A student made a recent inquiry to the National First Ladies Library about which First Ladies who were considered “southern” may have especially held political views on public issues contemporary to their tenure in the White House.
In using the broadest definition of the role of First Lady, which does not confine that to simply those women who were married to Presidents but also to those daughters, nieces, and daughters-in-law who fulfilled the public duties of that role, one finds a number of women might qualify under the widest parameters of southern women who were First Ladies. The categorization of them becomes less well defined when one ponders whether or not to include those who may not have been born and raised in the southern states but who chose to marry men with homes in the southern states and to establish their life there and also adopt prevailing views, particularly as it related to slavery and states rights.
Here is a definitive list, using the broadest parameters, of those who can be considered southern First Ladies:
Martha Custis Dandridge Washington (born, raised and lived in Virginia)
Martha Jefferson Randolph (born, raised and lived most of her life in Virginia; the president’s daughter served as public hostess for two of the eight social seasons of his administration)
Dolley Payne Todd Madison (born in North Carolina, raised in Pennsylvania, lived part of her life in Virginia)
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (born and raised in New York, lived part of her life in Virginia)
Rachel Donelson Jackson (born in Virginia, lived in Tennessee, died after her husband’s election, before his presidency)
Emily Donelson (born, raised and lived in Tennessee, niece of Rachel Jackson, served as public hostess for about half of her uncle’s administration)
Sarah Yorke Jackson (born and raised in Pennsylvania, lived much of her life in Tennessee, daughter-in-law of the president by his adopted son, served as public hostess for the latter part of his administration)
Angelica Singleton Van Buren (born and raised in South Carolina, lived in New York, served as public hostess for her widowed father-in-law)
Letitia Christian Tyler (born, raised and lived in Virginia, first wife of the president)
Priscilla Cooper Tyler (born and raised in Pennsylvania, lived in Virginia and Alabama, served as public hostess for her father-in-law since her mother-in-law was unable to do so due to a stroke)
Letitia Tyler Semple (born and raised in Virginia, lived in Maryland and Washington, D.C., served as public hostess following the death of her mother and departure of her sister-in-law from Washington)
Julia Gardiner Tyler (born and raised in New York, lived in Virginia, Washington, D.C. and New York, the second wife of the president and married to him when he served in the Confederate Congress)
Sarah Childress Polk (born and lived in Tennessee, educated in North Carolina)
Margaret “Peggy” Mackall Smith Taylor (born and raised in Maryland, lived in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi)
Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Taylor Bliss (born in Kentucky, raised on Army posts through southern, midwestern states, educated in northern states, lived in Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, served as public hostess for her father’s administration since her mother chose not to do so)
Mary Todd Lincoln (born and raised in Kentucky, lived in Illinois and New York)
Eliza McCardle Johnson (born, raised and lived in Tennessee)
Martha Johnson Patterson (born, raised and lived in Tennessee, served as public hostess for her father since her mother lived with tuberculosis and was unable to do so)
Ellen Herndon Arthur (born in Virginia, raised in Washington, D.C., lived in New York – died eighteen months before her husband succeeded to the presidency)
Ellen Axson Wilson (born and raised in Georgia, educated and lived most of her adult life outside of the southern states)
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (born and raised in Virginia, lived most of her life in Washington, D.C.)
Rosalynn Smith Carter (born, raised and lived most of her life in Georgia)
As to those who were especially political in their roles:
Without question, Rosalynn Carter was the most overtly involved in politics and policy of her husband’s administration, certainly to a degree almost never seen in the presidency. One can conduct secondary source research on this from several excellent sources; one can also conduct original research at the Carter Presidential Library, using those of her papers which have been opened to the public.
Ellen Wilson was also quite involved in social issues which involved contemporary political matters, most notably her efforts to upgrade the sub-standard housing of Washington’s African-American community around the U.S. Capitol Building and the simultaneous enforcement of new “Jim Crow” laws in the city, as well as new policies dictating racial segregation in the federal workplace. Several excellent secondary works (biographies) of her will provide good primary resources to consult further. Her biography Ellen Wilson by Frances Saunders is an excellent source.
Edith Wilson had strong if ill-informed opinions that were political in that they involved her husband, but it was his interests and not a natural inclination towards political matters which led her into political matters. Her biography Edith and Woodrow by Phyllis Levin chronicles this well.
Mary Lincoln similarly approached political issues during her husband’s presidency – from the viewpoint of his interests, but also held strong political views of her own which sometimes contradicted his and pre-dated her marriage. The best sources for this are Jean Baker’s biography Mary Lincoln, Life and Letters of Mary Lincoln by Justin Turner and his daughter and Ruth Painter Randall’s biography of this First Lady. The assiduous endnotes will help serve as a guide to original sources.
Perhaps the most politically-overt of southern First Ladies of the 19th century were Sarah Polk and Julia Tyler. There is no good biography of the former but the Polk Ancestral Home in Tennessee will be a good starting point. An excellent joint biography of Julia Tyler and John Tyler is the 1962 …And Tyler Too, by Robert Seager. He uses many of her family papers at Yale University and it is well-resourced.
Like her stepmother-in-law Julia Tyler, Priscilla Tyler was an adopted southern woman, but her daughter is the person who first raised the Confederate flag in Alabama and she held strong emotional views in support of the C.S.A. Her papers are at the University of Alabama and original research may turn up more specifics
Likewise, one may find some new and interesting information on Angelica Van Buren, a native of South Carolina during her life in New York during the Civil War. Some of her papers are included among those of President Van Buren at the Library of Congress and the University of South Carolina has a collection of her books and may also have some of her letters.
For further information, pllease read through the individual biographies of these First Ladies under “research” on the National First Ladies Library website and also consult our bibliography which provides the above sources and many others on each individual First Lady.