This post is adapted from a response to a public inquiry about the foreign trips undertaken by First Ladies.
by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
It was Ida McKinley who became the first incumbent First Lady to not only visit a foreign country but do so independently of her husband.
The event was a May 1901 visit across the U.S. border bridge at El Paso, Texas and into Mexico, where she traveled a short distance to the town of Juarez, to attend an impromptu brunch held in a private home there, in her honor.
The incident occurred while President McKinley remained in El Paso, a stop that was part of their itinerary of a transcontinental tour of the U.S. to California.
Edith Carow Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt, accompanied her husband to the recently-independent nation of Panama on 9 November 1907, making her the first incumbent First Lady to leave the United States with her husband.
More famously, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey to Brest, France on 4 December, 1918, with her husband Woodrow Wilson, for his participation in the Paris peace conference held after World War I.
She joined him in also visiting England and Italy; they returned to the U.S. on 15 February, 1919. She thus holds the record of an incumbent First Lady being out of the U.S., a total of 72 days.
Grace Coolidge traveled with her husband, incumbent President Calvin Coolidge to Havana, Cuba in January of 1928, where he delivered the opening address of a Pan-American Conference.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the second incumbent First Lady to travel on foreign soil without her husband.
Her trips were made as a representative of the American Red Cross during World War II: to Ireland and England in 1942, to active U.S. military installations in Australia, New Zealand, Guadalcanal and other South Pacific islands in 1943, and to non-combat military bases in Central, South American and Caribbean basin nations in 1944.
She became the first incumbent First Lady to also make such trip by air flight, over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s famous meetings with Charles DeGaulle in Paris, Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and Queen Elizabeth in London, occurred when she accompanied her husband during his first trans-Atlantic trip, in May and early June of 1961, visiting France, Austria and England.
At the end of the presidential tour, she went on her own to Greece, thus marking her first solo trip.
She would also join her husband to Venezuela and Colombia in December 1961 and Mexico in June 1962.
She continued to make solo trips. In April 1962 she was designated as a “goodwill ambassador” of the U.S. government during trips to India and Pakistan, and during her visit to the latter nation she proceeded to the Khyber Pass and the Afghanistan border.
In August of 1962, she took a vacation in Italy; even though the White House listed her trip as a “private citizen” she interceded with the U.S. government to provide disaster relief during an earthquake that took place while she was in that nation.
She had a similar quasi-official status when she visited Greece and Morocco in October and early November of 1963.
Lady Bird Johnson made no solo trips to foreign nations as an incumbent First Lady.
In combination with the foreign trips she made with her husband Richard Nixon and those on her own, Pat Nixon for many years held the record as the most traveled First Lady.
Her most notable and highly-visible trip with her husband was to China in 1972. However, she initiated her own humanitarian trip to Peru, when that mountainous nation was hit by a devastating earthquake in June 1970.
In January of 1972, with the official but temporary designation as “the president’s ambassador” she visited three African nations – Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Liberia. She addressed the parliaments of all three nations, discussing American state policy on Rhodesia and South Africa.
In March of 1974, she made a solo trip to the inaugurations of South American presidents in Venezuela and Brazil.
Betty Ford was the last incumbent First Lady who made no foreign trips independent of her husband.
Since 1977, each incumbent First Lady has made numerous foreign trips, both with their husbands and on their own.
Among the most noteworthy have been those of Rosalynn Carter as “the president’s representative” in 1977 to multiple Central and South American nations where she discussed serious policy issues including exports, human rights and nuclear weaponry, and in 1980 to Thailand as part of a global emergency relief effort on behalf of Cambodian refugees.
Nancy Reagan attended the wedding of Prince Charles to Diane Spencer in London, England, in July 1981. Barbara Bush led the U.S. delegation attending the inauguration of the president of Costa Rica in May of 1989.
In September of 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, giving a strong policy speech that rebuked the host nation’s violations of women’s and children’s rights.
Hillary Clinton would also make numerous trips around the globe, joined in efforts by other women leaders through an organization she helped to found as First Lady, “Vital Voices.” She also made several trips to the emerging democracies of nations which were once part of the former Soviet Republic, encouraging the understanding and establishment of civil societies.
During her tenure Laura Bush made independent trips to Afghanistan, to encourage the stability of re-opened schools for girls, to several African nations in projects to curb the rate of AIDS in children and malaria, and to Saudi Arabia to encourage a shift in its culture towards recognition of early detection and treatment of breast cancer.
It is difficult to specifically state who is the most “traveled” First Lady since such a designation could be determined by several different factors: how many different nations were visited, whether return trips to the same nation are to be counted, whether “travel” means one trip to one nation, or one trip with several stops (for example, on one of her first foreign trips with her husband, Pat Nixon went to Guam, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Romania, England and South Vietnam).