As the old adage goes, behind every great man, there’s a great woman – and few have proved that more than the First Ladies of the United States. Indeed, although some opted to stay quietly in the shadow of their Presidential husbands, the majority have used their position to advocate for the greater good. Here’s a look at 20 of the most influential.
20. Ellen Wilson
Ellen Wilson would no doubt have been much higher up this list had her role as First Lady not been tragically terminated. Indeed, the former art student’s fight to better the lives of Washington’s impoverished population was sadly curtailed due to her early death. Her passing came just one year after husband Woodrow was elected as President in 1913.
19. Lucy Hayes
Nicknamed “Lemonade Lucy” due to her advocacy of the alcohol-free temperance movement, Lucy Hayes became First Lady when husband Rutherford B. Hayes was elected into office in 1877. She also served as the head of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society and promoted the importance of the family unit.
18. Louisa Adams
Raised in the U.K. capital of London, Adams was the sole First Lady to be born outside of America until Melania Trump. Her four-year tenure as First Lady, moreover, was fraught with difficulties, including health problems and a divisive political election. However, the wife of John Quincy Adams still made an impact as an ardent abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner.
17. Sarah Polk
Sarah Polk has been described as charismatic, energetic and a raconteur. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that she hosted the White House’s first annual Thanksgiving dinner during her stint as First Lady. She also helped her husband, 11th President James Polk, with speeches and advised him on political issues from 1845 to 1849.
16. Mamie Eisenhower
As the First Lady from 1953 until 1961, Mamie Eisenhower was renowned for her immaculate fashion sense. There was also substance to her style, however. After all, the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly advocated to raise the welfare of retired veterans. Furthermore, she challenged segregation by welcoming African-American youngsters to the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll.
15. Lou Hoover
Chinese-speaking Lou Hoover was the only Presidential wife to know an Asian language. What’s more, the well-traveled scholar was also the first to routinely give national radio broadcasts. The spouse of Herbert Hoover additionally established the American Women’s War Relief Fund during the First World War and, later, the National Women’s Conference on Law Enforcement.
14. Bess Truman
Bess Truman helped her husband Harry chair the National Defense Program before he was elected as President. During his tenure, moreover, she became the Honorary President of the Woman’s National Democratic Club, the Washington Animal Rescue League and the Girl Scouts. Interestingly, Truman’s death at almost 98 makes her the longest-living First Lady ever.
13. Nancy Reagan
Just like her husband Ronald, Nancy Reagan began her career in Hollywood before moving into politics as the dominant First Lady of the ’80s. She founded one of the most memorable campaigns of the decade with the anti-drug Just Say No movement and also reportedly influenced her spouse on several diplomatic matters.
12. Edith Wilson
Edith Wilson married President Woodrow within two years of the death of his first wife, Ellen. Furthermore, she became a pivotal part of the US political system when a severe stroke in his second term left him bedridden. Described as a woman of formidable strength and confidence, she helped prioritize her sick husband’s workload. What’s more, she also essentially ran the government’s executive branch for 18 months.
11. Laura Bush
The First Lady for most of the ’00s, former librarian Laura Bush regularly promoted literacy and educational causes such as the National Book Festival. Bush also advocated for women’s rights and raised awareness of HIV/AIDS and malaria on several foreign trips – and was arguably more popular than her husband George W. while in the White House.
10. Barbara Bush
Laura’s mother-in-law also strongly championed various educational campaigns during her four-year term as First Lady. As well as establishing the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, the spouse of George H.W. Bush hosted Mrs. Bush’s Story Time, an American radio show designed to highlight the value of reading out loud to kids.
9. Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in getting husband Lyndon elected as President in 1963. And not only did she fund his congressional campaign, but she additionally took control of office during his time in the Navy and made millions with various media investments. She then helped introduce the Highway Beautification Act and modernized the structure of the First Lady’s office.
8. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama has proved so popular during her stint as the first ever African-American First Lady that many have clamored for her to follow in her husband Barack’s Presidential footsteps. And the lawyer/writer has championed everything from poverty awareness to physical activity while simultaneously becoming a style icon and global female role model.
7. Dolley Madison
After serving as a stand-in First Lady for widowed President Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison later became the real thing when husband James was elected in 1809. Credited with spawning the “First Lady” term, the socially active and socially aware Madison was also deemed integral to her spouse’s popularity.
6. Jackie Kennedy
Arguably the most iconic First Lady, Jackie Kennedy was famously in the motorcade that husband John was assassinated in back in 1963. And although she withdrew from public life following his death, her previous work in the fields of arts and architecture, not to mention her social graces and sense of glamor, ensured that she would always remain a celebrated figure and icon.
5. Rosalynn Carter
Jimmy Carter’s wife Rosalynn most notably spent her four years as First Lady promoting mental health research – in particular, by supporting 1980’s Mental Health Systems Act. She was also politically active: advising her husband on various matters, attending policy sessions and serving as an international envoy in Latin America.
4. Betty Ford
While she was only First Lady for three years, Betty Ford made a significant impact during that time. The politically active spouse of President Gerald was an ardent defender of the Equal Rights Amendment and drew upon her own experiences to raise awareness of breast cancer and, famously, addiction. Furthermore, she routinely commented on controversial political issues unlike any other Presidential wife before.
3. Abigail Adams
Both the first ever Second Lady and second First Lady, Abigail Adams regularly advised husband John on important matters, as documented in their numerous famous letters of correspondence. The mother of sixth President John Quincy Adams is also deemed to have been one of the initial advocates of equal rights for women and was fiercely against the practice of slavery.
2. Eleanor Roosevelt
Widely regarded as the most inspirational First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt played a major role during her husband Franklin’s 12-year reign – particularly amid the Second World War and Great Depression. Furthermore, she was the first Presidential wife to stage personal press conferences, and she later became a chair for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
1. Hillary Clinton
No other First Lady has made more of a political impact than Hillary Clinton. During her husband Bill’s eight-year Presidential reign, for one, she supported issues such as healthcare and women’s rights. She then went on to serve as Secretary of State and New York Senator as well as running, unsuccessfully, for presidential office herself in 2016.
Of course, America’s First Ladies aren’t the only influential wives out there. Hundreds of inspiring women have married men in the realms of music, movies and sport, too. Celebrity unions can be hard to keep up with, though, so here’s a refresher of tragically overlooked women who married famous men. How many of these duos do you remember tying the knot?
20. Robert De Niro and Diahnne Abbott
Robert De Niro wed Diahnne Abbott – an actress and singer – in 1976. The pair then ended up having a child together, Raphael, while De Niro also became the adoptive father of Abbott’s daughter Drena. Unfortunately, though, the marriage didn’t last, and the couple ended their union in 1988 amid gossip that De Niro hadn’t been faithful. After that, curiously, Abbott simply fell off the radar.
19. Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock
Sex symbol Pamela Anderson was once married to Kid Rock… just not for very long. In July 2006 she tied the knot with the musician while on a yacht in France. “I feel like I’m finally free… I’m in love,” she announced happily on her website at the time. But the marriage lasted only four months – short by anyone’s standards – and now you’d be hard-pressed to remember that they were ever husband and wife at all.
18. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis
Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are both pretty famous, so we should probably know that they were once married to each other. Even so, their former union may come as a surprise. And, yes, the pair were together from 1987 to 1990 before irreconcilable differences sent them to the divorce court. “I think we were lucky to get together, and we both had a great time,” Goldblum told People in 1992. Both parties have since gone on to marry again.
17. John Travolta and Kelly Preston
It’s easy to forget that John Travolta’s married. But since 1991, he’s been the husband of Kelly Preston, who even starred alongside him in Gotti. And despite the pair’s differing levels of fame, the Travolta–Preston marriage seems to have stayed strong. It even survived the tragic death of a child, as their son Jett passed away of a seizure in 2009.
16. Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Nielsen
Considering the amount of media time that was dedicated to the marriage and divorce of Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Nielsen, it’s surprising how forgotten the relationship is today – especially since both were at the respective peaks of their fame at the time. But, yes, the pair were indeed married for two whole years from 1985. Both are with new partners now – Stallone was actually Nielsen’s second husband out of five in total.
15. Dog the Bounty Hunter and Beth Smith
After a 16-year relationship, Dog the Bounty Hunter – a.k.a. Duane Chapman – married Beth Smith in May 2006. However, he’s still the more famous one, even though Beth is a reality star in her own right. After she discovered she had cancer that had reached stage II in 2017, she appeared with her husband on the show Dog and Beth: Fight Of Their Lives. Luckily, though, Beth recovered and is reportedly doing fine at present.
14. Michael and Shakira Caine
British actor Michael Caine may be a household name, but not many people know about his long-lasting marriage to Shakira Baksh. He wed her in 1973 – she was his second wife – and they’ve been together ever since. And, apparently, the relationship has endured in spite of the couple’s religious differences. “My wife is a Muslim and she does Muslim stuff; I’m a Christian and I do Christian stuff, and no questions ever come up,” Caine told The Guardian in 2009.
13. Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford
Both Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford were massively famous people when they got married in 1991. And yet still not an awful lot of people remember that union – perhaps because Crawford herself seems to have done her best to forget the whole thing. When Crawford did talk about her former marriage, however, she implied that the 17-year age gap between her and Gere was largely to blame for its eventual dissolution.
12. Jim Carrey and Lauren Holly
Everything about the Jim Carrey–Lauren Holly marriage was tabloid gold. The actor had reportedly left his wife Melissa for his Dumb and Dumber co-star, and Melissa subsequently spoke scathingly in the papers about how Carrey had treated her. Then Carrey married Holly in September 1996… and was divorced from her less than 12 months later. But perhaps because social media didn’t exist back then, the whole episode now seems to be forgotten.
11. Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffiths
For a while, Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffiths were a Hollywood golden couple. They had been married since 1996, they had starred in a film together and Griffiths even had Banderas’ moniker tattooed on her arm. And yet, after all that, they divorced in 2015, although they have reportedly remained good friends in the aftermath.
10. Sean Connery and Micheline Roquebrune
One-time James Bond Sean Connery has been retired for a while now, so it’s perhaps not surprising that not many people know that he has a wife. But he does – he’s actually been married to Moroccan-French artist Micheline Roquebrune since 1975. And it appears that Connery is far from a Bond-style playboy when it comes to marriage. “Micheline is an amazing woman. She is the love of my life,” he explained to The Sun in 2011.
9. Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren
World-famous golfer Tiger Woods wed Swedish ex-model Elin Nordegren in 2004. And everything seemed fine at first: they had a huge house and two children together. But come 2009, it all blew up, when Woods was accused of infidelity. Rumor even had it that his wife had caused him to have a car accident. Then the couple divorced in 2010, and now Nordegren is pretty much only remembered as the woman who Woods cheated on.
8. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Darcy LaPier
While married to bodybuilder Gladys Portugues – his third wife and mom to two of his kids – Jean-Claude Van Damme cheated on her with actress Darcy LaPier. He then married the latter in 1994 before embarking on an affair with Kylie Minogue. However, LaPier didn’t even know of Van Damme’s infidelity until 2012. Ultimately, Van Damme went back to Portugues, and LaPier dropped out of the public eye.
7. Mark Hamill and Marilou York
Luke Skywalker is married? Yep, Luke Skywalker is married – Mark Hamill wed Marilou York in 1978, and they’ve been together ever since. And followers of Hamill’s popular Twitter account will know of Marilou, as her husband often leaves lovely messages about her there. “She makes the ordinary seem extraordinary, and I just want to thank her for being my everything,” he wrote in February 2018. Aww.
6. Clint Eastwood and Maggie Johnson
Clint Eastwood both met and married Maggie Johnson in 1953. However, he absolutely could not stop himself from having affairs – some of which apparently resulted in children. And while at first Johnson put up with the state of her marriage, her divorce from Eastwood was finally completed in 1984. Then, once that was over and done with, she simply vanished away from the spotlight’s glare.
5. Jack Nicholson and Sandra Knight
The mother of Jack Nicholson’s daughter Jennifer is Sandra Knight, an actress and artist who was married to Nicholson from 1962 to 1968. But those dates are just on paper, since she actually split from him two years before the divorce became final. Then Knight drifted away from acting, with her last roles being back in the ’60s. And Nicholson himself may be following in her footsteps, as he hasn’t been in a film since 2010.
4. Colin Firth and Livia Giuggioli
Just in case anyone was still holding out any hope – sorry, Colin Firth is taken. He married for the second time in 1997 to Italian director and producer Livia Giuggioli, with the couple having two children together, Luca and Matteo. And, rather adorably, Firth learned Italian for Giuggioli when he first started dating her.
3. Michael Douglas and Diandra Luker
Michael Douglas is known for being one half of a celebrity supercouple, as he and Catherine Zeta-Jones have been together since 2000. But long before Douglas met Zeta-Jones, he was wed for 23 years to Diandra Luker, offspring of a diplomat. Luker is the mother of Douglas’ son Cameron, and she received a hefty sum of money when she and her former husband divorced – $45 million, to be exact.
2. Mario Lopez and Ali Landry
The marriage between actors Mario Lopez and Ali Landry was an extremely short-lived one, being annulled only a couple of weeks after the ceremony in April 2004. Why? Well, it turned out that Lopez had cheated on her during his bachelor party. Ouch. But for those two weeks, Landry was still technically Lopez’s wife, even if the marriage probably shouldn’t have gone ahead in the first place.
1. George Clooney and Talia Balsam
George Clooney and his wife Amal are arguably the power couple; he’s a Hollywood A-lister, and she’s an accomplished lawyer, after all. But before those two met, Clooney had had another wife: Talia Balsam, who was wed to him from 1989 to 1993. All’s well that ends well, though, as Clooney now appears to be happy with his second spouse, while Balsam is married to John Slattery from Mad Men.