The American President serves as both head of state and government, using the first lady to help do both. The first lady serves various important functions such as hostess, advisor to the president, presidential surrogate, and independent public figure. The worst first ladies (such as Jane Pierce, Mary Lincoln, Florence Harding, Nancy Reagan, and Melania Trump) provide us with a type of anti-role model as well as remind us that even the rich and powerful can be troubled individuals.
The actress Laura Benanti did a pretty wicked impression of First Lady Melania Trump on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, including a Christmas special of sorts during early COVID:
Of course, many found the Trumps quite satisfactory as a presidential couple.
Nonetheless, it is useful to examine why certain first ladies are ranked so low. If we look at failures, we can better understand what is deemed to be important.
And, for some, there is the usual “can’t take our eyes off a train wreck” effect, the fascination of examining failures.
This is an honest, if not ideal aspect of interest in “worst.” A more empathetic reason to learn about them is that they provide human stories, each not just some stereotype or favorite person to hate. They are flawed, troubled people.
What is the Role of a “First Family” in A Republic?
The Constitution establishes three branches of government, namely Congress, the presidency, and the federal courts.
A presidential system combines the head of state (think Queen Elizabeth II, who represents the United Kingdom) and the head of government (represented in the British system by the Prime Minister).
The president represents the United States diplomatically while also supervising the carrying out of our national laws.
President George Washington was not only the “Father of Our Country,” but also established precedents on how the presidency was understood. Washington was particularly concerned about his public image, understanding his importance as a symbol of our country.
Presidents had to carefully balance their role in a republic (not a king!) with the importance of their persona as the face of the nation. George Washington started the process here.
American presidents are the head of the government. Their families are the “first families” of the nation. But, in a country without an official royalty, they have a tricky balance to maintain.
First Lady Role Begins
A director of social affairs, presidential liaison, symbol of strength, policy advocate, political reformer, keeper of “the People’s House,” partner, and confidant, the First Ladies of the United States have taken on numerous roles throughout American history.
As the cultural milieu shifted, so did the expectations and responsibilities of a first lady.
Washington’s relations with other members of the federal government and foreign dignitaries were carefully handled.
Our First First Ladies
His wife, Martha Washington, had an important role here. The very label “first lady” reflected the understanding that she was a form of “American royalty,” the title taken from the usage in the British royal court.
A “first lady” need not be married to the president. President Jefferson’s wife died in the 1780s, years before he was elected president. His daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, served the role of first lady.
And, various other presidents had different family members such as daughters, sisters, nieces, and daughters-in-law fill in.
Yes, all of these are “ladies.” Traditionally, it was assumed the president would be a man, and the first lady filled “feminine” roles, if still very important.
This was the age of the concept of “republican motherhood,” wherein women provided a key support in the promotion of republican values.
We have yet to have a First Gentlemen though it is just a matter of time, especially now that we have a Second Gentleman.
What Makes A Good First Lady?
The basic role First Lady Martha Washington was expected to maintain was as hostess of the White House. This requires an understanding and skills to be a good social leader.
The First Lady even at this early date was often a fashion trendsetter as well. She served as a very visible and public symbol of not only the White House but also the United States. In the process, the first lady became a role model for women nationwide.
A person very shy, not a good people person, or who resists social graces would obviously not be a good fit as first lady.
The first lady, however, was not just a hostess. She was first and foremost the president’s wife and partner.
Strong and Influential First Ladies
Abigail Adams is a prime early example of a strong partner as well as someone famously having a close personal relationship with the president.
A first lady need not be as outspoken as Abigail Adams to serve as a useful partner behind the scenes. Lady Bird Johnson, for instance, has a reputation as a more traditional wife.
Nonetheless, she provided helpful political and personal advice and support to Lyndon Johnson.
On the other hand, a person without the intelligence, judgment, and personality to provide good support here would have trouble being a good first lady.
A first lady also eventually was expected to have some “cause.”
Dolley Madison was the pacesetter here with her support for orphans and promotion of equal access for women in public places from Supreme Court hearings to oyster houses. More recently, Nancy Reagan is famous (or for some infamous) for her anti-drug efforts, her “Just Say No” campaign.
Eleanor Roosevelt is probably best known here in her support of many needy groups, seen by many as more of a social justice warrior than her husband.
She eventually was known as the “first lady of the world” for her role in the United Nations. Eleanor also provided a modern day precedent as a major surrogate, spokesperson, for the president in public policy matters.
The modern-day first lady was more likely to be expected to and expect herself to play such a significant policy role.
First Lady Hillary Clinton, for instance, worked with her husband to try to pass a major health care law. A more traditional first lady, from days of yore, would be less expected to play such a role.
Again, if a first lady did not have the ability or desire to play such a role, they would have difficulty thriving in their role.
The First Lady grew into an important part of the institution of the presidency.
Frances Cleveland, the young wife of the only president whose two terms were not consecutive, put out the first press release.
Skipping ahead, the 1970s brought the creation of a separate Office of the First Lady. We might be talking about a much smaller sized group than most in the executive department, but it reflects the importance of the role in the 21st Century.
The Worst First Ladies
First you decide what is good …
The Siena College Research Institute collaborated in 2014 with C-SPAN and The White House Historical Association to conduct its fifth study of the First Ladies of the United States, providing a helpful list of criteria to classify them:
Value to the country
Being the White House Steward
Being her own woman
Value to the President
These qualities summarize the various qualities helpful to succeed as First Lady.
Note how a good first lady has beneficial personal qualities (integrity), skills (leadership), serves the needs of the White House (including the president himself), and is respected by the public at large (public image).
That’s pressure! No wonder even the best ones do not thrive at everything.
So Who Didn’t Make the Cut?
The worst first ladies would be those who consistently fail these basic qualities. They would be pretty bad as a whole at all the tasks a first lady is expected to perform, including being a respectable role model and representative of our nation.
What exactly that means will change some over time, as expectations and norms change. But, the worst first ladies will remain a type of anti-role model. A symbol of what not to do.
Who are the worst first ladies?
A recent poll of Americans put Pat Nixon at the bottom with 28%, while Melania Trump was second from last at 34% and Hillary Clinton was third from the bottom at 35%.
But, is this a fair ranking, or is it a result of strong ideological divisions, and opposition to controversial presidents that happen to be their husbands?
I think best and worst rankings are somewhat subjective. But, I will end this discussion by listing five “worsts,” who provide the basic “what not do” qualities in a first lady.
I will rank them historically, not worst to most worst. I do not think we ever had a completely bad first lady.
We never had the “Hitler” version of the First Lady, even if some might think so. But, these five have qualities that the most are likely to see as “the worst.”
 Jane Pierce (1853-7)
President Franklin Pierce was a compromise choice and might be selected on his own to a “rather bad” president list. Jane Pierce fainting when she found out her husband was nominated was a bad omen. She was probably the worst antebellum first lady.
Jane Pierce was very shy and suffered from depression. Never a fan of political life, the death of her son before the inauguration sealed the deal. As first lady, Jane Pierce was basically a recluse, leaving first lady chores to others. She only made an appearance as First Lady at a New Year’s Day reception in 1855, but even then, made only limited public appearances.
Jane Pierce did help redecorate the White House. She also had a close relationship with her husband, who understood her personal struggles. Still, being a first lady? Not her thing.
Worst Qualities: Not showing up.
 Mary Todd Lincoln (1861-5)
Some early first ladies were somewhat controversial, including Rachel Jackson, who died before her husband was sworn in. President Andrew Jackson not only blamed critics for her death, but a major dispute arose in part because of his sensitivities to another woman’s honor.
Mary Lincoln was really controversial, including in the years after her husband’s assassination.
She still is ranked among the “worst first ladies,” ranked last in the first Siena “best first lady” poll. This is probably in part since President Abraham Lincoln is a high bar to meet.
Mary clearly did not violate the “be her own woman” rule, but caused her husband a lot of problems public relations-wise. Mary was believed to be too emotional and wasteful in her spending. Her Southern family connections even made some believe she was a Confederate spy.
Mary’s mental state was also questioned. She was committed for a time after her husband died.
As with Jane Pierce, some of this is understandable, with multiple children dying and eventually her husband being assassinated.
And, there is evidence the marriage was unhappy, though it is not like Abraham Lincoln himself did not have a lot of issues.
Mary did try to be a good first lady, including supporting her husband and being a loyal Unionist (the spy stuff is unfair) during the Civil War.
She did not shun her duties as first lady, including visiting military hospitals and hosting social functions.
Her historical reputation might not have been so bad if she was not Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. Nonetheless, Mary could not avoid controversy, including public outbursts and private debilitating depression that led some to suggest she suffered from bipolar depression.
Worst Qualities: Troublesome to husband, bad public reputation, overspending, mentally unfit.
 Florence Harding (1921-3)
Before finishing with two recent first ladies, I wanted to discuss another more obscure example repeatedly ranked among the worst. An interesting example is Florence Harding, who on some level sounds rather impressive:
Florence Harding (1921-1923) was the first to vote, deliver speeches, and publicly declare her sense of obligation to intervene in government affairs affecting specific constituencies, such as veterans, working women, and humane societies.
Florence’s abilities were clear from an early age when she obtained skills such as accounting and bookkeeping while helping in her father’s hardware store. She was also known for her good looks, attracting her second husband (Warren Harding) even though she was five years older.
Florence’s abilities and drive played an important role in Harding’s rise in business and politics.
She continued to serve an important role in his administration, including helping to pick Cabinet members, spending a lot of effort in her hostess duties, and doing much to protect her husband from controversy and public criticism.
So why does she have a bad reputation?
It is perhaps a reverse Abraham Lincoln: President Harding had a scandal-filled administration, died in office during his first term, and overall has a reputation (perhaps unfair) as a lousy, unfit president.
Why would his first lady not be tainted in the process? Also, many blame Florence for helping such an unfit character. She is called a “first lady of deceit.”
Florence Harding also appears to have been tarred with stereotypes Hillary Clinton might recognize. She was given labels such as scheming, sexless, and domineering.
And, it did not help that Florence decided not to allow an autopsy when her husband died in office. This made people, already inclined to dislike her, even accuse her of poisoning her husband.
Florence Harding’s ranking as one of the worst first ladies seems to be at least somewhat unfair. It does show such rankings are subjective, especially since going by her actual activities as first lady, Florence Harding was an impressive character.
Worst Qualities: Public reputation, not deemed a “proper” first lady, questions regarding her integrity, including helping an unfit president.
 Nancy Reagan (1981-9)
Ronald Reagan is not only a very influential president, but has been ranked in top ten “best” lists (though I am sure many will disagree). Meanwhile, along with Jane Pierce and Mary Lincoln, Nancy Reagan has regularly been on the top of the list for worst first ladies. Why?
President Ronald Reagan scored highly for public persuasion skills and setting the national agenda. First Lady Nancy Reagan never had that level of personal appeal and national influence. She is remembered for repeated controversy without enough positivity to balance things out.
Nancy, a former actor like her husband, did gain a reputation for fashion and glamor.
But, this was a two-edged sword, since (like Mary Lincoln) she gained a reputation for wasteful spending. Nancy gained a reputation as basically a selfish rich elite character.
Nancy also gained controversy for her astrological beliefs, which she sometimes used to make public decisions.
Her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was deemed simplistic. She also has been criticized for not supporting her friend Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS.
This led to recent controversy when an honorary stamp was released during Pride Month.
Nancy Reagan is honored as a supportive spouse, a helpmate for her husband. Nonetheless, though her consistent high rankings as “worst” might in part be a matter of people being so familiar with her (recency bias), as a whole she had a lot of issues as first lady.
Worst Qualities: Public reputation, overspending, improper behavior such as misuse of astrology, seen as frivolous (compared to recent first ladies), and her “cause” a failure.
 Melania Trump (2017-21)
Laura Benanti’s Melania Trump impression noticeably changed over the years.
Early on, Melania basically was a sympathetic character, who like everyone else watching was disgusted by Donald Trump. In time, however, she too became an unpleasant character, her unlikeability emphasized.
Trump’s presidency was very controversial, for good reason in the mind of this writer, and I am writing this in the midst of public hearings investigating its insurrection-laden conclusion.
Donald Trump, however, had shown himself to be a nasty character since the 1970s. His own niece, Mary Trump, wrote a book spelling out some of the details.
If we are concerned about such things as integrity, personal image, and value to the country, being the helpmate of Donald Trump is likely to get you low marks.
Nonetheless, just being the wife of a bad president is not enough to rank you on the worst list. For instance, Pat Nixon was (at least at the time of Watergate) not tarred for the actions of her husband.
Melania Trump is attractive, knows multiple languages, and reportedly has tried to protect her son Barron from the limelight.
But, she is also Donald Trump’s third, much younger wife. And, there are even some risque photographs from when she was a fashion model.
Melania does not have a reputation for class and like Jacqueline Kennedy; she is seen as somewhat trashy.
Melania Trump also showed signs publicly as not just a “trophy wife” type, but personally having questionable beliefs.
She infamously wore a jacket that seemed to basically rub it in the faces of the public that she did not care what they thought.
Her efforts against bullying (part of her “Be Best” campaign) seemed even to sympathizers as rather ironic given her husband.
And, even those who supported her husband with his wealth, power, and ability to advance preferred partisan ends had limited reason to find her appealing. She did not even seem to be willing to fake public affection for her husband.
And, overall, Melania did not seem to want to be the first lady anyway.
As seen in the video, basic first lady responsibilities like decorating for Christmas seemed to her to be a waste of time. Her husband also did not expect much from his wives, repeatedly cheating on them (including infamously with a porn actress while married to Melania). So, no “helpmate” role either.
First Lady Melania Trump already had a lot of baggage with Donald Trump as her husband and the strong negative feelings of the public concerning his presidency.
But, she also had personal agency, making choices that further helped to rank her as the worst first lady.
And, unlike someone like Jane Pierce, Melania had no good grounds to obtain the public’s sympathy. On balance, rankings of “worst first lady” here do not really seem too unfair.
Worst Qualities: Support of Donald Trump, not proper first lady material including class and personality, showing disgust at her responsibilities, inability to fight public reputation.
The role of a first lady, unelected but still quite important and growing in complexity, requires a range of talents as well as a personal desire to succeed.
There have been a variety of personalities serving the role over the years, many mostly forgotten.
The ones we remember stand out, both the best and the worst. The worst, with the exception of President Franklin Pierce, have the additional burden of noteworthy presidents. The presidents were hard acts to follow and/or already had a large opposition.
The worst are so labeled for a variety of reasons, including personal frailties. They do not only help us understand the office of first lady, but the human stories of history.