Ranking 40 of America’s First Ladies: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The First Lady’s specific role in American history has always varied depending on the year, social environment, and the woman herself. For example, many past First Ladies had undertaken specific initiatives during their stay in the White House, but Hillary Clinton’s involvement in particular policies was unique.

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However, even before the job of the First Lady was scrutinized and researchers began to track metrics such as approval ratings, these women were making an impact on American history. We’ve gathered all of history’s most renowned First Ladies and ranked them from most loved to least loved!

Eleanor Roosevelt

Every ten years, the Siena Research Institute conducts a study to track popular perceptions of First Ladies over time. Eleanor Roosevelt has remained in the top spot on the list since 1982. And that’s no small feat. Eleanor Roosevelt earned a 66 percent approval rating among Americans.

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Throughout President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration (1933-1945). Her most important project was an effort to advance women’s rights. Eleanor continued to work as a writer and lecturer while serving in service. Roosevelt was also the longest-serving First Lady, as her husband served four terms as President.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams is usually rated second in the Siena Research Institute’s survey. Her husband, President John Adams, considers her his most trusted counsel. She is also the mother of John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States. Abigail is known as a thinker.

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She was frequently sought for advice on critical topics that would shape American history. At the time, prestige was paramount. Abigail focused on the President’s social status, reputation, and the White House. She took a more active position in policy and lobbying than her predecessor Martha Washington.

Laura Bush

Laura Bush was ranked 24th among First Ladies in a survey conducted by Siena Research Institute. The poll was conducted in 2003, during her husband’s tenure in office. On the other hand, her approval rating was at a high 76 percent, which created an odd contrast with her low position.

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Still, Laura is widely regarded and adored for her emphasis on education. She served as the First Lady during the 9/11 tragedy, putting her in a critical position as a public figure. As a result, she organized a concert to raise funds for the victims’ families.

Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson is well-known and admired for her environmental activism. She was the First Lady to communicate directly with Congress, and she had her own politically oriented staff to assist her. She was eventually successful in advocating for the Highway Beautification Act, which she left as a legacy.

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Lady Bird Johnson was also the first financial supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political campaigns and career. She is also noted for being a socialite with a talent for social capital and hospitality. She consistently ranks in the top seven First Ladies in the Siena Research Institute’s research.

Betty Ford

Betty Ford served as First Lady from 1974 to 1977 after previously serving as Second Lady. After Richard Nixon resigned, President Gerald Ford took over, making Betty the First Lady. Betty became one of the most well-liked First Ladies in history. Her approval rating remained at a high of 75%.

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Betty was renowned for being more progressive than her husband and many of her party’s members. She was a strong supporter of women’s rights, such as reproductive rights for women. She also wanted to address substance abuse. She has regularly ranked in the top 9 in Siena Research Institute’s studies.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison made a lasting impression by focusing her efforts on bipartisanship. As the fourth First Lady of the United States, she had a lot of room to do the job independently while expectations were still being formed. She concentrated on party planning and gaining social capital.

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She was well-known for inviting political opponents to these parties and bridging divides on both sides. She is credited with cementing the First Lady’s far greater social role. While she didn’t focus on policy, she recognized the value of social capital, especially when she served (1809-1817).

Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter is generally viewed positively by the American people, despite her popularity rating of only 58 percent during her time as First Lady. In a survey conducted by the Siena Research Institute in 1993, she finished in fifth place. And in sixth place in 2003.

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Rosalynn was a regular attendee at cabinet sessions during her husband’s presidency. She also traveled abroad on President Jimmy Carter’s behalf as a representative. Her effort was specifically focused on mental wellness. She gave testimony to the Senate about the Mental Health System Bill, which was ultimately signed into law.

Jackie Kennedy

Jackie Kennedy is well-known for her interest in aesthetics, art, and fashion. Jackie O. was regarded by many as an icon in several artistic areas, particularly fashion. Her First Lady’s outfits are usually still put on display nowadays. Jackie worked as a photographer and journalist before becoming First Lady.

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As the first lad, she concentrated on White House restoration, with a particular interest in the artwork and the historical accuracy of the interior decorating. She was ranked 8th in the Siena Research Institute’s study in 1982 but has consistently risen to 4th in 2003.

Martha Washington

Martha Washington was The United States’ initial First Lady. It meant she took on an entirely new role as the first to consider what this would entail for others in similar situations. As there was no formal word for Martha at the time, she was referred to as “Lady Washington.”

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Martha had reservations about her husband being elected President. Despite this, she devoted her time to social events and hosting. She was recognized for maintaining a kind and down-to-earth demeanor. According to the Siena Research Institute, the American people routinely rate her among the top 13 First Ladies.

Edith Roosevelt

Edith Roosevelt became First Lady after the assassination of President William McKinley. Edith was recognized as a social center in Washington, D.C., making certain that other politically active wives followed suit. Edith is known for influencing policy in a much more subtle way.

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She would carefully provide key newspaper stories to her husband and act as a liaison between major political players and the President. She’s also recognized for her tireless efforts in renovating the White House in 1902. She ranked No. 10 in research conducted by the Siena Research Institute in 1982.

Lou Hoover

Lou Hoover was regarded by many during her time as a scholar and intellectual. She did study a few foreign languages. She frequently appeared on radio shows to promote various causes, including volunteerism. But her popularity goes beyond what you might expect.

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Lou is widely known outside of politics for her leadership involvement in the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. She has served as the national President of GSUSA twice. She was ranked 11th in the Siena Research Institute’s survey in 1982, and she hasn’t dropped far below that since.

Louisa Adams

Louisa Adams, the First Lady from 1825 to 1829, was ranked 14th in the Siena Research Institute’s 1982 poll. Due to her husband’s electoral victory circumstances, Louisa did not attend his inauguration. The vote was to be decided by the House of Representatives.

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So, John Quincy Adams arranged a compromise with Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House. This ensured Adams’ electoral victory and guaranteed Clay the office of Secretary of State. Louisa did her best, despite her disapproval. She is well-known for supporting women’s rights and as an abolitionist.

Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush was a firm believer in ensuring children’s literacy. She was active in a few literacy-related organizations. She also supported other causes, including reproductive and civil rights (especially LGBT rights) and AIDS awareness. This was striking, as it sometimes contradicted her own party’s agenda.

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However, it was revealed in 2019 that she was no longer a Republican at her death. She also carried on the efforts of former First Ladies in maintaining the White House through refurbishing and restoration projects. Barbara received a 72 percent approval rating during her husband’s administration.

Bess Truman

In a 1982 survey conducted by the Siena Research Institute, Bess Truman was placed 15th. Bess did not appreciate some aspects of her role as First Lady as much as the other First Ladies. She wasn’t interested in the work’s social scene in D.C. or politics.

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She was especially considering her husband’s position. She despised the fact that, as First Lady, she had no privacy. Bess avoided news conferences and rarely revealed her face to the public. However, she was active in different groups, including the Washington Animal Rescue League and the Women’s National Democratic Club.

Ellen Wilson

Ellen Wilson was well-known for her artistic and imaginative abilities. She has a background in art education. She was popular for spending time creating, sketching, and painting. She had her studio in the White House and dedicated a large portion of her work to charity.

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Ellen navigated the social scene in D.C. by throwing engaging parties. She facilitated improved housing in Washington, D.C., particularly for Black Americans. Her tenure was abruptly cut after her tragic death in 1914. The 1982 survey conducted by the Siena Research Institute ranks her 16th in history.

Grace Coolidge

Grace Coolidge, who was ranked 17th in the Siena Research Institute’s 1982 poll, was known for avoiding politics. Grace remained aloof as her husband became increasingly immersed in it. Grace focused on popular causes such as philanthropic groups like the Red Cross.

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When Grace’s son died, the people reacted positively to her and expressed their condolences. Grace continued her philanthropic work with various communities (the deaf and Jewish refugees inclusive) after her husband’s presidency ended. She also wrote for and contributed to several publications.

Martha Jefferson Randolph

President Thomas Jefferson’s wife died many years before he became President. As a result, his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, took on the First Lady’s position, obligations, and duties. She learned about the prospect of a slave-free world through her private education and travels.

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Martha famously pleaded with her father to end slavery in America. She spent much of her time in Paris, where she met world leaders. Martha was known for a life of embellishments, balls, and finesse. In a 1982 survey conducted by the Siena Research Institute, Martha came in 18th place.

Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk was the First Lady of the United States from 1845 until 1849. Like many previous First Ladies, Sarah was known for her hosting skills and social savvy, which aided her husband’s political and career ambitions. She provided extravagant meals and alcoholic beverages. Sarah also assisted with speech writing.

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As a result, she contributed to a newspaper to help fund the campaign. Sarah strongly supported manifest destiny and spoke out about it. According to the Siena Research Institute research, the American public views her as a mid-tier First Lady, ranking her 22nd in 1982.

Emily Donelson

President Andrew Jackson didn’t marry Emily Donelson; rather, she was appointed after his late wife died. Emily was a boisterous woman who befriended President Jackson’s opponent, President John Quincy Adams. Emily and the President were famously feuding about an incident involving Peggy Eaton. Emily soon declined to return to the White House…

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President Andrew Jackson invited a new hostess to take her place. Emily is remembered in a varied, not fully good, light by history. As a result of these events and the contentious nature of Jackson’s presidency, the Siena Research Institute placed her 26th in a 1982 poll.

Michelle Obama

Usually, the more recent a First Lady is, the less adoration they tend to get. People look back on history with nostalgia. Despite this, Michelle received a 66 percent approval rating throughout her time in office. She is regarded as one of the most well-educated First Ladies in history.

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She worked on policy with President Obama throughout her husband’s tenure. Combating childhood obesity was one of her main concerns, and she is noted for a range of initiatives encouraging healthy food and activity. Many people recall her efforts to improve the standards for school lunches across the country.

Dr. Jill Biden

Even as First Lady, she is a busy professor, lecturer, and intellectual. Holding a salaried job, such as her one at NOVA, is the first time in U.S. history that a First Lady has worked outside of the White House while her husband is in office.

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She has a doctoral degree from the University of Delaware. Dr. Biden has mostly focused on assisting military families. She is also a supporter of free community college and educational opportunities. Dr. Biden is often a topic of political debate, and her actual approval rating among the public is unknown.

Julia Gardiner Tyler

Julia Gardiner Tyler was ranked 27th in a 1982 study conducted by the Siena Research Institute. Like many others before her, Julia took on the role of hostess and socialite, focusing on public and social appearances. She famously requested that “Hail to the Chief” be played before her husband arrived.

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Julia Gardiner Tyler had a daughter, Julia Gardiner Tyler Wilson, who went on to form the famous Kappa Delta Sorority. First Lady Julia Gardiner celebrated the completion of her administration by throwing a big celebration in the White House, which drew over 3,000 people.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton achieved a 66 percent approval rating as First Lady, despite the controversies surrounding her most recent presidential bid. Hillary’s principal cause at the time was healthcare reform. She was also a supporter of adoption-related legislation, such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act.

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The Whitewater scandal embroiled her and her husband in controversy. Hillary is a lifelong politician who has served in Congress and as Secretary of State in addition to her term as First Lady. Moreover, while her presidential campaign was unsuccessful, she did win the popular vote in 2016.

Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower was ranked 31st in the Siena Research Institute’s 1982 study but had risen to 27th by 2003. She threw a picnic with her staff as one of the first things she did when she arrived at the White House. Mamie was well-known for her clothing, jewelry, and cuisine.

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She was also popular for her love for decor. She was frequently photographed in a shade of pink that became known as “Mamie Pink.” Mamie was the first to put up Halloween decorations at the White House. Mamie was an outgoing woman who preserved high social standards.

Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan’s approval rating was at 28% in 1981. By 1989, however, it improved to a healthy 56 percent. While not an exceptionally high score, it represented a significant shift in popular opinion. In a 1982 study conducted by the Siena Research Institute, she was placed 39th in history.

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By 2003, she had risen to number 28. She concentrated on a drug awareness campaign during her term as First Lady, launching “Just Say No.” Nancy was known to consult astrology for suggestions on keeping her husband safe, particularly after an assassination attempt.

Angelica Van Buren

During President Van Buren’s administration, his daughter-in-law, Angelica Van Buren, took the position of First Lady. This was due to the sudden death of Hannah Van Buren (President Van Buren’s late wife). Former First Lady Dolley Madison linked Abraham Van Buren II and Angelica.

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President Van Buren, who was now more strongly rooted in the Old South, benefited politically from Angelica’s standing. Later, Angelica was inspired by a trip to England to bring European-style modifications to the White House, albeit Americans did not well receive the shift.

Pat Nixon

Pat Nixon ranks at a low 7th in Sienna Research Institute’s survey. However, she maintained a 54 percent approval rating during her tenure as First Lady. While not high, it is significant given her husband’s controversies and Watergate. Pat’s main aim was to encourage volunteerism.

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She believed that the best way to assist communities in resolving conflicts was to start small. She was part of a volunteer group called Women in Community Services. She also visited significant political figures locally and internationally and spoke with them. She was involved in American diplomacy in many ways.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln finished the last Siena Research Institute’s 1982 survey. She was extremely rich even before her time in the White House. She was born into a slave-owning family. She served as First Lady during high political tension and national division.

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Mary Todd Lincoln was criticized for her extravagant personal spending and the cost of refurbishing the White House. On the other hand, Mary was a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln’s endeavors and a strong Unionist. She was also criticized for her strict demeanor.

Florence Harding

Florence Harding is not well-liked by history, receiving a near-last place rating in each Siena Research Institute’s studies. She was the First Lady of the United States from 1921 to 1923. She was dubbed “The Duchess” by many. She was known for throwing lavish White House parties.

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She wanted her husband to make the White House more accessible to the public and open it up to tourists. Florence was well-known in the public eye and regarded as a celebrity. She was very outspoken about her opinions on a wide range of topics.

Melania Trump

Melania Trump is arguably the most controversial First Lady in American history. Melania Trump was renowned for taking a backseat and being very quiet regarding her husband’s policy proposals during President Donald Trump’s reign (2016-2020). Melania eventually announced a campaign to raise awareness against cyberbullying.

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Many people criticized it as hypocritical, given her husband’s history with Twitter. Her approval rating stands at just 42%. She did not continue the “tea and a tour” practice with Dr. Jill Biden after her time as First Lady, as was typical during the transition of power.

Abigail Fillmore

From 1850 until 1853, Abigail Fillmore was the First Lady of the United States. She assumed office when her husband, the then-Vice President Millard Fillmore, became President after President Zachary Taylor died. Fillmore, a teacher, and scholar by trade, was surprised to hear that the White House didn’t have a library.

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This meant she made it her priority to get one when she first arrived. Abigail bought books for a White House library and organized a literary salon with a $2,000 grant from Congress. Her husband admired her political acumen and was eager to seek her advice on state issues.

Eliza Johnson

Eliza Johnson is regarded as one of the most private First Ladies in U.S. history. She’d been quietly supporting her husband’s political career for years, preferring to stay out of the spotlight. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson, then vice president, ascended to the highest post in the land.

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Johnson spent most of her stay in the White House sick with tuberculosis, despite being the First Lady. During her husband’s term, she only appeared in public twice: once at a reception for Queen Emma of the Kingdom of Hawaii and again at her husband’s 59th birthday party.

Julia Grant

Julia Grant was one of the few United States First Ladies to embrace the role genuinely. She had been so interested in her husband’s campaign that he turned to her when he was finally elected and said, “And now, my dear, I hope you’re satisfied.”

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It’s safe to say she pestered him over it. Grant became a famous hostess as First Lady while advocating women’s rights and emphasizing the significance of her role. She was upset when she learned that her husband would not seek re-election to a third term.

Lucy Hayes

Lucy Hayes, Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife, was a revolutionary First Lady. She was an outspoken supporter of African American rights (a controversial stance in post-Civil War America). According to historian Emily Apt Geer, Hayes was also a strong supporter of women’s rights (comparative to the times). According to the publication:

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“The example, however, that Lucy Hayes set for the nation as a hostess and homemaker, the adoration and respect accorded her by her family, her efforts to help other people, her sincere interest in politics, and the extent of her education, promised well for the future status of women in the American social and intellectual structure.”

Lucretia Garfield

Due to her understanding of the inner workings of the Republican Party at the time, Lucretia Garfield played a crucial role in her husband, James A. Garfield’s presidential campaign. And it proved to be significant. Lucretia was highly involved in her husband’s cabinet picks once he was elected.

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This also included plans to refurbish the White House. She contracted malaria early in the term and was still recovering when her husband was killed in July. She devoted the remainder of her life to conserving her husband’s papers and other mementos, thus founding the first presidential library.

Frances Cleveland

Assuming office at 21, Frances Cleveland remains the youngest American First Lady. In 1886, she married President Grover Cleveland, a 28-year-old who had entered the White House as a bachelor. They spent both of his non-consecutive terms and the rest of his life together.

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Frances Cleveland was a popular First Lady during her stay in the White House. Still, her later divisive political opinions, such as opposing women’s suffrage, have damaged the public’s view of her. Frances Cleveland remained in Princeton, New Jersey, after her husband died in 1908.

Ida McKinley

Ida McKinley is one of the most unfortunate First Ladies in American history, alongside Mary Todd Lincoln and Jackie Kennedy. Even before her husband, William McKinley, was elected President, tragedy befell her. Their two daughters, Katherine “Katie” McKinley and Ida McKinley, both died early, devastating the elder Ida.

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Even when he became President, her husband became incredibly overprotective, shielding her from all social expectations. According to many who knew her, her husband’s assassination in 1901 was another major setback for Ida, virtually depriving her of any desire to live. Ida died six years after her husband was murdered.

Helen “Nellie” Taft

Helen “Nellie” Taft is arguably best known for planting “the 3,020 Japanese cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin and on Capitol grounds; she planted the first two saplings in ceremonies on March 27, 1912” with Viscountess Iwa Chinda (the wife of the Japanese ambassador).

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Nellie Taft was the First Lady in history to travel in her husband’s inauguration parade. She did this despite the poor weather. Taft proceeded to develop the traditions of White House reception and other social activities, in addition to beautifying D.C. for years to come.

Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson is one of the most controversial First Ladies in American history. Wilson was loved in her early years, and she was the First Lady to go to Europe. But when President Wilson suffered a major stroke in October 1919, things took a turn for the worst.

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Although Edith and his doctors kept the full degree of Woodrow Wilson’s health from many in the public and government, the stroke left him bedridden and crippled. The First Lady became Wilson’s only link to his cabinet, leading to accusations that she had usurped power from him.

Rosalynn Carter

Eleanor Rosalynn Carter was popularly called “steel magnolia” during her time as First Lady. She had a sweet and down-to-earth exterior but was as “tough as nails” on the interior. This demeanor allowed her to deal with the many criticisms and adversity thrown at her and her husband, President Jimmy Carter.

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Rosalynn quickly made it known she wasn’t planning to be a regular First Lady. She supported President Jimmy Carter’s public policies and social and personal life. Carter was well-known for her commitment to mental health awareness, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Habitat for Humanity organization.