Landing the title of America’s First Lady sounds like a glamorous gig, but not every woman in the role has loved being First Lady. Louisa Adams once said that “there is something in this great unsocial house which depresses my spirits beyond expression and makes it impossible for me to feel at home, or to fancy that I have a home anywhere.”

And she wasn’t the only person to feel cooped up in the White House. No wonder Michelle Obama made it a point to sneak out of the White House to go to places like Target, Petco, and Chipotle. Here’s a look at some of the most remarkable FLOTUS tragedies and triumphs through the years.

First Ladies didn’t get that title for a long time

There is no definitive answer as to how the term “First Lady” evolved. Dolley Madison was called “Lady Madison,” and when she died in 1849, legend has it that President Zachary Taylor supposedly described her as “truly the first lady” in his eulogy for her.

John Tyler’s wife Julia was reportedly called “Mrs. Presidentress” in 1844. And in 1858, when James Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane served as White House hostess for the bachelor president, Harper’s Weekly dubbed her “Our Lady of the White House.” Later, a journalist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper called her “First Lady of the Land.”

But the term didn’t really catch on until Rutherford B. Hayes’ wife Lucy (also known as “Lemonade Lucy” for her eschewing the serving of liquor in the White House) was called First Lady in 1877.

Martha Washington felt like a ‘state prisoner’

Since Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was the first First Lady, she set the tone for the role, even though she didn’t have the official title back then. Instead, people called her “Lady Washington” or “our Lady Presidentress” instead. When she met George Washington, Martha was a 26-year-old wealthy widow who had given birth to four children, with two surviving. Martha and Washington married in 1759, but they never had children of their own, and her two surviving children died before he became the nation’s first president.

Martha was a true partner who lived at General George’s Revolutionary War encampment each winter to give him moral support, and boost the troops’ morale. This meant she had to be inoculated against smallpox, not an easy thing then.

Although she loved being with her husband there, she didn’t want to leave their home at Mount Vernon when Washington became president, and reportedly found presidential years tougher than living in those war camps. She even described herself as a “state prisoner” when it came to that presidential life. Nonetheless, Martha graciously hosted many Americans during that time, welcoming visitors at a reception every Friday at the president’s house (a temporary capital in New York, and later Philadelphia) when anybody could pay their respects.

Dolley Madison rescued a piece of history



Dolley Payne Todd Madison, the wife of James Madison, was an enormously influential First Lady, with a vivacious, fun personality. She first had experience in the role of First Lady before her husband was elected president. Dolley was Secretary of State to the widowed president Thomas Jefferson, and Dolley helped Jefferson out when he felt he needed a woman to help host events.

When she became the official First Lady in 1809, she held the first inaugural ball. And while in the White House, she created buzz by serving ice cream, a total showstopper at the time, since there were no freezers yet in existence.

But Dolley’s most memorable moment was during the War of 1812. When the British invaded Washington, D.C. in 1814, and she had to flee the White House, she had a wagon filled with White House treasures sent off for safekeeping. Then she ordered her staff to save the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington before fleeing, choosing to protect that over her personal items. The British then burned the White House, and she never got to live in it again, but her courage is still fondly remembered.

Louisa Adams binged on chocolate

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, born in England in 1775, was the first First Lady not born in the United States (Melania Trump is the second.) Louisa was known for throwing parties that helped John Quincy Adams’ career and may have gotten him elected to the presidency. In 1824, the presidential election was to be decided in the House of Representatives due to the opponent Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote, not having a majority of votes in the electoral college. The night before the vote, Louisa invited 67 House members to her house for one of her tea parties. The next day, Henry Clay, an opponent in the presidential race and the Speaker of the House, helped Adams win the election.

But this “corrupt bargain,” as it was called, haunted her husband. Louisa became depressed. She also reportedly got sick from the fumes from the coal used for heating, binged on chocolate and even wrote a play that appeared to be a thinly-veiled look at her life. But things got better after Adams lost the presidency in 1828. She grew closer to him and helped with his abolitionist work. When she died in 1852, both houses of Congress adjourned for her funeral.

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