"Lady Washington:" Inventing the First Lady's Role

"Lady Washington:" Inventing the First Lady's Role
Martha Washington: First Ladies' Lives

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Two to three class periods


When George Washington was elected the first President of the United States, no one quite knew how to address him, and no one had given a thought as to how to address his wife.  Some called her “Lady Washington;” others called her “Mrs. President.”  A greater problem, however, was how to define the role of the President’s wife in a democratic republic. This form of government had never existed before, and there were no precedents.


Students who participate in this lesson will consider the dilemma of creating a role for the wife of the President of the United States, research the lives of some presidential wives to see how it has been defined over the years, write short papers, and finally, debate the issue.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.


1.  Introduce the lesson with a discussion of the contemporary role of the First Lady of the U.S.  Have students explore the first website, below, to gain an understanding of the origin of the term, and a list of all the First Ladies.  

2,  Using the rest of the websites below, ask students to select one First Lady, research her life as the President’s wife, and come to a conclusion about her “take” on the role of the First Lady.  The final website, “The Role of the First Lady,” gives some of the current debate about the role of contemporary First Ladies.  

3.  When the research is finished, assign individual students to write a short essay on the topic of the Role of the First Lady—what it should be, can be, might be. 

4.  Conclude the lesson by providing students with time to share their ideas and insights.  Evaluation of the papers should be based on standard grading norms and/or state content standards for writing.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by encouraging students to write longer papers, to be presented at a Symposium, much like the one described on the website, Mrs. President: From Martha to Laura.

Sources & Resources:

Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington: An American Life. New York: Viking, 2005.
First Lady of the United States 

Martha Washington 

Mrs. President: From Martha to Laura

The Role of the First Lady
This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.