Michelle Obama can’t win. Her anti-obesity advocacy has been slammed as nanny-state tactics; her bare, toned arms are criticized as inappropriate; and she’s been described as an irritating distraction to her husband’s advisers. But Obama’s situation isn’t unique—being a target for a peanut gallery armed with endless shots to fire and fingers to wag is an unavoidable part of the position, and has been since Martha Washington’s reign.
“The role [of first lady] is at once the most ambiguous, high-pressured, and unpaid job in the country,” says Ruth Mandel, director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. “You can’t avoid being controversial … there’s just no way not to step on something that sets off some sort of exposure. There are always opponents who are looking for it.”
Given the attention surrounding the first lady’s influence in the White House, thanks most recently to the release of New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor’s book The Obamas, The Daily Beast convened a panel of experts to offer some historical perspective on the achievements of previous first ladies. It’s a tough thing to quantify, as there’s no formal job description, it’s an unelected position without any explicit power, and it’s limited by cultural and social mores. To create a ranking, we asked participants to measure the influence, on a scale of 1 to 10, of former first ladies in office since 1900 on the role itself, on women’s rights and social issues, and on the image of the president in the context of her cultural environment.
Although the questions of the survey are geared toward modern expectations of a first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt—the woman credited with defining the role as it is today—landed at the top spot. According to the experts, the original is still the best. Coming in just behind Roosevelt is Hillary Clinton, another interesting result, given how widely she was criticized for taking an outsize role in the health-care debate during her time in the White House and for overstepping the perceived boundaries of the position. Of course, the fact that she became independently successful has probably contributed to her favorable, boundary-breaking legacy.
“In contemporary politics, the most important thing is not to screw up,” says Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University and author of The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of the First Lady. “I think, by and large, they have exercised their duties better than the presidents have; their public-approval ratings have been higher than the presidents'.”
Some pioneering efforts by less celebrated first ladies have receded into trivia territory, perhaps unfairly. Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore, was the first to hire a social secretary—a move that helped transform the position into one of activism and independence, says Nancy Beck Young, a professor at the University of Houston. Florence Harding advocated for female prisoners’ rights and was the first wife to campaign publicly for her husband. Lou Henry Hoover supported civil rights. Helen Taft initiated legislation established in health and safety codes in federal workplaces. And Mamie Eisenhower made allies of military wives and fought for racial integration in Washington, D.C.
How does Michelle Obama stack up against history’s best? It’s too early to judge her on her post–White House years, but according to the experts, her record so far would place her among the top five first ladies. Her advocacy as first lady is on par with that of Betty Ford, and her impact on the role of first lady matches that of Rosalynn Carter. “I think it’s unrealistic and absurd to assume that a modern first lady doesn’t have an opinion and influence, or that talking with the president is limited to pillow murmurings,” says Mandel. “She’s got a platform. She can use it. We weren’t expecting that when Mamie Eisenhower was around.”