Saint Louis University

When President Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term Monday, Jan. 21, the spotlight also will shine on First Lady Michelle Obama; but how much do you know about the notable accomplishments of other historic presidential wives?

Diana Carlin, Ph.D., associate vice president for graduate education and professor in the department of communication, has studied and taught courses about the accomplishments, history and influence of the women behind the Commander-in-Chief. For example:

  • Much like Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama, Martha Washington was considered a "fashionista" in her own time. 
  • Edith Roosevelt was the first presidential wife to have her own staff.
  • Herbert Hoover's wife, Lou Henry, was the first woman with a degree in geology. 
  • Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to speak at a nominating convention.
  • Dolley Madison was the first First Lady to attend her husband's inaugural.

And what about the term "First Lady?" It was first used in a eulogy by President Zachary Taylor at the funeral of Dolley Madison. Previously they had been referred to as "Lady Washington, etc." or "Mrs. President."

Take the "First Ladies Quiz" Diana Carlin gives to her students.


Diana Carlin authored a chapter on Lady Bird Johnson's rhetoric for the book on modern first ladies, Inventing a Voice. She is co-author of Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced.

Carlin is well known for her research which focuses on political communication with an emphasis on debates, women in politics, speech writing and civic engagement. In 1992, she created the national project, DebateWatch, which encourages citizens to watch presidential debates in groups, talk about them and submit reactions. Carlin also has studied presidential inaugurals and speechwriting and authored a chapter on President Truman's speechwriting process. Her most recent work includes publications about the 2008 Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin campaigns.