Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

The Silent Yet Crucial Role of First Ladies

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter passed away Nov. 19 after her family announced that she had begun hospice care. Carter, during and after her husband former President Jimmy Carter’s administration, was renowned as a champion for mental health awareness across the United States during the 1980s. 

Carter assisted her husband in the facilitation of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. The legislation worked to provide grants for communities to invest in mental health around the United States, but the bill was repealed a year later by the Reagan Administration. Carter also served as chairperson to her husband’s commission on mental health during his term. Prior to her role as first lady of the United States, she worked to bring mental health to prominence as an issue during her husband’s first term as Georgia’s governor. During the 1970s, she volunteered at hospitals in Georgia and joined the state commission to review and refine services made available by the state. 

Carter is one of many first ladies to have a tranquil, yet influential role in their spouse’s administration. Here are a few honorable mentions of first ladies who captured the nation’s attention during their time in the White House.

Eleanor Roosevelt set the tone for the impact of women in politics and civil rights. Roosevelt made history as the longest-serving first lady in office prior to the installment of the 22nd Amendment. She began her work of advocacy during her husband’s days as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. While her husband was undergoing health issues, she took over his interest in the women’s division of the state democratic committee. This position was one of many that she held calling for women’s political engagement across the nation. 

Roosevelt really began to dive into the political scene in 1933 when she began her term as first lady, transforming the title by breaking precedent and allowing press conferences, expressing her opinions and starting her daily newspaper column, titled My Day.” In addition, Roosevelt was connected to American citizens, writing over 3,000 articles in newspapers along with a monthly column in which she asked the public to depict their struggles and hardships associated with the times. During World War II, she even visited servicemen while previous first ladies would have been instructed to stay put. 

Roosevelt also had a significant influence on her husband’s administration, helping select his cabinet during the New Deal. In addition to her advancement of women’s suffrage, she also promoted racial justice by supporting the National Association For The Advancement of Colored People. Roosevelt made headlines when she withdrew from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to allow African-American singer Marian Anderson to sing in their auditorium. After her husband’s death in 1945, she continued her political activism and goals to promote world peace with her work as a delegate to the United Nations and chair to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Some of her most notable accomplishments outside of her term as first lady include, co-writing the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, speaking out to McCarthyism in the 1950s and calling for politicians in Washington D.C. to take swifter action towards housing desegregation. One of her final roles was chair of President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women revealing gender discrimination in regards to pay.  

Jacqueline Kennedy earned the title of “America’s Queen” in the 1960s for her regal and classy style, but she received international accolades for her televised restoration of the White House, restoration of art and history and serving as a traveling ambassador. Known for her love of the arts and history, she took on the challenge to make the White House “the most perfect house in the United States,” after visiting it prior to her husband’s inauguration and being dismayed with its appearance, calling it an “18th century home.” She worked to spark America’s interest, specifically children’s knowledge of the people who shaped the country’s history. After the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, she led the country in mourning, working to preserve his legacy. 

During her time as first lady, Hillary Clinton took on several roles but a notable one was her appointment as head of the national health care reform, also campaigning for awareness of women’s and children’s issues. She supported the Adoption and Safe Families Act. After her term as first lady was over, she served as secretary of state and ran for president in 2016. 

Michelle Obama served as first lady from 2018 to 2016 and brought her philanthropic ambitions to the White House with her “Let’s Move!” initiative to reduce childhood obesity and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Over the years, many of the first ladies, including the ones mentioned above, elected to use their titles to promote opportunities for minorities or support their personal causes near and dear to their hearts. Contrary to most political wives, these women developed a unique sense of individuality and focus that made them political weapons.

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