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The Term "First Lady"

Although "First Lady" is now commonly used as an "official" title for the wife of the President of the United States, it has not always been so.

Martha Washington was generally referred to as "Lady Washington" while her husband was leading the Continental Army, and the term stayed with her after George was elected President; it was subsequently used to refer to the wives of later Presidents. There was, however, no "formal" term to refer to the "woman of the White House" when that woman was not the President's wife, as occurred during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren, as the wives of all three had died before they became President and White House hostess duties were handled by whomever was available when the occasion called for one.

Dolley MadisonDolley Madison, the wife of James Madison, was one of the most popular Washington, D.C., hostesses of her day. She acted as White House hostess during the administration of Thomas Jefferson, for whom her husband served as Secretary of State, and was well known for her social events during her husband's administration. When she died in 1849, her funeral was a semi-public event. According to legend, President Zachary Taylor used the expression "truly the first lady" during his eulogy of her, but no confirmation of this story has ever been found.

The First Known Use of 'First Lady'The first documented use of the term "First Lady" in reference to the woman in charge of the White House was actually applied to a woman who was never married to a President. When James Buchanan entered the White House as the nation's only bachelor President, he brought along his niece, Harriet Lane, who assumed the role of White House hostess with ease. Often much more popular than her uncle, Harriet was the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles, and one of the most popular songs of the day was dedicated to her. Despite all of the press she received, there seemed to be no clear consensus as to how she should be addressed. Obviously, "Lady Buchanan" wasn't appropriate, nor was "Lady Lane" a name anyone would recognize. A reporter for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, whose name has been lost to history, solved the problem by dubbing her "First Lady in the Land," and that phrase was first used in print on March 31, 1860. Harriet liked the "title," but there is no evidence that any of her immediate successors were called "First Lady" or anything similar.

Lucy Webb HayesLucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, was the first presidential wife to be introduced in a public speech as "First Lady," by her husband, and the term was repeated by Mary Clemmer Ames in an article in the Independent describing Hayes's inauguration. In 1912, a Broadway comedy about Dolley Madison called First Lady of the Land more firmly established the term, and it has been in common usage ever since.

The First "First Lady" Never Married the President

Martha Washington
Thomas Jefferson
Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren
Dolley Madison
James Madison
President Zachary Taylor
James Buchanan
President Rutherford B. Hayes

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