When General Washington reluctantly agreed to be the first commander in chief of our nation, his wife, Martha, was thrust into a role she wasn’t excited about. She knew her husband’s acceptance of this title would demand a public presence from her, and she wanted a more private life. Martha felt her husband had already done enough, but she shared her husband’s sense of duty and obligation to our new country, and she made the most of her new position. She became our country’s first official hostess and carefully constructed an atmosphere for open discussion at diplomatic dinners and gatherings. She also created an environment where Americans from many backgrounds could participate socially, eliminating the feel of royal audience. Mrs. Washington knew her actions set a precedent for the presidential spouses to follow, and she took that responsibility seriously, even though she had rather be home at Mount Vernon.
One of the first hurdles for the new leader and his wife was what to call them. Our country’s first head of state needed an appropriate title without sounding like a royal. The senate and house of representatives eventually settled on ‘PRESIDENT’ for Mr. Washington and Mrs. Washington was called just that, MRS. WASHINGTON, as if her role was no different than usual. Popular opinion, though, had another idea for this lady who so staunchly supported her husband. Martha was accustomed to shouts of ‘LADY WASHINGTON’ from her visits to her husband’s camps during the war, but with the new office of presidency, this title took on a different meaning. Our nation was to be governed by the people, for the people, and the title of ‘Lady’ was dangerously close to the language used when referring to royalty. Other titles like “Marquise” or “Mrs. President” were discussed for use by congress, but none sounded right or felt appropriate for our new democratic nation, so her title was Mrs. Washington officially and Lady Washington popularly.
THE TERM FIRST LADY WASN’T USED OFFICIALLY IN REFERENCE TO THE SPOUSE OF THE PRESIDENT FOR ANOTHER 100 YEARS.
According to legend, it was at DOLLEY MADISON’S funeral that incumbent President Zachary Taylor eulogized her as “First Lady,” perhaps thus being the first known use of the title in connection with a president’s wife, although no record of his eulogy exists. Mrs. Madison was known as the premiere hostess of political society and was influential to many administrations. From acting as hostess for President Jefferson (who was not married at the time of his presidency) to advising SARAH CHILDRESS POLK during that administration, Dolley Madison helped shape the social structure of our nation through 11 presidencies.
A social media of the past—the newspaper — was instrumental in the popularization of the title ‘First Lady.’ It was 1877, when 1 MRS. LUCY WEBB HAYES, the 19th First Lady, was mentioned often in the newspaper. The regular reporting and interest in her activities widened the use of the phrase and made the title a household moniker. The phrase had been used before in isolated instances as early as Mrs. Washington, but the seclusion of the people and lack of available wide-spread communication hindered its everyday use. Now the popular term First Lady is used for the wife of presidential spouses around the world, setting precedent for husbands of presidents to be called First Gentleman.
Even before the term became widely used, the wives of our presidents have been backbones of American society. From Martha Washington to Melania Trump, their tireless efforts on behalf of the American people have made them all our First Ladies.
This is the second in a series of articles about American First Lady history, for copies of the first article, please see the March 2020 edition of Women’s Lifestyle Magazine
K. Lynn McFarlen is the Community Outreach Director for Langeland Family Funeral Homes. Lynn is excited to share what she has learned about the fascinating topic of First Lady history. From social impact to political influence, these ladies have made many lasting contributions to our country and the American people.
1 From the biography of Dolley Madison on the First Lady Library; www.firstladies.org 2 Painting by Gilbert Stuart. 3 New York Historical Society. 4 Sarah Childress Polk’s portrait painted at the time she was First Lady. (White House Collection). 5 Bell, Charles Milton, photographer. (United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs: digital ID cph.3a08798)