This women’s history month, we feel it is especially important to recognize the great work of our First Ladies. American First Ladies are admired by women everywhere for their style, poise, and class. In addition to their dazzling public personas, First Ladies have changed the world through their activism projects – especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. Here are six of them.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a passionate proponent for Civil Rights, even before the official beginning of the Civil Rights movement.
One especially powerful example of her activism in Civil Rights is her support of Marian Anderson. Marian Anderson was an incredibly talented African-American opera singer, who sang at countless concerts and events. In 1939, she petitioned to use Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, to perform a benefit show. She was denied on the basis of her race – and Eleanor Roosevelt was not going to take this kind of injustice sitting down. So she publicly advocated for Anderson, in addition to withdrawing her membership from the DARs. Eleanor Roosevelt’s advocacy for minorities helped bring Civil Rights to the forefront of the public debate.
In addition to advocating for minorities, Eleanor Roosevelt had a heart for the poor. She helped carry out her husband’s policies, regardless of whether you agree with them. Eleanor Roosevelt was particularly involved in the creation of New Deal communities, settlements created to help people without jobs. The first of these communities was Arthurdale, West Virginia, created to help the state’s coal miners.
Jackie Kennedy had a passion for history and art. Naturally, when she saw that the White House had long been in need of a renovation, she decided to do something. She hired a talented interior designer to bring historical value back to the White House. It was during her time as First Lady that the White House was declared a museum, so that donations would not be privatized or sold.
Jackie Kennedy set an incredible example for both American women and women around the world through her class and aplomb, particularly after the assassination of her husband. Even after her tragic loss, she stayed strong and graceful in everything she did.
Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson was a strong advocate of the Civil Rights movement. She supported the Civil Rights Act so much that she was the only woman to sit in on its signing. Not only did she support civil rights through her words, but also through her actions. During her husband’s campaign, she embarked on an activism tour to fight for minorities’ rights.
Before Lady Bird Johnson’s time as First Lady, Washington, D.C. was not a pretty place. She knew that with all the stress and difficulty in the city, ugly scenery would only make it worse – so she decided to do something about it. Under her leadership, nearly three million plants, including tulips and daffodils, were planted in D.C. A quote from Mrs. Johnson sums up the project best, “Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.”
Pat Nixon was a feminist before feminism was cool. She was a vocal supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and of getting more women involved in politics. This included support of more women running for office, both in the U.S. and abroad, support of female Supreme Court Justices, and support of professional women in general.
Pat Nixon also headed up a volunteerism program. She encouraged Americans to volunteer in their communities and personally participated in volunteer activities, such as literacy programs and a concert program for low-income children.
Nancy Reagan is probably best known for her anti-drug campaign “Just Say No.” She traveled approximately 250,000 miles around the U.S. to promote this initiative. In 1989, she became the first woman ever to speak before the UN General Assembly, and her topic was… you guessed it, Drug usage around the world.
A less well-known but just as important activism project by Nancy Reagan was her support of the foster grandparents program. While she was not the founder of the program, she used her public platform to make its participation numbers skyrocket.
Barbara Bush is a strong advocate for child literacy. She founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which is still active today. She once said, “The American dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard. If we don’t give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren’t giving everyone an equal chance to succeed.”
Mrs. Bush’s support of her second activism project, cancer treatment, was deeply personal. Her young daughter, Robin, died of leukemia at the age of three. Because of this tragedy, she and President Bush founded the organization “C-Change,” which is dedicated to fighting cancer and finding its cure.