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6 Underrated U.S. First Ladies Who Were Way Before Their Time (And Way Cooler Than Their Presidential Husbands)

While there have been 46 impressive and inspiring women to fill the role, history has long forgotten some of the most underrated first ladies. There are some truly remarkable women who have served alongside the president, but only a handful are actively celebrated. When most people think of the role, they think of Jacqueline Kennedy or Dolley Madison. Eleanor Roosevelt (while being my favorite first lady) is continuously ranked as the most popular first lady of all time.

We know about Martha Washington, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama, but what about the impressive first ladies that history has glossed over? For some women, their efforts and roles exceeded those of their husbands' in terms of lasting legacy. Unlike the president, the role of first lady is strictly not an official one and comes with no salary. Over time, the women who have held the role have started traditions and expanded the expectations of the position.

The first lady doesn't always have to be the wife of the president either. In situations where the president is unmarried or widowed, daughters, nieces, or friends have stepped in to take over the social functions typically associated with the position. And as the country progressed, it became expected that first ladies would each adopt a pet position to champion during their time in the White House.

So who are some of the most impressive and underrated first ladies? You might recognize some names, while others will be complete mysteries to you.

Harriet Lane: 1857-1861

Harriet Lane, the niece of President James Buchanan, is even more forgotten than her uncle. Even though she enjoyed a level of popularity comparable to Jackie Kennedy at the time, the ensuing Civil War overshadowed the Buchanan presidency. One cause widely attributed to Lane was her desire to improve living conditions for Native Americans on reservations. In a letter to Lane by a Chippewa chief, she is called "The Great Mother Of Indians" and is thought to have lobbied to improve education and medicine for Native Americans.

Historical accounts differ on whether she actually attempted to use her position to further these efforts, but she was definitely interested in Native American art and culture. Though she had been out of the White House for decades at the time, upon Lane’s death, she left a considerable amount of money to create an invalid children’s home at John Hopkins. It later grew into one of the country’s premier pediatric facilities.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Harrison: 1889-1892

Caroline Harrison was the wife of President Benjamin Harrison and was definitely a feminist of her time. While she engaged in the traditional roles of the first lady — like renovating the White House plumbing and installing electricity — she also was an advocate of women's issues. She was the first president general of the newly formed Daughters of the American Revolution and used this role to speak out the role of women in society.

Like Lane before her, Harrison took an interested in helping John Hopkins increase the number of patients they could treat. When the hospital came to her seeking support to open a new medical school, Harrison agreed, with one stipulation — she would only help raise funds if they allowed women to attend the school. John Hopkins agreed, and upon completion the school, became one of the first major universities in the nation to admit women. Regrettably, Harrison died while her husband was pursuing re-election, but not before she established the best White House tradition of all — the White House Christmas tree.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ida McKinley: 1897-1901

Ida McKinley was a real turn of the century woman. As the wife of President William McKinley (a mostly forgotten chief commander), McKinley is often thought of as a champion for mental health, though she didn't necessarily earn the title. She was extremely sick in her later life, often suffering from severe cases of epilepsy, which, at the time, was considered a mental illness. Although her husband's campaign and presidency were taxing on her, she was determined to not show weakness and routinely pushed her physical limits.

While first lady, McKinley was a vocal supporter of the Crittenden House, which provided shelter, food, and job training to homeless women. She also was a huge supporter of women's suffrage, and was friends with Susan B. Anthony. Education was one of her passions, and she advocated that higher education opportunities be expanded for both females and African Americans. On at least one occasion, she personally paid for the children of one African American family to go to college. Which is honestly a lot more than her husband did for the black community.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nellie Taft: 1909-1913

If you have ever joined the thousands of tourists who descend on Washington D.C. each year for the Cherry Blossom festival, you have Nellie Taft to thank. Taft was the wife of William Taft (yes, the man who supposedly got stuck in a bathtub because of his girth), and was quite progressive. She was a vocal supporter of racial equality, and one of her first actions as first lady was to replace all the White House ushers with African Americans. Though this sounds demeaning, the position of White House usher was actually an extremely desired position among white White House staff, and the action was quite symbolic.

Taft also lifted the ban on divorced individuals visiting the White House, and championed legislation to promote safety standards in government buildings. Through this legislation, a national standard was set for the process of inspecting buildings to make sure they were structurally sound, sanitary, and well maintained. The effect in the quality of life for lower and middle class workers as a result was substantial.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Florence Harding: 1921-1923

Florence Harding was first lady for less than three years, due to the untimely death of her husband Warren G. Harding. But during that time, Florence was like an activist queen. There were very few causes that Harding didn’t support or work tirelessly for. She was an advocate for women's issues and wanted women of all races and ages to be involved in politics. She pushed for the appointment of female politicians and went out of her way to give stories or previews to female journalists. Her largest achievement, by far, was her push for women’s prison reform. Harding was aware of how badly female prisoners were treated, and her efforts for reform resulted in the Alderson Reformatory Prison, the first all-female prison in the United States. Alderson focused on rehabilitating the inmates and providing them with job training to ensure their success once they were released.

Harding was also passionate about animal rights, and was a supporter of the ASPCA and the Humane Society. Upon moving into the White House, she promptly removed all of Theodore Roosevelt’s stuffed animal heads that were hanging on the walls. And she cared about more than just dogs and women. Harding was passionate about race relations, and was not afraid to show it. One at least one occasion, she directly blocked the political appointment of a man she knew to be racist. Harding’s only downfall as first lady was that she had horrible taste in doctors, and her blind faith in her family doctor may have accidentally caused her husband’s death. After his passing, she also reportedly went home and burned a ton of his private paperwork, which seems a little sketchy. Whoops.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

Rosalynn Carter: 1977-1981

While Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter, is probably the most recognized names on this list, her lasting impact on mental health reform is extremely important and not often given due credit. Unlike any first lady before her, Carter acted as the national middle woman between her husband and the rest of the country. She would take notes at cabinet meetings (something that first ladies still don't do) and had business lunches with her husband each week to discuss policy and legislation that she was invested in.

Carter served as the active honorary chair for the President’s Commission on Mental Health, and while that sounds like an empty title, Carter made the most of it. In her position, she oversaw a board of social workers, doctors, and psychiatrists and helped establish task forces around the country. They identified the problems with the existing mental health care system, sought to overhaul health insurance coverage, garner state support for patients, and work to break down stigmas and remove legal discrimination. During her time as first lady, Carter also oversaw a tremendous increase in federal grants for mental health research.

She supported other causes as well — such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the appointment of a female Supreme Court judge — but even after her husband left office, Carter remained absolutely dedicated to expanding mental health treatment in America. Her efforts are almost unparalleled.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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