Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Remember the Ladies: The First Ladies

Created September 27, 2010


The Lesson


Remember the Ladies: Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams.

Credit: Image Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

On March 31, 1776, future First Lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, who was soon to be appointed a member of the committee drafting the Declaration of Independence:

... In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I would desire you would Remember the Ladies. ... Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. ... If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."

Mrs. Adams's remarks were well ahead of their time. The representation she wrote about did not formally materialize until 1917, when Jeannette Rankin was elected the first female member of the House of Representatives. In 1920, the 19th Amendment finally gave women the right to vote.

In the absence of official power, women had to find other ways to shape the world in which they lived. The First Ladies of the United States were among the women who were able to play "a significant role in shaping the political and social history of our country, impacting virtually every topic that has been debated" (Mary Regula, Founding Chair and President, National Board of Directors for The First Ladies' Library).

Through the lessons in this unit, you will explore with your students the ways in which First Ladies were able to shape the world while dealing with the expectations placed on them as women and as partners of powerful men.

Guiding Questions

  • What does a First Lady do? Who have some of our First Ladies been? How have they helped shape the social history of our country?

Learning Objectives

  • Name at least five First Ladies and describe something significant each did.
  • State five traditional duties of First Ladies.
  • Discuss some untraditional things First Ladies have done.
  • Hypothesize about why some First Ladies are better remembered than others.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lessons in this unit. Select a variety of archival materials from the various lessons to use in your classroom discussions of the First Ladies. Bookmark them, if practical, or download and print out the archival documents you select and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Locate individual biographies of the First Ladies available through the White House website, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed National First Ladies Library. Resources from your school or local library would also be suitable.
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton can serve as a powerful example of the contemporary First Lady (career as a lawyer, advocate for children and health care, successful campaign for senator); however, discussions of Mrs. Clinton's role during the tumultuous years of her husband's presidency should be handled with sensitivity.
  • The Digital Classroom, available through EDSITEment, offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents and photographs, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this unit.
  • Tips on using the NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL) search function within the National Archives website:
    • Select "NAIL Standard Search" from the opening screen.
    • Check the option to receive "Only Descriptions Linked to Digital Copies" in your search results (located near the top of the page).
    • Appropriate keywords are provided for individual searches within the lessons in this unit. Notice that NAIL offers two fields for entering search terms, with options to qualify your search by using "and," "or" and "not" to define the relationship between the search terms.
    • When you have entered your search term(s), click "Submit Search" near the top or bottom of the page.
    • When search results are returned, click "Display Results."
    • To go to one of the pages indicated in your search results, select the page using the check box in the far right column of the search results page, and click "Display Selected Hits" at the top of the page.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Perfect Image of a First Lady

How have First Ladies traditionally been viewed? How much has that view changed in two centuries? To answer these questions, begin by comparing visual images of First Ladies and their husbands from the nation's early years and more recent times. (Note: The photograph analysis worksheet available through the EDSITEment-reviewed The Digital Classroom may be useful in comparing the portraits in this lesson.)

1. Share with your class portraits of Abigail Adams and President John Adams from the original paintings by Gilbert Stuart, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory. Despite similar poses, these portraits are quite different. What details do the students notice in the two portraits? (For example, the President is shown with a book.) How do these portraits differ from each other? What reasons can the students offer for these differences? What is their significance?

2. Now share with your class official White House portraits from the EDSITEment resource American Memory of Jimmy Carter (color version or black and white) and Rosalynn Carter (color version or black and white), created in January and February 1977, respectively. What differences do students recognize between the two modern portraits? Are the differences similar or dissimilar to those present in the Adams portraits created nearly 200 years earlier? Does this indicate a change in the public image of a First Lady?

3. Ask students to think about whether the role of First Lady might have changed between 1977 and today. In what ways? Why?

If desired, the students can look at home for news or magazine articles or web news about the First Lady.

Activity 2. Traditional Roles of the First Lady

Traditionally, the First Lady has been regarded primarily as a political helpmate for her husband, a social leader in Washington, and an unofficial representative of the female population throughout the United States.

Pass out to small groups an appropriate number of the following images. Appoint a spokesperson for each group. Give the groups time to analyze their images. (The document analysis worksheets available through the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom may be useful in completing this analysis.) Then, the group spokesperson should share the image with the class, describe it and hypothesize about the First Lady role represented. Make a list of the traditional First Lady roles that come up through this discussion and save it for future reference.

Setting Fashion Standards

Uplifting National Spirit During a Crisis

  • A photo of Eleanor Roosevelt awarding a Purple Heart in New Caledonia during World War II is available through the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library website, a link from the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom.
  • Jacqueline Kennedy became a symbol of dignity in the face of grief after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. She also planned his dramatic funeral. Her actions helped the nation recover from the tragedy. Access photos of Mrs. Kennedy after the assassination of her husband through the Digital Classroom's ARC Search. One useful image of Mrs. Kennedy is titled "Lyndon Baines Johnson takes Presidential Oath of Office"; to find it, use the search terms "Lyndon Baines Johnson" and "Oath." Another is titled "President's Family leaves Capitol after Ceremony"; search for this image using the terms "President's Family" and "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy." (Note: For more information, see the tips on using the ARC search provided under Preparation Instructions, above.)

Serving as the White House Representative in Areas of Special Interest to Women

  • Through the Digital Classroom's ARC Search, find a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and American Women Flyers in England by searching for the terms "Eleanor Roosevelt" and "Flyers."
  • Through the Digital Classroom's ARC Search, find a photo of Betty Ford cutting a cake to mark the 75th anniversary of the Visiting Nurses Association by searching for the phrase "Mrs. Ford helps."

Campaigning for Her Husband (both with and without him)

Promoting Charities and Causes

  • In what has developed into a modern practice of First Ladies—adopting a particular cause—Bess Truman poses with Michael Danna, the Muscular Dystrophy Appeal poster boy, at the official opening of the 1952–53 Muscular Dystrophy Appeal Campaign. This photo is available through the Digital Classroom's ARC Search by searching for "Bess Truman" and "Danna."
  • Nancy Reagan promoted the famous "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, as seen in a photo taken at the First Lady's Conference on Drug Abuse in 1985, available on the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library website.

Accompanying the President at Important Functions

Through the EDSITEment-reviewed Project Whistlestop, access a photo of Bess Truman at Harry Truman's oath of office ceremony, 1945.

Making Good Will Travel Missions

Access a photo of Jacqueline Kennedy visiting the Taj Mahal in 1962. From the home page of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library website, select "Jacqueline Kennedy Travels Abroad" (click on the photo to enlarge, if you wish).

Serving as White House Hostess

Through the Digital Classroom's ARC Search, find a photo of Betty Ford discussing preparations for a state dinner for Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by searching for the terms "Mrs. Ford" and "Malcom Moran."

Maintaining the Role of Wife and Mother

Through the ARC Search, find a photo of Betty Ford helping her husband, a U.S. Representative at the time, with his overcoat as their young sons look on by searching for "Betty Ford helps."

Taking an Interest in White House Restoration, Renovation and Preservation

Older Americans will remember the televised White House tour given by Jacqueline Kennedy that was broadcast by CBS to more than 50 million Americans in February 1962. So well received was this tour that the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presented Mrs. Kennedy with an Emmy Award in honor of her achievement. She also oversaw the publication of a Guidebook to the White House. Its sales are still used today to support the work of the White House Historical Association, which she founded.
Activity 3. Non-Traditional Roles of the First Lady

Circumstances and individual personalities have sometimes resulted in a First Lady taking on responsibilities not generally (or at least not publicly) associated with the role.

Share with your class the story of Dolly Madison and the British attack on the White House, a brief version of which is available on The White House for Kids, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed National First Ladies Library. Discuss the story with the class. What do students think of Mrs. Madison's actions? Do they think she did more than would have been expected of a First Lady?

Pass out to small groups an appropriate number of images from the list below. Appoint a spokesperson for each group. Give the groups time to analyze the image. (The document analysis worksheets available through the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom may be useful in completing this analysis.) Then, the spokesperson should share the image with the class, describe it and hypothesize about the First Lady role represented. Make a list of these non-traditional First Lady roles as they are discussed and save it for future reference.

Advising the President

In the EDSITEment resource American Memory, locate the 1862 letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln advising her husband to remove the hesitant Gen. George B. McClellan from command. Background information is available by searching American Memory for the exact phrase "Letter, Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln."

Lobbying for Causes Behind the Scenes

In the EDSITEment resource American Memory, locate the 1936 letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White detailing the First Lady's lobbying efforts for federal action against lynchings. Background information is available by searching American Memory for the exact phrase "Letter, Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White."

Taking a High-Profile Moral Stand

Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest of its refusal to allow African American vocalist Marion Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. Access background information and a digital version of Mrs. Roosevelt's resignation letter from the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom.

If desired, background information and a portrait of Marion Anderson by Laura Wheeler Waring are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed National Portrait Gallery.

Assuming Important Roles after Being First Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt served as an American representative at the United Nations from 1945-1951 and again in 1961. Through the Digital Classroom's NAIL Digital Copies Search, access a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt at United Nations Meeting in London by searching for the terms "Eleanor Roosevelt, United Nations" and "London."

Taking a Stand for the Rights of Women

Through the Digital Classroom's ARC Digital Copies Search, find a photo of Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford at a rally for ERA in 1977 by searching for the terms "Betty Ford" and "ERA."

Having a Career

Prior to her marriage to John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Bouvier worked as a reporter and photographer for the Washington Times-Herald, earning $42.50 per week. She wrote a column titled "Inquiring Camera Girl by Jacqueline Bouvier." Later in her life, Mrs. Kennedy served as a well-respected book editor. Access a photo of the camera Ms. Bouvier used as the Inquiring Camera Girl through the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library website, a link available through The Digital Classroom.
Activity 4. Who Were the First Ladies?

Give your students the opportunity to get to know some of the nation's First Ladies with whom they are likely to be less familiar. An expanded knowledge base about First Ladies will help students clarify what they learned in Lessons 2 and 3. Surveying many First Ladies will also prepare students for the culminating activity found in Lesson 5.

Biographies of all of the First Ladies are available online through the White House website and through the National First Ladies Library, both accessible through links from the EDSITEment resource American Memory. Provide students, working individually or in small groups, with biographies of one or more First Ladies. Cover as many of the First Ladies as appropriate to the class.

Review with students the traditional and non-traditional roles of the First Lady that were discussed in Lessons 2 and 3 of this unit, and ask students to find examples of those roles in the biographies of First Ladies. Does the information in the biographies support the documentary evidence of the traditional and non-traditional roles the students have already studied? Have the non-traditional roles received more or less public attention and recognition than the traditional roles? Why do students think this is the case? Do the lists of roles need to be redefined? Is the distinction between traditional and non-traditional roles a valid one? Does the current First Lady fall more into the category of traditional roles or non-traditional roles? Has the role of the First Lady changed? In what ways?

Activity 5. Remembering the Ladies

Why are some First Ladies more memorable than others?

At home, your students will conduct a poll of adults to find out which First Ladies come to mind for them.

1. Let students decide the "ground rules" for the poll, such as:

  • How should the question(s) be worded?
  • How many adult opinions should the class solicit?
  • Should parallel questions about the Presidents also be asked?
  • What type of knowledge about a First Lady constitutes a "memory" (e.g., a first name, something specific she did, etc.)?

2. Share and analyze poll results. As a class, choose a certain number of First Ladies appearing in the poll (about five, or any number appropriate to the size of your class) for further research in small groups. In addition, let students choose an equal number of First Ladies who did not appear in the poll to research as well. Groups of two to three students then do an in-depth study of the First Ladies they selected.

Group research should attempt to answer the following:

  • Why are particular First Ladies remembered more (or less) than others? Does it have to do with what the First Lady did? the First Lady's personality? her appearance? the way the First Lady was pictured in the media (Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton are examples of First Ladies not always treated kindly)? the historical moment? the roles of women? her husband's success (or lack thereof) in office?

  • Of the First Ladies not represented in the poll, why are they less remembered? What, if anything, did they do that ought to be remembered? Do some (or all) deserve more credit?

3. Have each group present its findings to the class, alternating between presentations on "memorable" and "unmemorable" First Ladies. Presentations, which should include a biography, could be oral reports or a display such as a "mini-museum" of her life, much like the rooms devoted to the First Lady in Presidential Libraries. Student museums could be constructed in large boxes, or tech-savvy students could create a Power Point presentation for the class.

4. Take a class poll. Establish a list of the First Ladies most worth remembering, based on student responses. How does the list differ from the poll of adults? Make a list of First Ladies who deserve more recognition. The class could create a bulletin board for public display promoting the lesser-known First Ladies.


If desired, use a rubric to evaluate students' presentations on First Ladies from Lesson 5. To be completely effective, a rubric should be designed for your class with student skill level, your curriculum, and the specific assignment in mind. The following is a sample. If desired, click here to download this rubric to copy or to use when designing your own.

Name _______________Exceeds
Does Not Meet
Structure: (Note: This section of the evaluation asks if the elements are present.)

Did the presentation or display:
  • get the audience's/reader's attention?
  • clearly introduce the First Lady?
  • provide information about the subject's life before she became First Lady?
  • provide information about the subject's tenure as First Lady?
  • provide historical information?
  • contain a conclusion?
Content: (Note: This section evaluates the quality of the information presented.)

Did the presentation or display:
  • provide sufficient information on the life and career of the First Lady?
  • provide sufficient information on the historical era of the First Lady?
  • arrive at informed conclusions about the memorability of the First Lady?
Delivery (speech): Was the speaker's:   
  • voice loud enough?
  • pace slow enough?
  • posture relaxed?
  • delivery smooth?
  • delivery enthusiastic?
Mechanics (display): Does the piece evidence care taken with:   
  • labels (neat and readable)?
  • spelling?
  • other mechanics issues as required?
  • appearance?
  • creation, duplication and placement of objects or images?
Overall Rating (circle one):
    Exceeds Expectations
    Meets All or Most
    Meets Adequate
    Needs Revision

Extending The Lesson

  • Write to the First Lady
    Your students can send an e-mail to the First Lady. Additional contact information is available through the White House website.
  • The First "First Gentleman"
    There has never been a "First Gentleman," though someday there will be! Would that person perform the same duties as the First Lady? Do your students expect to see a female President in America's future? What characteristics would they want her to have? What hurdles would she have to overcome in order to be a successful candidate? What hurdles would her husband have to overcome to be a successful First Gentleman? Encourage discussion about how the roles of women have changed since the administration of George Washington.
  • Today's Independent Girl (or Boy)
    When she was 14 years old, Lou Henry (future wife of Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States) wrote a very intriguing essay titled "The Independent Girl," available through the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives Catalogue Search by searching on "Independent Girl" and "Hoover." The essay, which revealed much of the writer's own vivacious and independent spirit, closes with the prophecy that the independent girl would sooner or later "meet a spirit equally as independent as her own ... and with combined strength go forth to meet the world."

    Would such a statement likely appear in an essay written today? How would the subject of individual independence be treated today by a young person? After hearing the teacher read selections from the future Mrs. Hoover's essay, students can discuss or write brief essays on the subject, "Today's Independent Girl (or Boy)."
  • Mapping First Ladies
    For a geography extension, create a map showing where First Ladies grew up. Students could also map the birthplaces of Presidents and compare the maps. For example, Virginia has the nickname "Birthplace of Presidents" since more Presidents have been born in Virginia than anywhere else. Should any state be called "Birthplace of First Ladies"?
  • The Quality of a First Lady's Life
    Have students conduct simple statistical research on the quality of life for First Ladies. The role of First Lady, the culmination of a lifetime partnership with a powerful man, would appear to be exciting and rewarding. Do students think the role has tended to provide a high quality of life for the women involved?

    One objective standard of quality of life is longevity; statistically, women have tended to live longer than men—an average of two years longer for people born since 1900. Using the brief biography of each President found at the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President or another similar resource such as an almanac, have students determine the life span of every deceased President and every First Lady by subtracting the year of birth from the year of death. Use a division of labor to gather the statistics, with each student doing the math for about one to three individuals.

    If appropriate, allow students to determine how to organize the information they've gathered (e.g., in a graphic organizer such as a bar graph). On average, have First Ladies tended to live longer than their President husbands? Did the trend change at some point? What factors might account for any changes in this trend?
  • First Ladies and Their Causes
    The causes associated with First Ladies (for example, Eleanor Roosevelt as an advocate for Civil Rights, Lady Bird Johnson for the environment, Nancy Reagan for reduction of drug abuse) and the First Lady's involvement could be fruitfully studied. What did the First Lady do? Where does the country stand now on that particular issue?
  • First Lady Firsts
    Interested students could compile a list of First Lady firsts. For example:
    • Dolly Madison was the first First Lady to attend her husband's swearing-in ceremony. She also started the traditional Easter Egg Roll on the Capitol grounds and planted the first tree on the White House lawn in a public celebration.
    • Julia Tyler began the tradition of playing "Hail to the Chief" when the president entered a room, and hired her own press secretary to control news coverage of her activities as First Lady.
    • Julia Grant was the first wife of a President to write her memoirs.
  • First Ladies and Traditional Roles for Women
    First Ladies have been faced with an ambivalent role. They have been expected to exemplify an era's prevailing modes of proper conduct for women, even though some of them were ambitious in a way not in keeping with the prevailing mode. Interested students can interview adult women in their own families to see how they balance demands placed upon them and use this information as a point of comparison to the First Ladies they have studied. Contemporary women juggle many of the same competing roles as the First Ladies: mothers, wives, volunteers, workers and maybe even social activists. Their experiences might shed some light on the pressures women (such as First Ladies) face as they assume multiple roles. Students should share their findings with the class. How does the situation of a contemporary woman compare to that faced by First Ladies in history? What is the same? What is different? How does the historical moment affect contemporary women? How did the historical moment of any particular First Lady affect her?
  • Related EDSITEment Lessons
    For related activities, see these other EDSITEment lesson plans for Grades 3-5:
    I've Just Seen a Face: Portraits
    I Do Solemnly Swear: Inaugurations


Selected EDSITEment Websites

American Memory

Digital Classroom

Many presidential libraries, including the following referenced in these lessons, are accessible through links from Digital Classroom:

The White House

Project Whistlestop


Additional Resource:
History Matters: A Brief Timeline of American Literature and Events Pre-1620 to 1920

The Basics

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Essay writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Logical reasoning
  • Research
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing


Activity Worksheets