In response to several inquiries, the National First Ladies’ Library recently spoke with various media outlets, including a live BBC radio broadcast, providing historical context to First Lady Michelle Obama’s June 2015 trip to England to bring international attention and seek wider global support for her “Let Girls Learn” initiative.
Through “Let Girls Learn,” the American First Lady is striving to prove to other governments that not only is preventing the full education of young women an act of sexism but it also radically reduces the overall potential of economic growth in such nations by limiting its capacity for employment of necessary professional training f practically fifty percent of its population.
On their own, several other First Ladies made official visits to Great Britain during their White House tenures and the different purposes of such excursions. The discussion did not include those First Ladies who had gone to England to accompany Presidents of the United States on official state visits.
While Jacqueline Kennedy was perhaps the most famous of those First Ladies who made trips on her own to numerous foreign countries, her initial visit to England was largely ceremonial and private in nature.
Mrs. Kennedy joined President Kennedy on his first foreign trip to Europe in May of 1961, and most famously left a permanent impression during their first stop in Paris. Her knowledge of French history and ability to speak French fluently startled French President Charles DeGaulle as well as the nation’s media and populace.
She then went with the President to Austria, where she had a similar affect on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a dinner held after his talks with JFK.
After Vienna, the Kennedys flew to London. The First Lady’s sister Lee Radziwill was then living in the English capital city and the Kennedys were overnight guests with her and her family. During their time there, the President served as the godfather of the Radzwill’s daughter Christina.
They were also the honored guests at a private dinner in Buckingham Palace.
Jackie Kennedy had once shaken the hand of Elizabeth as a princess when the future First Lady was touring Europe as a college student and had again watched her arrival in Washington, in November of 1951 during a visit to President Truman at the White House.
Mrs. Kennedy’s 1961 dinner at Buckingham Palace was the first time the two women had a chance to speak and get to know each other personally.
Although the President returned to the United States immediately after the dinner, the First Lady remained in London for several days, exploring the city on her own.
She did not make any official appearances.
Instead, she strolled the streets and went antique shopping with her sister before they both headed to Greece for a private vacation.
In July of 1981, First Lady Nancy Reagan made her own independent trip to England as the guest representative of the United States at the legendary wedding of British Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, soon to become famous the world round as “Princess Di.”
During her time in London, Mrs. Reagan attended a private dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip for heads of state from other nations also in attendance at the royal wedding, and a polo match where the Queen also made an appearance.
Staying at the American Embassy, she encountered fellow Americans and those also previously employed in her former profession of acting, including Princess Grace [Kelly] of Monaco and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
In October of 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first incumbent First Lady to make a lengthy mission to a foreign country without a President (Ida McKinley had briefly visited Mexico in May of 1901 for a breakfast gathering and Edith Wilson had joined President Wilson for his post-World War I trip to Europe).
Eleanor Roosevelt made the Atlantic crossing by plane, first landing in Ireland and then proceeding to England.
Mrs. Roosevelt made the historic trip as a representative of the Red Cross.
In her capacity as the First Lady of the United States she was both an important symbol of the US-British alliance fighting the Third Reich during World War II and also as an inspector of wartime conditions of not only British citizens but also American servicemen and servicewomen stationed there.
Everywhere she went, the looming figure of the American First Lady was greeted enthusiastically br crowds. She had no Secret Service agents and went about wartime London at her free will
Staying as a guest of King George and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, she toured munitions factories where women were predominantly the employees, met with Air Transport Auxiliary women workers, and visited London shelters where residents sought refuge during bombings by the Nazis.
Mrs. Roosevelt also met with American service personnel, which was then still being racially segregated.
A famous champion of civil rights on all spheres of life, she made a point of coming to meet with both white and black American troops.
All of this she reported back with her observations to the President and Secretary of War (as the Defense Department was then called).
She also made an address to the British people by BBC radio.
From the trip, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gained useful ideas she recommended both for improving conditions for US servicemen and for how the people of England were coping with wartime conditions.
During World War II, she would later make two other foreign trips in her capacity as a Red Cross representative, to the South Pacific and then to the Caribbean basin.