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What is a First Lady?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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The term “First Lady” is used in two different senses. In the first sense, the First Lady is a wife of a prominent elected official, such as a President or Governor. The term is also used to describe women who are the forefront of their field, especially in the performing arts, which is why you hear Ella Fitzgerald referred to as the First Lady of American Song. In both senses, the term is meant to suggest that a woman is socially prominent and that she should be viewed as an object of veneration and respect.

People first started using the term in the United States, to refer to the wife of the President of the United States. The term arose in the late 1800s, and quickly spread to other regions of the world. A First Lady is not only the wife of a prominent official; she is also a hostess and official symbol for her country or region, and by convention, First Ladies often engage in their own social events and champion private causes while their husbands are in office.

There is some dispute as to what the male spouse of a female elected official should be called. As a general rule, male spouses are referred to as the “First Gentleman,” although you may also hear the term “First Consort.” Much like a First Lady, a First Gentleman often plays an important role in his society.

The First Lady of the United States in particular tends to be a very prominent and well known public figure. Many First Ladies have worked on various social causes, ranging from education to healthcare, and they have played important political roles in the United States. While early First Ladies were largely seen and not heard, by the 20th century, the First Lady was expected to be socially active and engaged in American society.

Some notable First Ladies include Jacqueline Kennedy, who became a notable celebrity in American culture during her husband's Presidency, along with Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dolley Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt. By tradition, if an American President is unmarried, a close female relative or companion may be referred to as the First Lady.

The use of “First Lady” to honor women who are particularly accomplished in their field is more recent. In addition to being used to refer to woman who are especially talented in the arts, the term is also sometimes used to refer to women who are prominent socially, along with the wives of religious officials and university Presidents.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By elizabeth2 — On Feb 15, 2011

If you were to ask someone like former First Lady Laura Bush if she had to do it over again, would she prefer the position to be as it is now or more like it was in the past when the First Lady was seen and not heard, I wonder what her answer would be.

It looks like it's such a glamorous role, but maybe it would have been easier in the past. While it seems like it would be irritating to have no voice, maybe it was more peaceful.

By rosoph — On Feb 13, 2011

I've always admired the position of First Lady, as it refers to the wife of a prominent social or political figure.

The First Lady must have so many opportunities to do good things. I imagine that even a former First Lady would have opportunities that a regular citizen would not.

On the other hand, I would think that there is a lot of difficulty that goes along with the position also. There must be almost no privacy, everyone always knowing what you're up to. It can't be easy. The women who have that title, must be strong, outgoing women.

By upnorth31 — On Feb 10, 2011

I always thought the First Lady was simply the wife of the President. I didn't realize there were other ways to become a First Lady. And I've never heard of a President having a First Lady that he was not married to. Who did this occur with?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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