Three Influential First Ladies

As the old saying goes, "Behind every great man is a great woman." When it comes to talking about American presidents, nothing could be truer. American presidential history is filled with influential First Ladies who have paved the way for women everywhere. What I find fascinating about First Ladies is that while they don’t have an official role, they nevertheless become influential because of the things they do, the programs they start, and the initiatives they spearhead. As such, they are often thrust into the public’s eye and into the limelight—whether they want that role or not.

For instance, consider Eleanor Roosevelt. Born into a political family, Eleanor Roosevelt quickly became America’s most influential First Lady as she blazed paths for women and led the battle for social justice. What was unique about Eleanor was that prior to her, First Ladies were not so public or active. In fact, Eleanor watched the traditional protocol of her aunt, Edith Roosevelt, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and decided she would be very different.

With her husband Franklin’s support, Eleanor continued her pre-First Lady activities, which included working with the Women’s Trade Union League and being a leader in the New York State Democratic Party. In an era when few women had careers, Eleanor was showing women what was possible. During her twelve years as First Lady, she made frequent personal appearances at labor meetings to assure Depression-era workers that the White House was mindful of their plight. And her work with the National Youth Administration (NYA) was focused on training women to enter the workforce. Enjoy this early video of Eleanor talking about the NYA and its role in the future of women.

Hillary Clinton is another First Lady worth mentioning. One of her first goal’s as First Lady was to push for universal healthcare for all Americans. But in just a little over a year of embarking on her agenda, the healthcare bill was declared "dead" by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell. Despite that setback, Hillary Clinton rose from the ashes and became the voice of healthcare issues that affected Americans. She initiated the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997, a federal effort that provided state support for those children whose parents were unable to provide them with health coverage. She also successfully sought to increase the research funding for illnesses such as prostate cancer and childhood asthma at the National Institute of Health, and she gave voice to the illnesses that were affecting veterans of the Gulf War.

In 1995, Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing that solidified her role as a powerful female speaker and change agent. Her poise, power, and passion for the subject matter—women’s rights worldwide—paved the way for her future political goals and gave women everywhere a worldwide voice.

Finally, only three years into her role as First Lady, Michelle Obama is continuing the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton by raising the bar for future First Ladies. Known for her sense of style and decorum, Michelle Obama has created her own role in the White House, focusing on childhood obesity and food policy issues. This effort is in addition to her other endeavors: supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family, encouraging national service, and promoting the arts and arts education. Interestingly, she has earned widespread publicity on the topic of healthy eating by planting the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt served as First Lady.

In May 2006, Essence listed Michelle Obama among "25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women," and in July 2007, Vanity Fair listed her among "10 of the World’s Best Dressed People." In March 2009, she appeared on the cover and in a photo spread of Vogue. Every First Lady since Lou Hoover has been in Vogue, but only Hillary Clinton had previously appeared on the cover. Hmmm…Do I sense a connection here?

Most recently, Michelle Obama gave the commencement speech to the 2011 class of West Point cadets. Her appearance there broke with tradition, as those who speak at West Point graduation events have always come from within the military’s chain of command. This also marked the first time a First Lady has addressed graduating cadets at West Point.

By all accounts, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama are influential First Ladies. When it comes to being poised under pressure, they hit the mark every time. I urge you to watch some of their past speeches to see the true meaning of confidence, polish, and power. They are indeed role models for women worldwide. This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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