According to a survey of 242 historians and political scientists, Eleanor Roosevelt is still the best First Lady of all time. In over 30 years of polling by the Siena College Research Institute, Roosevelt has held the top spot each of the five times that the FLOTUS poll has been conducted, edging out Abigail Adams, Jackie Kennedy, and Dolley Madison.
Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton devotees, be not discouraged, the two women finished fifth and sixth, respectively. Barbara Bush (11) and Laura Bush (12) rounded out the top twelve.
What may be more interesting than the results is the methodology of the poll. The determining factors vary from the direct ("accomplishments," "value to the President," and "White House steward") to the vague and inchoate ("background," "courage," and most contentiously, "being her own woman"). Reuters broke down Michelle Obama's ranking this way:
Current first lady Michelle Obama scored particularly high in the categories of "being her own woman" and "value to the president." Her weakest area was seen to be in her capacity of "being the White House steward."
That seems like a fair assessment in a modern context. However, ascribing these principles by rank to women serving in an undefined political role over the course of more than two centuries feels more like a fool's errand.
For example: Jane Pierce, who came in dead last in the poll, was a one-term First Lady known for her bad health and ambivalence about politics and public life. Her time in the White House was also spent grieving for her son Benjamin, who died in a train crash two months before her husband Franklin Pierce was inaugurated.
On the other hand, Dolley Madison, who already earns high marks, was something of a pioneer in the role of First Lady. In addition to helping to define some of the duties and traditions of First Ladies that endure today, she also stood in as Thomas Jefferson's First Lady during the eight years that her husband served as Jefferson's Secretary of State. That's 16 years!
Not all of the First Ladies were included in the poll. Anna Harrison, whose husband William died only 32 days into office after catching pneumonia, was excluded. Harrison, the oldest president elected until Reagan, infamously died after delivering the longest-ever inauguration speech in the rain. I imagine Anna Harrison would get low marks for not telling him to keep it short.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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