Here's something I don't know: what is the official purpose of Presidents' Day? Is it really just a combination of Lincoln's Birthday (February 12) and Washington's Birthday (February 22), or is it supposed to celebrate all the presidents? Are we honoring Chester A. Arthur and Warren G. Harding today?
I could look that up, but I'd rather read about the first ladies. "First Lady" is not an official government title, and in fact, the term wasn't widely used until the mid-19th century. The story goes that President Zachary Taylor first used the term at Dolley Madison's funeral in 1849, and the title caught on after that. The First Lady has no official duties, and receives no salary. Her role has evolved over time, and changes according to the interests and desires of the woman in the position.
First Ladies have been very active (Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton) or almost reclusive (Ida McKinley, who suffered from epilepsy and may also have had some kind of social phobia). These are five I find particularly interesting.
1. Dolley Payne Todd Madison. She'd be on a short list of historical figures I'd invite to a dinner party. Her charm was legendary, and she defined the role of First Lady for generations to come. She was a Quaker widow when she met James Madison in Philadelphia; he was Episcopalian, 17 years her senior, and shorter than she was. Nevertheless they were devoted to each other, and she abandoned her Quaker grays to become a fashion trendsetter as Mr. Madison's hostess. As wife of the Secretary of State, she helped President Jefferson, a widower, entertain, and when her husband became President she organized Washington's first inaugural ball. She was the first to put her influence to work on behalf of war widows and orphans, and she famously saved the White House's treasures from the British during the War of 1812.
2. Harriet Lane. She was not the only, or even the first, First Lady who wasn't married to the President. Thomas Jefferson's hostess was his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who gave birth to the first child born in the White House, James Madison Randolph; Andrew Jackson's hostess was his late wife Rachel's favorite niece, Emily Donelson, who gave birth to three children in the White House and died of tuberculosis before the end of Jackson's term. But Harriet was especially active and visible, the beloved niece of James Buchanan, whom she called "Nunc." She first served as Buchanan's hostess when he was Ambassador to the Court of St. James, where Queen Victoria gave her the rank of Ambassador's wife. In the uneasy years before the Civil War, Harriet Lane had a genius for tactful entertaining, and was able to bring together people who ordinarily wouldn't speak to each other. She married at 36, to a Baltimore banker; amassed an extraordinary art collection, which she left to the Smithsonian; and endowed a clinic for invalid children at Johns Hopkins, which survives to this day as the Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics.
3. Edith Kermit Cardow Roosevelt. She had been a friend of Theodore Roosevelt's since childhood, and was a guest at his first wedding, in 1880. She married him in 1886, after the death of his beloved wife, and took charge of his baby daughter, Alice. Over the next ten years, the Roosevelts had five more children, and Edith ruled a house that included not only six rowdy children, but any number of exotic animals and souvenirs of Teddy's world travels. She was energetic, imaginative, amused, and no-nonsense; her program of physical therapy saved Alice Roosevelt from permanent disability after a bout of polio, and one of her sons once said, "When Mother was a little girl, she must have been a boy!" Active in several charities, particularly a group that made clothing for indigent families, her most important role was being a steadying hand on her husband, whom Alice Roosevelt once said wanted to be "the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."
4. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. Edith Galt, a descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, was a widow who had inherited Washington's most prestigious jewelry business. (Galt & Bro. remained a Washington institution until 2001, when it closed after 199 years.) Woodrow Wilson was already President of the United States, and mourning hard for the loss of his first wife, Ellen. They fell in love quickly, and married quietly in December 1915, before Wilson started his campaign for reelection in 1916. A catastrophic stroke in October 1919 left Wilson paralyzed on his left side and blind in one eye. Amazingly, Edith Wilson and the President's doctor, Cary Grayson, were able to keep this a secret from the government and the nation, and Edith Wilson served as the nation's de facto President until the end of Wilson's term in 1921. This story is told in Gene Smith's marvelous book When the Cheering Stopped, which really ought to be made into a movie.
5. Florence Kling Harding. Possibly the first truly modern woman to serve as First Lady, Mrs. Harding was a force of nature, known as "The Duchess" to her husband and his circle. At the age of 19, she got pregnant and ran off with a ne'er-do-well named Pete DeWolfe. It's not at all clear that they were ever legally married, but Ohio law permitted common-law marriages, and the DeWolfes had a son, Marshall, in 1880. By 1886, Florence realized her husband was a drunk and a spendthrift. She divorced him and tried to support herself as a single parent by giving piano lessons. (Ultimately, her parents took over responsibility for young Marshall, who died young of alcoholism and tuberculosis.) At the age of 30, Florence set her cap for the handsome, affable, lazy publisher of the Marion Daily Star, Warren G. Harding. Florence took over as circulation manager, and made the newspaper a success. Her ambition drove Warren into politics; she consulted a Washington astrologer, Madam Marcia, who told her that her husband would win the Presidency but die in office. He did win — the first President to be elected after women received the right to vote — and he did die in office, in 1923. Florence survived him by just over a year.