Ranking America’s First Ladies From Most to Least Popular
The role of first lady is one that has been filled by many women over the years, and each one brings her own unique style and set of skills to the role. While some first ladies are more popular than others, it can be hard to rank them in order from most to least popular. They can make or break a president, and they often have their own agendas and causes that they champion. So, who is America’s most popular First Lady? And who is at the bottom of the list? Read on to find out!
Abigail Fillmore ranks as one of the most unconventional first ladies in American history. A teacher and scholar by trade, she was shocked to learn upon moving into the White House that there was no presidential library.
With an appropriation of $2,000 from Congress, Abigail purchased books for a White House library and established a literary salon. As first lady, Abigail was an advocate for education and culture. She helped to establish the White House Library, and her literary salon was a popular gathering place for Washington’s elite.
Eliza Johnson was one of America’s most private first ladies. She ranks as one of the least photographed first ladies and preferred to remain out of the public eye. Despite her husband’s high-profile political career, she contentedly stayed in the shadows – that is until he was sworn in as President of the United States following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Suddenly, Mrs. Johnson was thrust into the spotlight whether she liked it or not. Although she made only two public appearances during her husband’s presidency – once at a reception for Queen Emma of Hawaii and again at a levee – Mrs. Johnson still managed to make her mark on history.
Julia Grant ranks highly among her successors. She was heavily involved in her husband’s campaign, and was reportedly thrilled when he was elected. Grant became an acclaimed hostess as First Lady, while at the same time championing women’s rights and pushing forward the importance of her role.
She was allegedly devastated upon learning that her husband would not seek a third term. However, she left a lasting legacy as an advocate for the role of First Lady, and set a high standard for those who followed in her footsteps.
She was also the first First Lady to be nicknamed “First Lady”, a title which has since been used by all subsequent wives of presidents. Lucy Hayes’ example as a supportive, yet independent political wife set the stage for future First Ladies. In this way, she was truly a revolutionary figure in American history.
Lucy Hayes is an important figure in American history not just because she was the wife of a president, but because she was a woman who fought for what she believed in and helped to pave the way for future generations of women. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us remember Lucy Hayes and her many accomplishments.
Lucretia Garfield played an important role in her husband’s presidential campaign. She was an advocate for her husband’s policies and choices, and her knowledge of the inner workings of the Republican Party was invaluable.
Once her husband was elected, Lucretia was heavily involved in his choices to fill cabinet positions. She also worked tirelessly to renovate the White House, making it a more inviting and comfortable place for families. However, shortly into the term, she contracted malaria and was still convalescing when her husband was assassinated in July.
Frances Cleveland holds the distinction of being the youngest American First Lady of all time at 21 years old. She married President Grover Cleveland, who was 28 years her senior and who had entered the White House as a bachelor, in 1886. The two remained together through both of his non-consecutive terms, and the rest of his life.
Cleveland was a popular First Lady through her time in the White House, but ranks among one of the most controversial due to her later political takes – including opposing women’s suffrage. Despite this, she advocated for many other causes during her lifetime.
Ida McKinley became a virtual recluse in the years following her husband’s death, rarely leaving the presidential mansion and shunning all social interactions. She did make one notable exception for former first lady Jackie Kennedy, who she befriended during Kennedy’s White House years.
The two women struck up an unlikely friendship, with Ida offering advice and support to the much younger Jackie. Sadly, Ida McKinley passed away just a few years after her husband, dying of pneumonia in 1907. She was just 57 years old. While she may not have been as iconic or well-known as some other first ladies, Ida McKinley’s story is nonetheless a tragic and fascinating one.
Helen “Nellie” Taft
Helen “Nellie” Taft ranks among the most popular and best-remembered first ladies in American history. She is perhaps most famous for her role in the planting of the 3,020 Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and on Capitol grounds. On March 27, 1912, she personally planted the first two saplings with Viscountess Iwa Chinda (the wife of the Japanese ambassador).
In addition to beautifying DC for decades to come, Taft also continued expanding the traditions of White House receptions and other social events. She was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage, and she helped expand the role of first lady from domestic hostess to a more public-facing position.
Edith Wilson ranks as one of the most controversial First Ladies in U.S. history. She married President Woodrow Wilson in March of 1915, a short time after his first wife passed away. In her early years as First Lady, Wilson was relatively well-liked and became the first of her position to visit Europe.
However, things took a turn when President Wilson suffered a massive stroke in October of 1919. The stroke left him bedridden and paralyzed, though the true extent of Woodrow Wilson’s condition was hidden from many in both the public and government by Edith and his doctors.
Eleanor Rosalynn Carter ranks among America’s most influential first ladies. She was an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, mental health issues, and the Habitat for Humanity organization.
Carter was known as the “steel magnolia” during most of her time as First Lady, owing to the idea that her sweet and genteel exterior hid a “tough as nails” interior that allowed her to deal with the many slings and arrows tossed at her and her husband, President Jimmy Carter.
Eleanor Roosevelt ranks as one of the most popular first ladies in American history. She served as first lady for more than 12 years, longer than any other first lady in history. During her time in the White House, Roosevelt was a strong advocate for women’s rights and worked to further the cause of equality for women.
She also remained active as a writer and lecturer during her husband’s administration. Since 1982 she is consistently ranked as top 1 according to Siena Research Institute, described as the most effective and popular first ladies in history.
Abigail Adams was ranked second in Siena Research Institute’s study. She is considered the closest adviser to her husband — President John Adams. Moreover, she is the mother of who would become President John Quincy Adams. Abigail is remembered as an intellectual, often consulting on major issues that were to set American history.
While her husband was in office, Abigail served as the formal entertainer, meaning she focused on the critical social status and reputation of the president and, ultimately, the White House. Prestige was key in political negotiations, especially at the time.
In a Siena Research Institutes survey in 2003, Laura Bush ranks 24th one of the most respected and admired first ladies. She is often respected for her focus on education as the first lady. Moreover, she was serving as first lady during the tragedy of 9/11.
As an advocate for education, Mrs. Bush has worked to promote early childhood education, reading programs, and higher standards in schools. She also launched the Helping America’s Youth initiative to address the needs of at-risk children. In addition to her work on education, Mrs. Bush is also a strong supporter of human rights and democracy around the world.
Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson was a trailblazer in many ways as she consistently ranks in the top 7 of first ladies in Siena Research Institute’s study. Not only was she the first lady to directly interact with Congress, but she was also the first financial contributor to her husband’s political campaigns. She was a savvy investor and a socialite who knew how to work a room.
But perhaps her most lasting legacy is her advocacy for environmental protection. Thanks to her efforts, we have the Highway Beautification Act, which has helped keep our roads and highways clean and beautiful.
Betty Ford was one of the most beloved first ladies in American history. She is consistently ranked in the top 9 of the first ladies, with an approval rating of 75% . Betty was known for being much more progressive than her husband and many members of her political party.
She was passionate about women’s rights — even advocating for women’s reproductive rights. Moreover, she sought to tackle the issue of substance abuse. Her work on these issues earned her immense respect from the American people.
Dolley Madison is one of the most important first ladies in American history. She ranks fourth among all first ladies, and she is an advocate for bipartisanship. Madison was known for her parties and her social capital.
She often invited political opponents to the same parties, and she helped bridge gaps across the aisle. As such, she is credited for solidifying the much more social role as the first lady. While she didn’t focus on policy, she knew the importance of social capital, especially during the era she served (1809-1817).
Rosalynn Carter ranks high among America’s first ladies. She is most often seen in a positive light, despite her approval rating during her husband’s administration only being 58%. In 1993, she was ranked fifth in the Siena Research Institute’s survey. And in 2003, she was ranked sixth.
Rosalynn made regular appearances at cabinet meetings during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. She also represented him abroad on numerous occasions, most often appearing in Latin America. Her particular initiative was focused on mental health.
Siena Research Institute’s study found that Jackie Kennedy has steadily climbed up the spots to peak at 4th in 2003. This is a significant increase from her ranking at number 8 in 1982. She was known for her elegant fashion sense and for her work as an advocate for the arts. During her time as first lady, she focused largely on White House restoration, taking a special interest in the artwork and integrity of the interior decoration in the historic building.
Jackie O. was an icon in the creative fields of fashion, art, and photography. Her outfits from her time as the first lady are still often put on display today.
Martha Washington was the first lady of the United States, and she set the tone for many women who would come after her. She was often called “Lady Washington” because there was no official term for the first lady at that time.
Martha didn’t necessarily want her husband to become president, but she focused on social affairs and hosting. She was known for always looking her best and being down to earth. Siena Research Institute found that she is consistently ranked by the American people in the top 13. Martha was an advocate for women’s rights, and she is remembered as a kind and gracious woman.
As first lady, Edith Roosevelt was ranked number 10 in Siena Research Institute’s study. She was known for hosting lavish parties and events at the White House, and made sure that other politically involved wives followed suit. Edith was also known for her subtle influence on policy matters. She would provide her husband with key newspaper articles and occasionally act as a liaison between important political figures and the president.
In addition to her political acumen, Edith is also known for her impeccable fashion sense. She was often ranked as one of the best-dressed women in Washington D.C., and set the standard for first ladies’ fashion for years to come.
Lou Hoover was known for being an advocate for various causes. She often appeared on radio broadcasts to promote volunteerism and other issues. In addition to her political work, Lou was also a major force in the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.
She served as national GSUSA president on two separate occasions. In Siena Research Institute’s study, she ranked 11th in 1982 and has not fallen too much below that since. Despite not holding elected office, Lou Hoover made a significant impact during her time as first lady.
Barbara Bush was ranked highly for her advocacy work on behalf of various causes, including childhood literacy, reproductive rights, and civil rights. She was also an outspoken supporter of AIDS awareness during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Despite being a member of the Republican Party, Mrs. Bush often clashed with party policies or platforms on these issues. In fact, it was revealed after her death that she no longer considered herself a Republican towards the end of her life.
Ellen Wilson was known for her ranks in the arts. She had an educational background in the arts and famously spent time creating, sketching, and painting while in the White House. Ellen successfully navigated the D.C. social scene by hosting simple yet entertaining parties.
One of her main causes that she focused on was improving D.C. housing, particularly for Black Americans. Her time in the White House was sadly cut short due to her untimely death in 1914, but history looks back on her fondly as an advocate for those less fortunate.
At number 14 in the Siena Research Institute’s 1982 survey is Louisa Adams, the first lady from 1825-1829 during President John Quincy Adams’ term. Notably, Louisa did not attend her husband’s inauguration due to the nature of his victorious election.
Since the vote came to the House of Representatives to decide, John Quincy Adams struck a deal with the Speaker of the House – Henry Clay. This deal secured votes for Adams and promised Clay the position of Secretary of State. Despite her disapproval, Louisa still made the most of her time as first lady.
As the 15th ranked first lady by the Siena Research Institute, Bess Truman was far from the typical socialite that often came to mind when thinking about the wives of presidents. In fact, she largely avoided the social scene in Washington D.C., preferring to spend her time with family and friends back home in Missouri.
Privacy was also extremely important to Bess, who hated the loss of personal privacy that came with being first lady. She rarely gave press conferences or granted interviews, preferring to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible.
Few first ladies have shied away from the public eye quite like Grace Coolidge. Ranked 17th in Siena Research Institute’s 1982 survey, Grace was known for her avoidance of politics. While her husband became more entrenched in the world of Washington, Grace continued to distance herself from it.
Rather than making commentary on timely political topics, Grace focused on causes that had popular support, specifically charitable organizations such as the Red Cross. When her son died, the public looked kindly on Grace and gave their sympathy.
Martha Jefferson Randolph
Martha Jefferson Randolph was the first lady of the United States from 1801 to 1809 and ranked 18th in the Siena Research Institutes 1982 study. She was the daughter of President Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson.
Martha was a great advocate for the abolition of slavery and worked tirelessly to end the practice in America. She was also known for her love of luxury and her many extravagant parties. Martha Jefferson Randolph was truly a woman ahead of her time.
Sarah Polk ranked at 22nd of the most successful first ladies in American history. She was an advocate for her husband’s career and political ambitions, and is known for her hosting skills and social savviness. Sarah was elaborate in the meals and alcohol she served, and often advised her husband on speeches and other important matters.
She also traveled with him on campaign trails, writing for a newspaper to help support his candidacy. Sarah Polk was a strong supporter of manifest destiny, and was vocal about this controversial subject.She is truly an inspiration to all women who aspire to have a career while also being supportive of their husbands’ ambitions.
Emily Donelson was ranked 26th in the Siena Research Institute 1982 survey. A niece of President Andrew Jackson’s late wife Rachel, Emily was appointed as hostess following her death. Emily’s husband served as an assistant to the president, while she took on the household duties.
Emily was a sociable person and even befriended President Jackson’s rival, John Quincy Adams. However, she was also at the center of a scandal involving Peggy Eaton. When Emily refused to return to the White House, President Jackson asked someone new to take on the responsibilities of hostess.
It’s no secret that first ladies often get ranks. In fact, a recent poll showed that 66% of Americans believe Michelle Obama is the best first lady of all time. This is likely because she is one of the most educated first ladies to date and has been an advocate for causes like childhood obesity during her time in the White House.
Nonetheless, some people are still critical of her, saying she didn’t do enough to support President Obama’s policy agenda. Regardless of the criticism, it’s clear that Michelle Obama was a popular first lady during her time in office.
Dr. Jill Biden
When Dr. Jill Biden ranks as one of the most popular first ladies in American history, it’s no surprise that she’s also one of the most accomplished. In addition to being an advocate for free community college and education access, Dr. Biden is also a lecturer and academic who earned her doctoral degree in educational leadership from the University of Delaware.
Although she isn’t the first first lady to maintain a job independent of the White House (she currently works as a professor at NOVA), she is the only one to do so while her husband is in office. This just goes to show how dedicated she is to her career, even while fulfilling her duties as first lady.
Julia Gardiner Tyler
Julia Gardiner Tyler was no stranger to hosting and maintaining social appearances. She is perhaps best known for insisting on “Hail to the Chief” being played whenever her husband, the 10th president of the United States, made an appearance. Also, Siena Research Institute’s 1982 survey ranked her 27 of the American first ladies.
Tyler was a strong advocate for women’s rights and frequently spoke out in support of equal education and working opportunities for women. After her time in the White House came to an end, she continued to work tirelessly on behalf of women’s rights until her death in 1889.
Hillary Clinton ranks high among America’s first ladies. She was an advocate for healthcare reform and adoption, and her husband’s Whitewater controversy notwithstanding, she enjoyed a 66% approval rating during her time in the White House.
Even after she left the White House, Hillary Clinton continued her career in politics, serving in Congress and as Secretary of State. Although her most recent presidential bid was unsuccessful, Hillary Clinton remains a powerful force in American politics.
Mamie Eisenhower was certainly one of the most influential first ladies in American history. She was ranked low at 31 in Siena Research Institute’s 1982 survey, but by 2003 moved up slightly to number 27. As the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, she lived with her husband in many military postings before he assumed the role as President of the United States.
One of the first things she did at the White House was throw a picnic with her staff to celebrate. Mamie was known for her clothes, jewelry, cooking (especially her fudge), and her décor. She was often seen in a shade of pink that would later come to be known as “Mamie pink.”
Nancy Reagan’s work as first lady was widely criticized, was ranked low at 39 in 1982 Siena Research Institute’s survey, but by 2003 moved up slightly to number 28. Her focus on drug awareness campaigns helped to improve her public image. Her “Just Say No” slogan became a household phrase and helped to raise awareness of the dangers of drug use.
Though her approval rating never reached particularly high levels, Nancy Reagan was able to make a significant impact during her time as first lady. Her work helped to change public perception of drug use and addiction, and she will be remembered for her dedication to this cause.
Angelica Van Buren
Angelica Van Buren was certainly one of the more unusual ones. She was actually the daughter-in-law of President Van Buren, taking on the role and duties of first lady after his wife Hannah died untimely. It was former First Lady Dolley Madison who linked Angelica and Abraham Van Buren II.
Angelica’s status as First Lady was great politically for President Van Buren, who was now more deeply entrenched into the Old South. Inspired by a trip to England, Angelica hoped to bring stylistic changes that were very European to the White House, though Americans did not love the change.
History ranks Pat Nixon low on the list at number 37 in Siena Research Institute’s survey. However, she was able to maintain a 54% approval rating during her time in office. Pat’s major initiative was in encouraging volunteerism. She believed in starting local to help fix issues in communities.
One volunteer group she was a part of is Women in Community Services. As an advocate for volunteerism, Pat Nixon helped make a difference in many communities across the United States.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln was not a popular first lady. In the 1982 Siena Research Institute survey, she was ranked last. Part of this may have been due to her background. She came from a wealthy, slave-owning family.
As first lady, she was often criticized for her heavy personal spending and the cost of refurbishing the White House. However, she remained loyal to her husband and his efforts to preserve the Union. Additionally, she was known for her rigid manners, which further contributed to her unpopularity.
Florence Harding ranks among the most Siena Research Institute’s surveys. Known as “The Duchess,” she was known for her elegant and elaborate White House parties. She also advocated for making the White House more accessible to the public and opening it up to tourists.
Florence Harding was a vocal advocate on many issues and was not afraid to speak her mind. This often made her unpopular with the press and political opponents. However, her celebrity status and outspoken nature made her a popular figure with the general public.
Melania Trump ranks as one of the most controversial first ladies in American history. During President Donald Trump’s presidency (2016-2020), Melania was known for taking a backseat and often being rather quiet about her husband’s policy initiatives.
Melania eventually would announce a campaign for cyberbullying awareness, which many called out for hypocrisy given her husband’s history with Twitter. She polled an approval rating of only 42%. After her term as first lady, she did not continue the “tea and a tour” tradition with Dr. Jill Biden as was customary during the transition of power.
While there are many different ways to measure popularity, it is clear that some of America’s first ladies have been more influential than others. The list we’ve put together is based on a variety of factors, but ultimately it comes down to how much the public loves and trusts these women. Whether they championed social causes or simply represented their husbands well, each of these ladies left her mark on history. Do you agree with our rankings?