As many women who held the office of First Lady, these Southern examples of humility and grace didn’t take their leading lady roles lightly. More than just charming hostesses, these ladies served as presidential confidantes, advisors, and as leaders in their own right.
- Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman
A close confidante of her husband, Bess Truman was affectionately referred to by President Truman as “the boss”
Affectionately referred to as “the boss” by her husband, this First Lady wasn’t a fan of the attention her husband’s career brought to her small family, but she used her position to help heal her country following World War II.
Known as “Bess” by all who adored her, Elizabeth Virginia Wallace was born on February 13, 1885, in Independence, Missouri. She was her parents’ first child and their only daughter, which might be what led to Bess’s being known as a bit of a tomboy. She excelled in athletics throughout her childhood in a variety of sports, including tennis, ice skating, and playing baseball with the neighborhood children. It was also during her childhood that she met the man she would stand beside as she defined her own place in history.
Remembering her blue eyes and golden curls, Harry Truman seemed smitten from the first time he saw young Bess after his family moved to Independence in 1890. The pair went to the same schools and graduated in the same class, but after their senior year, Bess went to Barstow, a girls’ finishing school in Kansas City, Missouri. Afterward, she returned to her family’s home on Delaware Street in Independence to live a quiet life. But a simple, quiet life would not be in the books for Bess. In 1917 she became engaged to Truman, then a U.S. Army lieutenant, but World War I postponed their marriage until June 1919. The couple had one daughter, Mary Margaret, before Truman’s political career kicked off, and the family was off to Washington.
Although she longed for home, she made the most of her time in the nation’s capital. While Truman served in the Senate, Bess served with the PEO Sisterhood (Philanthropic Educational Organization), joined other Washington wives in The Congressional Club, the Red Cross, and the USO (United Service Organization). When her husband was elected Chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, she joined him in an official capacity as his secretary, answering his personal mail among other duties. No matter what she felt about being in the public eye, she was her husband’s constant companion and closest ally.
In 1945, Truman took the oath of office as Vice President under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just three short months later, Roosevelt unexpectedly died of a cerebral hemorrhage. On April 12, 1945, as her husband took the Presidential oath, Bess became First Lady of the United States. After the end of the war that had put much of the country on hold, she brought life back to the White House through social gatherings. While entertaining was by far not her favorite duty as First Lady, she welcomed her guests with down-to-earth charm that made others feel quickly at ease.
A reporter once asked Bess what she had planned to do when her husband retired. Her response spoke the desire of her heart: “Return to Independence.” And in 1953, the couple returned to their home town in Missouri, enjoying their final years together traveling and spending time with their four grandsons until Truman’s death in 1972. Bess remained at their home in Independence until her own death a decade later on October 18, 1982.
- Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson
Claudia Taylor Johnson received the nickname that would last a lifetime when as a young child she was told she was “purty as a lady bird”
Once told she was “purty as a lady bird” by a nurse maid, this First Lady also proved to be highly intelligent, an advocate for children, and a staunch activist for environmental preservation.
Born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, in Karnack, Texas, “Lady Bird,” as she came to be known, was raised by her father and aunt, along with family servants, after losing her mother when she was only five years old. A good student, Lady Bird attended Dallas’s Saint Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls after graduating high school, before earning degrees in both history and journalism from the University of Texas. It was after obtaining her degrees in 1934 that she met a young congressional secretary named Lyndon Baines Johnson. The soon-to-be politician was just in Austin on business, but he kept up a courtship with Lady Bird through calls, letters, and telegrams. A mere seven weeks after his first visit, he proposed. The Johnsons were married later that same year.
Alongside raising two daughters, Lady Bird was her husband’s best friend and confidante during his whirlwind political years. When he served in the naval forces during World War II, she kept his office as a U.S. Representative running. She gained the respect of her husband’s Washington companions when she ran his staff after Johnson suffered a heart attack during his time as majority leader of the Senate. Beloved in her home state of Texas, it came as no surprise that she put just as much of herself into her time as it took in the role of Second Lady when her husband was elected under President John F. Kennedy. She campaigned across the states for other Democratic candidates and visited more than thirty countries as a Goodwill Ambassador before tragedy called her to a different role.
After the assassination of Kennedy, Lady Bird stood beside a grieving country from her new position in the White House. During her husband’s time in the Oval Office, she encouraged her husband’s “war on poverty,” advocating for the Head Start Program, which gave early education advantages to children in poverty. But it was her work as an environmentalist, pushing for the beautification of the nation’s highways and conserving the environment, that is most widely remembered through her First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital campaign (that came to include the entire country).
Over her lifetime, Lady Bird was given numerous awards for her contributions to the country, including the Congressional Gold Medal by President Ronald Reagan, and was presented the highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, by President Gerald Ford. After Johnson’s time in office, the couple moved back to Texas, where Lady Bird published her White House Diary. President Johnson died in 1973, and Lady Bird was laid to rest next to her husband at their ranch’s family cemetery after her death on July 11, 2007.
- Rosalynn Smith Carter
During her husband’s Presidency, Time magazine called Rosalynn Carter the “second most powerful person in the United States”
During her husband’s Presidency, this leading lady was called by Time magazine “the second most powerful person in the United States.” And rightfully so, as she spent her time in her East Wing office as well as the remainder of her life to this day as a champion for women, children, and those with mental illness.
Eleanor Rosalynn Carter was born August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia. As the eldest of her parents’ four children, she took over much of the household duties upon the death of her father when she was thirteen. Her mother worked as a dressmaker and seamstress, and Rosalynn tended to her siblings and helped with the keeping of the home and her mother’s business. She graduated high school, but she never completed her education at Georgia Southwestern College.
In 1945, seventeen-year-old Rosalynn went on a date with a young man on leave from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. She had known Jimmy Carter—he had graduated from Plains High School of handful of years before she did. But after their first date (on which they were accompanied by Carter’s younger sister and her beau), Carter told his mother that Rosalynn was the girl he wanted to marry. After a short courtship, he proposed. The young couple married the following year on July 7, 1946, a month after Carter’s graduation from the Naval Academy.
As a naval family, the Carters traveled across the states before he resigned from the navy following the death of his father. Rosalynn ran the family business alongside her husband, handling the bookkeeping for the peanut farm and warehouse business. Carter began dabbling in local politics and in 1962 was elected to the Georgia Senate. Rosalynn fully supported his political career and hit the campaign trail whenever needed. After a successful campaign in 1970, Rosalynn became First Lady of Georgia. She spent much of her time securing rights for the mentally disabled and was appointed to the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped.
In 1977, the Carters moved into the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue. As First Lady of the United States, Rosalynn sat in on her husband’s Cabinet meetings and served as an active honorary chairperson on the President’s Commission on Health. While she entertained at the White House frequently, Rosalynn ran a different schedule than many of her predecessors, opposing a calendar filled with social obligations for a political agenda of her own.
Since their time in Washington, the Presidential couple opened The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The organization aims to alleviate global human suffering and promote human rights. Rosalynn is also the president of the board of directors for Georgia Southwestern College’s Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving. Turning ninety in 2017, Rosalynn has authored five books and continues to devote her time to numerous causes.
- Laura Welch Bush
Both an elementary school teacher and librarian, Laura Bush was a strong advocate for literacy and education during her time as First Lady of Texas and the United States
The most recent of a long line of Southern leading ladies, her time as a school teacher greatly influenced her platform as First Lady, eventually taking her work with literacy global.
Laura Lane Welch was born in Midland, Texas, on November 4, 1946. An only child, she once gave credit to her parents for encouraging her love of reading at an early age. After graduating from Robert E. Lee High School, Laura went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Southern Methodist University and a Master of Library Science degree from the University of Texas. She taught for a time as an elementary teacher in both the Dallas Independent School District and Houston Independent School District. She was also a librarian at the Houston Public Library and in the Austin Independent School District.
Laura’s life in a political family got its start at a friend’s backyard barbecue in July 1977. There, she was introduced to George W. Bush, and the two were instantly inseparable. By September Bush had proposed, and the two were married on November 5, 1977. Years later Bush described his decision to marry Laura as “the best decision of my life.” The couple had twins, Jenna and Barbara, in 1981.
While Bush’s campaign for a seat in Congress was unsuccessful, Laura found herself in Washington nonetheless, as daughter-in-law to a Vice President and then President. In 1994, Bush was elected to governor of Texas, and Laura found her platform to speak up for issues dear to her heart. While entertaining at formal events wasn’t high on her list as First Lady of Texas, her time was not spent in vain. From 1994 to 2000, Laura implemented literacy programs including Take Time for Kids, Reach Out and Read, Ready to Read, and the First Lady’s Family Literacy Initiative. Her initiatives frequently focused on the success of a family’s reading with their children.
After her husband was inaugurated in 2001, Laura continued her push for literacy and education as First Lady of the United States. She spoke before the Senate Committee on Education to ask for higher teacher salaries, and she created the Ready to Read, Ready to Learn program. But the attacks on September 11, 2001, a defining moment in her husband’s Presidency, sent her overseas to fight for women and children. She traveled to Afghanistan and spoke against the Taliban’s treatment of women and children, serving as honorary chair of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. She also brought her literacy work to Afghanistan, Ghana, and Pakistan as the honorary ambassador for the United Nations Literacy Decade.
After leaving Washington, the couple retreated to Texas where she helped to oversee the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University. She continues her work as an advocate for women, children, and education through the George W. Bush Institute.
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