An Office of Their Own: First Ladies and Their Changing Influence on American Society

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Changing societal roles and expectations have dictated the lives of women throughout history. Though the nature of such norms varies by time and place, gendered ideologies have always shaped women’s opportunities. The wives of American presidents are no different. As women, they were impacted by these social ideals, but as First Ladies, they were also placed in a unique position to effect change in U.S. society. This paper discusses the effects of shifts in gender roles on the power, influence, or control by examining the experience of a First Lady from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. I posit that each of these women—Abigail Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams, and Eleanor Roosevelt— each utilized the limitations and frameworks of their day to carve a role for themselves in the office, though their methods of doing so had to change with the times. Additionally, I argue that while Eleanor Roosevelt has been revered for her impact as the role took on a more prominent place in society, the foundation for her advances was set by the women who came before.

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