This is an introductory essay to a forthcoming series on the National First Ladies Library Blog about some of the most obscure yet often most important “other women” of the White House, with individual articles coming in the weeks and months ahead.
With a series of presidential spouses in the White House who have, for over a half a century now, been healthy and vital as well as interested in assuming public responsibilities, it is hard to conceive of the role of First Lady being assumed by anyone other than the person who happens to be married to the President.
Yet there have been some two dozen First Ladies who had a variety of family relationships with Presidents other than that of spouse, being daughters, daughters-in-law, niece, sisters, cousin, and aunts.
Even when these “other women” are acknowledged as “surrogate First Ladies” or “White House hostesses,” the titles by which they are often designated, little to no consideration is given to the value their presence provided a President in private or what the nature of their uncertain status revealed about the nation’s evolving perceptions of the presidency.
It’s been a century since there was an incumbent President who was either widowed or had a wife unable or unwilling to assume any public duties or fulfill the traditional expectations placed on them as the spouse of the nation’s chief executive.
Yet even in the intervening years, the nation has seen some brief moments when schedule or health prevented a presidential wife from being able to make public appearances with her husband and a daughter has substituted on her behalf to both fulfill traditional expectations for the public and press and to serve as a companion of familial support for the President.
Helene Taft aided her mother as hostess during the First Lady’s last social season, when her poor health required assistance.
Chelsea Clinton was her father’s companion during a state visit to Australia, while her mother was campaigning for the U.S. Senate.
Anna Roosevelt was her father’s companion during his World War II conference at Yalta.
Susan Ford served presided as hostess over a state dinner when her mother was recovering from breast cancer surgery.
Like that modern trio, most of the other “surrogate” First Ladies were presidential daughters.
Three daughters assumed the First Lady role upon their mothers dying in the White House: Letty Tyler Semple, Mary Harrison McKee and Margaret Wilson. Margaret Wilson shared the duties with the President’s cousin Helen Bones, who had worked for the first Mrs. Wilson as personal secretary.
Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Chester Arthur were the four Presidents who assumed office as widowers. Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph, Jackson’s niece and daughter-in-law Emily Donelson and Sarah Jackson, Van Buren’s daughter Angelica Van Buren, and Arthur’s sister Molly McElroy served for varying lengths for them.
James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland were both bachelors when they assumed the presidency.
Cleveland’s sister Rose Elizabeth served as his First Lady until he married fifteen months into his administration.
Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane acted as his hostess and was a highly visible public figure, assuming all of the roles a presidential wife of that era would have. By her prominence yet lacking the marital status of presidential wife, the press bestowed on her the term “First Lady,” making her the first woman who was publicly referenced by that unofficial title. Among all the “other women” of the White House, Harriet Lane served for the longest period of time, the full four years of the Buchanan presidency.
Five daughters and one daughter-in-law assumed the leading public role of hostess at Administration social events while their mothers or mother-in-law, with either chronic health problems or disinterest, assumed control of presidential private life and entertaining: Eliza Hay (James Monroe’s daughter), Priscilla Tyler (John Tyler’s daughter-in-law), Betty Bliss (Zachary Taylor’s daughter), Mary Fillmore (Millard Fillmore’s daughter) and Martha Patterson and Mary Stover (Andrew Johnson’s daughters).
Presidential wife Anna Harrison had every intention of coming in the warmer spring weather from her Ohio farm to join her husband in the White House after his 1841 inauguration but in her absence daughter-in-law Jane Harrison and Jane’s aunt, the former congressional wife Jane Findlay, acted as hostesses for the brief one-month administration.
Struggling with depression and keeping herself from public view during a mourning period for her son, Jane Pierce relied on her aunt-by-marriage Abby Kent Means to assume household management and the fulfillment of the public duties of hostess.
Who these figures were as real human beings, how they came to assume the public role of First Lady, what their presence meant to a President and how the rest of their post-White House lives played out will be explored in this forthcoming NFLL Blog series.