combat heart disease. She also helped to establish a retirement home for the widows of career military men.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Slavery

Image courtesy
Library of Congress
© 2004 Jone Lewis

Prior to her relocation to live with her sister Elizabeth Edwards and her husband Ninian Edwards in Springfield, in the "free state" (meaning no slavery permitted) of Illinois - and her subsequent marriage and life there to Abraham Lincoln, the former Mary Todd lived where she had been born, in Lexington, Kentucky.

In the household of her father Robert Todd, a prominent attorney of substantial property, there were African-American slaves working for the family. She did not and never would technically own a slave herself but as a young woman she would have been assisted by slaves in her daily life. What is also known about those early years, however, is that she was able to view the town area where slaves were publicly sold in Lexington from somewhere within the Todd home - many accounts claim it was her childhood bedroom window.

Witnessing the sale of human beings this way affected her permanent view of human bondage and made her a rabid abolitionist, seeing the slavery issue only in human terms and not those of economics or politics. It was an issue of such passion to her that she insisted on later taking her husband to see what she viewed as the evil of slave trade when he joined her in a visit to her family. She was also greatly influenced by her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Humphries who was a white woman known among the secret circle of Lexington abolitionists to be part of the "Underground Railroad." Thus, the home of Mary Todd's beloved grandmother was an apparent "safe house," a known place where slaves who escaped from bondage and fled towards the border to enter the "free state" region knew they could find safe haven in the home of Mrs. Humphries. Since the escaped slaves were legal property and breaking the law by running for their freedom, Mary Todd's grandmother risked legal proscecution for abetting "contraband" to live by her principals.

In many of the later accounts of not only Mary Lincoln's letters but first-hand recollections of conversations with her, she expressed a heated hatred of slavery and considered the emancipation proclamation to be the greatest poltiical act in her lifetime. In the White House, her closest confidante was her seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. Mrs. Keckly was a former slave who had managed to buy her own freedom.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union and the two wives of Woodrow Wilson

There is no evidence at all that either Ellen Axson Wilson or Edith Bolling Galt Wilson were either advocates of temperance or members or supporters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. It is known that during the 1912 election, when it was reported that Ellen Wilson approved of women being able to smoke cigarettes, she personally handed out copies of her written denial of this inaccuracy to reporters, declaring that she disliked smoking by both genders. Cigarette smoking by both men and women was one of the "sins" against which the WCTU also campaigned. In that sense one could perhaps stretch to say Ellen Wilson "supported sentiments against tobacco use as advocated by the WCTU." There is no mention in either her public press coverage or private papers to suggest she either opposed alcohol consumption or prohibited it being served to herself, her family and her guests.

The same is true of Wilson's second wife Edith. Although the Wilsons were in the White House when the 18th Amendment was passed, it was during the tense time of his partial recovery from his devastating stroke and her efforts to keep the apparatus of the presidency functioning from his sickroom. They did no entertaining at all, save for a later, brief welcome to the King and Queen of Belgium at which tea was served. As far as their personal use, there is no indication that they imbibed in alcoholic beverages, although it was quite common for doctors at the time to prescribe a shot of whiskey as a stimulant in some instances and this may have been the case with President Wilson. You might consult some of the more recent works published on the topic of his illness if you wish to investigage this further, including Phyllis Lee Levin's book, Edith & Woodrow, published in 2001 by Simon and Schuster. Edith Wilson, of course, long outlived her husband who died in 1924, three years after his presidency ended. Although Prohibition remained the law of the land, the widowed Mrs. Wilson quite openly served alcohol to her guests at the Wilson House on S Street. She was also, apparently, someone who enjoyed a stiff drink herself: she was widely known among her friends to prefer the brand Virginia Gentleman whiskey. Whether it was because the name conjured up images of her late husband or late father - both of whom were born in that state, or because of the alcohol content - we don't know!

One last observation on all this. The only two First Ladies known to have been "teetotalers" were Lucy Hayes and Frances Cleveland, and neither formally allied themselves with the WCTU, likely out of fear that such a commitment might alienate their husbands' political supporters. Otherwise First Ladies in the era from 1869 to 1923 (Grant through Harding Administrations), when the temperance movement was at its strongest, both served and drank alcoholic beverages, usually light wines with dinner, champagne or whiskey punch. Florence Harding, of course, famously permitted the serving of alcohol in the White House family quarters but not in public during prohibition. Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt - the remaining First Ladies whose tenure coincided with Prohibition - did not. However, the WCTU was a powerful force in politics and as hostesses of the White House, the First Ladies often greeted the group's delegations who asked to be received at receptions. Finally, there were other causes and efforts which the WCTU sponsored that did not relate to alcohol but various charities and goodwill efforts. I know, for example, that Frances Cleveland supported at least one such movement - while also refusing to respond to the national WCTU demand, made at one of their conventions in the late 1880's that the First Lady stop wearing low-cut and sleeveless dressess because it was a bad moral influence on young women of the day.