What Is the Role of a First Lady?

American history has seen the role of presidential wives evolve, from first exercising hostess duties on through the modern era of public advocacy for unacknowledged causes lying beneath the authority of the executive branch. Many of the issues that these First Ladies adopted were in need of increased public awareness before more substantive steps could be taken by the country to constructively address them.

Early First Ladies, including Dolly Madison, Sara Polk, Abigail Fillmore and Caroline Harrison, all used their prominence to both renovate and create new roles for themselves within the White House as they laid the foundation for increasingly active First Ladies in the future. They oversaw the hosting duties required, created the Presidential Library, and established many of the traditions for entertaining both foreign and domestic dignitaries within the residence.

Eleanor Roosevelt is considered one of the most engaged Presidential wives due to her fervid activism for many social and economic issues facing the country during the Great Depression. Subsequently, many First Ladies in the 20th century adopted advocacy positions for causes within the realm of public opinion. History contains many instances when First Ladies' positions have not only raised public awareness on their adopted issues but also subsequently enabled direct action by presidents, legislative bodies or the judiciary.