In light of former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s current, second campaign for her party’s nomination as president, a recent public inquiry asked just how many First Ladies have held any level of public office, either elective or appointive, and how many had considered doing so.
The number is relatively few.
Certainly Clinton is the most famous to the public. In fact, she is the only one to have served at any level in either and elected or appointed position.
She successfully won the office of United States Senator from the state of New York in 2000 and was re-elected in 2006, serving until January of 2009 when she was appointed Secretary of State.
Before her, Eleanor Roosevelt served in three consecutive appointed positions.
As First Lady, before and during World War II, Mrs. Roosevelt had called for the United States to support the concept of a United Nations and to then join it.
Upon the death of her husband while he was serving in his fourth term as President, she believed , as she told a reporter “the story is over” when it came to her activism as First Lady in speaking out on humanitarian issues involving both domestic and international life.
With Vice President Harry Truman’s assumption of the presidency, however, he named her as United States Delegate to the newly-formed United Nations General Assembly. Her term ran from the last day of 1946 until the last day of 1952.
She was almost immediately then made Chairman of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, a position which led her to draft the famous Declaration of Human Rights, and was simultaneously a United States Representative of that Commission.
During the eight years of the Eisenhower Administration, Mrs. Roosevelt remained active in the United States through its private foundation.
With the 1960 election of Democratic President John F. Kennedy, the former First Lady again was called to public service, appointed by him as Chairwoman of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Human Rights. She served in that capacity unit her death in November of 1962.
As a former First Lady, the widow of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson served in three appointed capacities on federal commissions.
She was named in 1975 by President Gerald R. Ford to serve as co-chair of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration’s Advisory Council, requiring her to participate in meetings held in the nation’s capital, leading up to the national celebrations held on the two hundredth anniversary of the nation’s founding.
In 1977, Lady Bird Johnson accepted the position of co-chair of the Commission on White House Fellowships, appointed by President Jimmy Carter.
In 1969, Mrs. Johnson had also accepted membership on the National Park Service’s Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments. In 1999, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said, “Mrs. Johnson has been a ‘shadow’ Secretary of the Interior’ for much of her life.”
At one point, President Richard Nixon had circulated a memo with the idea of naming Mrs. Johnson as a U.S. Ambassador to a foreign country, but the offer did not materialize.
The widows of three other presidents of the 20th century were also encouraged to seek elective political office.
In 1924, the highly political Florence Harding gave serious consideration to the urgings by fellow Ohio Republicans that she seek the office of Governor of Ohio, but her precarious health wisely prevented her from moving forward.
Among her circle of powerful Democratic Party supporters who escorted her to the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, Texas, the widow of President Woodrow Wilson, who had died four years earlier, had begun mentioning her to reporters and others who cherished the political principals of the late president as a potential vice presidential candidate.
Edith Wilson refused to seriously entertain the idea, given that her own natural inclinations were not political and that she was not fond of that year’s nominee, New York Governor Al Smith, let alone the responsibility of serving on the national ticket with him.
In 1976, as the election for the United States Senate seat from the state of New York approached, newspaper publisher Dorothy Schiff among a few other friends briefly circulated in newspapers the possibility that former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a longtime resident of New York City and by then widowed a second time, would serve the state well by seeking the Democratic nomination for that position.
Flattered, and even briefly tantalized by the possibility of assuming the federal office once held by her late brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy, and also becoming a colleague of her brother-in-law Teddy Kennedy, then serving as Massachusetts’ U.S. Senator, she finally joked, “Id win of course!” before asserting how satisfied she finally was in having begun her career as a book publishing editor.
It was not the first time the widow of President Kennedy had been considered for a political position.
President Lyndon B. Johnson had urged her to consider accepting either the ambassadorship to Mexico or France shortly after he succeeded to office upon her husband’s assassination, but she felt her responsibility to her two young children would prevent her from carrying out the duties required of such a post.
One must search back to the even before the beginning of the presidency to find another example and it is one involving not a former First Lady – but a future one, in a time predating the actual creation of the United States.
In 1775, along with the highly-educated and outspoken Mercy Otis Warren of Massachusetts and Hannah Winthrop, the wife of the governor of the Massachusetts colony, Abigail Adams, described as being a “farmeress,” was appointed by the colony’s General Court to question several “Tory” women loyal to the British crown for suspicion of their activities undermining the fight for independence.
Details about what this entailed and for how long they conducted this work is vague and barely chronicled, but there is documentation in the way of her husband’s response upon hearing the news.
At the time John Adams was then in Philadelphia, serving on the Second Continental Congress committee which would draft the Declaration of Independence a year later. He wrote to Abigail Adams with pride:
“…you are now a politician and now elected to any important office, that of judgess of the Tory ladies, which will give you, naturally, an influence with your sex…”
Mrs. Adams appreciated the sentiment.
Still, if as her husband put it, she “naturally” had derivative political influence due to who she was married to, she also wanted it to be legally ensured for all women and not just a privileged few:
“I desire you wold remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors!….If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”