Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Role of the First Lady to the President and in the White House
John Denham
US History
Time Frame:
A major portion of this assignment could be completed within one class period. An extension idea was given that could add a second or third class period depending on the time frame for the teacher.
Grade Levels:
9, 10, 11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:

This assignment is a technology based cooperative assignment using primary and secondary source materials to determine the role of the First Lady in United States history.


Students will understand the importance of the First Lady to the President and the role they have played in advising him throughout the 240+ years of our country.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:



D3.1.9-12. Gather relevant information from multiple sources representing a wide range of views while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.

D3.4.9-12. Refine claims and counterclaims attending to precision, significance, and knowledge conveyed through the claim while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both.

D4.1.9-12. Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims, with evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary weaknesses.

Full description of activity or assignment.

Assign students to small groups

Handout accompanying DBQ worksheet that includes excerpt primary and secondary source documents with questions worksheet

Have students complete the first question as a group as a brainstorming open. “What is the role of the First Lady of the United States?” This should be an opportunity for students to brainstorm their initial perceptions of the role of the First Lady

Allow 4-5 minutes to work in their groups to produce a list of 5 roles. These could be adjectives or something more descriptive.

Have the groups share out their list or portions of them to the class.

Next explain to the students that they are to read the excerpts of primary and secondary sources and create a new list of the role of the First Lady using the documents. This involves close reading and may require more time depending on the reading level of the students.

Students should again create a list with a bit more detail pertaining to the role of the First Lady then their brainstorming list.

Time varies based on reading level.

Sheets of poster paper could be stuck up around the classroom for students to write what they believe are the roles of the First Ladies. Students should be able to reference the document that connects with role they discovered. This would also allow the students to present their individual group findings.

ASSESSMENT: Students should then use the evidence to work as a group or individual to answer the DBQ question at the top of the worksheet that has the excerpts.

An extension to this assignment could have the student groups answer the role of the First Lady question using a specific individual First Lady. These could be assigned or chosen by the groups with each group having a different First Lady and hopefully from various times in U.S. history. Students should have access to technology (computer or personal device) for this extension.

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

Role of the First Lady DBQ                                                             Name




Brainstorm five specific roles of the First Lady of the United States over the course of the country’s history.












Directions: Read the question below and then read each document or look at the pictures and identify the role of the First Lady. Make notes in the margins and space provided. Think about perceptions in society and determine if they have changed along with the roles.


Question: What is the role of the First Lady of the United States and how has that role, or the perception of the role, changed over the course of the presidency?


Document 1 - Martha Washington

"I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from..." “many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased" in her place; she would "much rather be at home."

One of her surviving letters, Martha Washington confided to a niece


"I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country." As for herself, "I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances."

Letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren




Document 2 - Dolley Madison


“She assisted at the White House when President Jefferson asked her help in receiving ladies, and presided at the first inaugural ball in Washington when James Madison became chief executive in 1809. Although Dolley's social graces made her famous, her husband prized her political acumen. Her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel. During the War of 1812, Dolley was forced to flee from the White House by the British army. Her quick thinking saved a portrait of George Washington from being destroyed by fire. Upon returning to the capital, she found the Executive Mansion in ruins. Undaunted by temporary quarters, she entertained as skillfully as ever.”

White House Historical Society biography of Dolley Madison https://www.whitehousehistory.org/bios/dolley-madison


Document 3 - Jane Pierce


“Jane Pierce was very reluctant about being first lady. If she had any influences, on the administration, they were very negative. She came into the White House as a forty-seven year-old lady who, it is well known, hated politics.”


(p.113) Ann Covell, contributor to First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic

American Women



Document 4 - Mary Todd Lincoln


"I have no hope of the re-election of Mr. Lincoln. The canvass is a heated one, the people begin to murmur at the war, and every vile charge is brought against my husband."

Conversation with Elizabeth Keckley in the late summer of 1864. SOURCE: Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (New York, Penguin Books, 2005), p. 68.


"...with trembling anxiety I had been permitted to watch over and minister to my idolized husband, through an illness and receiving his loving farewell words in return, I could have thanked him for his lifelong - almost; devotion to me & mine, and I could have asked forgiveness, for any inadvertent moment of pain, I may have caused him..."

Letter to Senator Charles Sumner, April 10, 1866. SOURCE: Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters by Justin G. Turner and

Linda Levitt Turner (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), p.355-356.




Document 5 - Lou Hoover


Lou Hoover became the first First Lady to use the radio as the new media of her era in addressing the nation.





Document 6 - Eleanor Roosevelt


“Using her press contacts, Lorena Hickok proposed Eleanor hold press conferences limited to woman reporters, who faced discrimination from male colleagues and needed to find news that men could not get, as one way to make the first lady’s role more than strictly ceremonial. Aware that it previously had been considered unladylike for presidents’ wives to seek publicity, a nervous Eleanor held her first conference on March 6, 1933, just two days after Franklin’s inauguration. It was the first of some 348 to come that helped establish Eleanor as a figure of importance in the administration’s New Deal program to combat the Depression. In the conferences Eleanor spoke out on current issues, although she said she would not intrude on her husband’s domain. While announcing the White House social schedule and answering questions about her wardrobe and family life, Eleanor used the conferences to shine a spotlight on women of achievement, who she brought in as her guests; advocate the New Deal; and,

on one occasion, to protest efforts to cut the federal payroll by firing married women. “ https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/new-deal/essays/eleanor-roosevelt-first-lady



Granette, Ark. Nov. 6, 1936

Dear Mrs. Roosevelt

I am writing to you for some of your old soiled dresses if you have any. As I am a poor girl who has to stay out of school. On account of dresses & slips and a coat. I am in the seventh grade but I have to stay out of school because I have no books or clothes to ware. I am in need of dresses

& slips and a coat very bad. If you have any soiled clothes that you don't want to ware I would be very glad to get them. But please do not let the news paper reporters get hold of this in any way and I will keep it from geting out here so there will be no one else to get hold of it. But do not let my name get out in the paper. I am thirteen years old.

Yours Truly, Miss L. H.




Document 7 - Jacqueline Kennedy

 15 March 1962  First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's trip to India and Pakistan.



Document 8 - Rosalynn Carter

“Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you regarding legislation that will profoundly impact the lives of so many Americans.


I have been working on mental health issues for more than 35 years. When I began no one understood the brain or how to treat mental illnesses. Today everything has changed — except stigma, of course, which holds back progress in the field.

Today because of research and our new knowledge of the brain, mental illnesses can be diagnosed and treated effectively, and the overwhelming majority of those affected can lead normal lives — being contributing citizens in our communities.

I am here today, joining many individuals and hundreds of national organizations calling for an end to the fundamental, stigmatizing inequity of providing far more limited insurance coverage for mental health care than for treatment of any other illnesses. Again I join forces with my friend Betty Ford in urging action on this important issue.”


July 9, 2007 Rosalynn Carter's Testimony: Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Education Equity Act House Education and Labor Committee, Subcommittee on Health




Document 9 - Nancy Reagan



"Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare, and it’s time we in America stand up and replace those dreams." -


“Someone asked me if I wanted to make a New Year’s wish, and I said yes- and it was that I’d like to see every young person in the world join the ’Just Say No’ to drugs club. Well, just the fact that Congress has proclaimed "Just Say No Week’ and in light of all the activities taking place, it seems that my wish is well on its way to coming true."


Nancy Reagan




Document 10 - Michelle Obama


"You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world's problems at once but don't ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own"

Michelle Obama, June 2011, speaking in South Africa


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/michelle-obama/8591862/Michelle-Obama-evokes-aparth eid-memories.html





Question: What is the role of the First Lady of the United States and how has that role, or the perception of the role, changed over the course of the presidency?