All the president's ladies

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The Independent Online
The term "First Lady" was coined by the media around the time that Jackie Kennedy reigned in the White House. It is not an official position and has no constitutional rights. The role has been shaped by the 39 women who have occupied it since 1789. It became publicly acknowledged as a role of substance after the Second World War. But the First Lady was highly politically influential long before that.

The first First Lady of influence was probably Abigail Adams, wife of the second president, John Adams. Her private letters detail her strong views on women's rights, for instance. Nineteenth century Washington saw some famously reluctant First Ladies: Jane Pierce, for instance, prayed her husband would lose the election. Helen Taft in the early twentieth century epitomised the ambitious wife. Her husband wanted to be a Supreme Court judge but her desire to live in the White House drove him into politics.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 - 1962) who fundamentally changed the role during her husband's presidency from 1933 to 1945. As equality for women became more acceptable in the wake of their enfranchisement in 1920 First Ladies promoted the role of women. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to act autonomously. She shocked pre-war America by embracing blacks and helped to draft the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Yet like Hillary Clinton she endured scandal, and was hounded by queries over her tax returns. Her husband did not promote her political work; he merely tolerated it.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929 - 1994) defined the public persona of the modern First Lady as celebrity - elegant, sophisticated, indepedent and yet the perfect wife. She promoted her personal agenda of arts, history and style. Her stoic behaviour at JFK's funeral enhanced her public standing, but she shocked the world and disappointed many by marrying Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate in 1968.

Despite holding public office Lady Bird Johnson (1912 - ) and her husband Lyndon built a substantial fortune from investments in broadcasting. Remarkably their dealings hardly had a political cost for them.

Pat Nixon (1912 - 1993) perfected an image as a steadfast and silent wife, and tried to keep out of the public eye as rumours spread about her problems with drink and drug abuse. Nixon dedicated one of his books "To Pat, who also ran". Very apt.

Rosalynn Smith Carter (1927 - ) was known as the "Steel Magnolia" for her mixture of southern "charm" and relentless ambition. Jimmy Carter said she was "an almost equal extension of myself". She sat in on Cabinet meetings and was given a role as roving ambassador. In the 1980s Nancy Reagan (1921 - ) was credited with raising the job to that of "Associate President". The actress turned civic figure worked in charities for disabled children and drug victims but was best known for her spending on White House furnishings and lavish parties.

Barbara Bush (1945 - ), a self-avowed "nester", brought everyone down to earth and promoted herself as a custodian of traditional homespun values.

Among prospective First Ladies hoping to make it this year are Elizabeth Dole, another "southern belle" who was Reagan's Transportation Secretary and Bush's Labour Secretary. She has twice resigned her jobs to campaign for her husband Bob. Marilyn Quayle is the will and the brains behind Dan's good looks. She had her first child induced so she could sit her law exams. Sabina Forbes, wife of millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, is an elusive figure: she could be the Pat Nixon reluctant type, or just the painfully shy but well motivated Ros Carter type. A homemaker, she has been married to Steve for 24 years and has five daughters. She manages the family farm where they breed cattle. She is unlikely to like Washington much.