With the upcoming New York primaries for the Democratic and Republican parties on Tuesday, the groundbreaking yet vitriolic presidential campaign continues to captivate the country. However, as the campaign showdown plays out, the presidential candidates’ spouses have become targets as well.
Last month, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz traded insults and threw out innuendoes about their respective wives, potential First Ladies Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz, and recently, potential First Gentleman and former president Bill Clinton squared off with Black Lives Matter protestors. Bernie Sanders’ wife Jane O’Meara Sanders has managed to escape negative scrutiny for now.
However, as the country is on the cusp of choosing its candidates at the party conventions, it is appropriate to take a closer look at the attributes and accomplishments of these candidates’ spouses compared to current and former presidential spouses. Although presidents are typically seen as the primary power brokers in their marital relationships, First Ladies throughout history have also contributed significantly in public service, government, and overall American life.
Hillary Clinton is the first former First Lady to campaign for president and to have held the Secretary of State office as well as a senatorial position. According to WhiteHouse.gov, Hillary Clinton was the “first woman elected statewide in New York” to the United States Senate.
In addition to the being the first Black First Lady, the academic accomplishments of Michelle Obama also set her apart as well. Michelle Obama, who was the 1981 salutatorian for Whitney Young High School in Chicago, graduated from Princeton University in 1985, the first First Lady to have earned an undergraduate college degree from an Ivy League institution.
She then secured a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1988, making her the second First Lady to have an advanced college degree, with Hillary Clinton being the first.
While Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are arguably the most popular First Ladies right now, other First Ladies have also distinguished themselves for their contributions to American life. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died on March 6, took on the cause of youth drug addiction when she created the “Just Say No” campaign in 1982 during her husband’s presidency.
According to WhiteHouse.gov, “in 1985 she held a conference at the White House for First Ladies of 17 countries to focus international attention on this problem.” According to the Reagan Foundation website, by 1988, “cocaine use by high-school seniors dropped by one-third, the lowest rate in a decade.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, who held the First Lady position the longest (as her husband and distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt served four terms as president), also championed political causes. She held press conferences, lectured, and had a column “My Day” in a daily syndicated newspaper, according to WhiteHouse.Gov.
She also championed civil rights for Black Americans, including publicly supporting the Tuskegee Airmen. Her friendship with Pauli Murray, a Black civil rights activist and attorney, was captured in The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, a book written by Patricia Bell-Scott and released in February.
Finally, following her husband’s death, Roosevelt became a United Nations spokeswoman.
Mamie Eisenhower, wife of Dwight Eisenhower, sought equality for Black people, though in less public ways. Eisenhower, an honorary member of the National Council of Negro Women, invited Black children to come to the annual Easter Egg Roll, and ensured that the 4-H Club Camp for Negro Boys and Girls was included in special tours of the White House, according to biography.com.
Here is some random trivia about other First Ladies: Should Melania Trump be next First Lady, she won’t be the First Lady to have been born in another country; Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, was born in London, England. Similarly, Betty Ford, wife of Gerald Ford, worked as a fashion model, just like Melania Trump. Finally, technically not a First Lady, Harriet Lane served as a First Lady for her uncle James Buchanan, the only president who never married.
While it is impossible to predict who will be the next First Lady or even if there will be a First Gentleman this time next year, it is evident that the spouses of presidents have much to offer the country as well.
For more information about First Ladies, go to www.whitehouse.gov/1600/first-ladies.