First Ladies Voting: An Illustrated History of the Right to Ballot

Incumbent First Lady Hillary Clinton votes in 1996, Little Rock, Arkansas, the year her husband sought his second term as President. Little could she know that exactly twenty years later she would be on the presidential ballot.

Incumbent First Lady Hillary Clinton votes in 1996, Little Rock, Arkansas, the year her husband sought his second term as President. Little could she know that exactly twenty years later she would be on the presidential ballot.

First Ladies have not been voting as long as Presidents.

Florence Harding stares up at a photographer while waiting in line to vote for her husband as president in 1920.

Florence Harding stares up at a photographer while waiting in line to vote for her husband as president in 1920.

It was not until the 1920 presidential election when there was “universal” suffrage, decreed by the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution and becoming the law of the land in time for the 1920 presidential election.

This made Florence Harding the first woman in American history who was able to vote for her husband as President of the United States.

It wasn’t as if giving any kind of legal right to vote was a foreign idea to First Ladies. In fact, it was part of the American story since the beginning of the presidency.

In 1790, a year after George Washington became the first President and his wife Martha Washington became celebrated in public as “Lady Washington,” the state of New Jersey granted “all free inhabitants,” including women, the right to vote as long as they were not held in slavery or indentured servitude.

Valley Forge: Martha Washington did the sewing, but not the washing. And she organized wealthy Philadelphia women into committees to raise funds for troop supplies and sew needed blankets, clothes and footware.

If Martha Washington had been a resident of the state of New Jersey while she was First Lady, she could have voted.  

Through her tenure as First Lady from 1797 to 1801, none of the feminist spirit that had marked Abigail Adams during the American Revolution is known to have moved her to urge her husband, the second President John Adams, into supporting a movement intending to give all American women the right to vote.

It wasn’t because she had lost her earlier belief in the equal right of women to participate in government by exercising the right to vote and find legal equality on issues such as property ownership.

Silhouette of Abigail Adams.

Silhouette of Abigail Adams.

It was because it was then considered strictly a decision of individual states, without interference from the federal government.

Three years before the end of third President Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, in 1806, the state of New Jersey revoked from its women residents the right to vote. It was surely just a matter of coincidence that Jefferson had declared that politics was not a matter intended for the “tender breasts of ladies.”

Sarah Polk was treated as a political equal by her husband the President but made no remarks about the Seneca Falls Convention held during his presidency.

Sarah Polk, political equal of her husband, never mentioned the Seneca Falls Convention held during his presidency.

Why didn’t the incumbent First Lady Sarah Polk offer even an observation about the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the benchmark beginning of the long fight for gender equity voting rights where a “Declaration on the Rights of Women” was composed, and signed by both women and men? After all, Mrs. Polk had been given an unusually academic education, had no children and worked as the President’s primary aide.

Seated on the front porch of her Nashville, Tennessee home, former First Lady Sarah Polk.

Former First Lady Polk on her Nashville front porch.

From the beginning, the suffrage movement was tied to one seeking to abolish slavery. Sarah Polk’s wealth was based on slave ownership, used not only as house servants in her native Tennessee and harsh manual labor as pickers on her Mississippi cotton plantation farms, but as a human commodity. Supporting women’s suffrage would suggest she also supported abolition. She never addressed abolition, saying only “the war solved that.”

Not until after the Civil War, as a former First Lady did she go on record about a public controversy, signing a testimonial book given by The Women’s Christian Temperance Union to the incumbent First Lady Lucy Hayes.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union presented this painting of their reluctant heroine Lucy Hayes with a stone carving in the background showing a water urn.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union presented this painting of their reluctant heroine Lucy Hayes with a stone carving in the background showing a water urn.

By that time, the effort to give women the vote had grown to include efforts to end physical violence against them by drunk men. The WTCU sought to protect women by getting moral pledges not to drink liquor while the Prohibition Party pushed to outlaw its production and sales.

While she’d pledged to not let liquor touch her lips and there were no alcoholic beverages served during her tenure, Lucy Hayes avoided the political conflict about which solution was best. By supporting neither method to eradicate liquor consumption, however, she also had to avoid the suffrage issue that had become so closely aligned to it.

By then, Wyoming Territory had given its women residents the right to vote, granted in 1869. Utah Territory did so in 1870 but rescinded it seventeen years later, just as the 1790 right to vote for New Jersey women had been revoked.

Lucretia Garfield.

Lucretia Garfield.

Like Lucy Hayes, successor Lucretia Garfield has argued in favor of women’s suffrage in college debating classes.

After marriage and motherhood, she expressed deeply-felt ambivalence about the role of women, seemingly conflicted by the view that their political influence was best felt by how they raised their children in the private realm or by exercising the right to vote and participating in public civic efforts.

As an older woman Mrs. Garfield publicly came out for the 1912 Progressive Party presidential candidate, who supported women's suffrage.

As an older woman Mrs. Garfield publicly came out for the 1912 Progressive Party presidential candidate, who supported women’s suffrage.

Then, towards the end of her life, this widow of a Republican President came out strongly for the 1912 Progressive Party candidate, former President Theodore Roosevelt, who made his support for women’s right to vote a tenet of his candidacy. She died two years before the 19th amendment passed.

With McKinley’s 1896 election, came the first First Lady to go publicly on the record in favor of suffrage. Before marriage, Ida McKinley had worked as a bank manager and had witnessed the degradation of single women in Europe who had to support themselves on miserable wages, paid lower wages than men for doing the same job.

Ida McKinley was the first incumbent First Lady known to declare her support of women's suffrage.

Ida McKinley was the first incumbent First Lady known to declare her support of women’s suffrage.

When both a pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage group were received on the same day in 1899 by President McKinley, the First Lady would only meet with Susan B. Anthony, the nation’s leading suffragist, and asked that her support be announced at a suffragist convention that night.

Julia Grant was the first former First Lady to declare her support of a woman's right to vote.

Julia Grant was the first former First Lady to declare her support of a woman’s right to vote.

By then, former First Lady Julia Grant had also gone on the record as favoring women’s suffrage, after it was fully explained to her by Anthony, a woman the presidential widow trusted because she’d so loyally supported her late husband.

Several presidential spouses who had preceded Florence Harding lived long enough to exercise their right to vote as well. In 1920, there were three former First Ladies alive.

Frances Cleveland with two of her three daughters, Marion and Esther.

Frances Cleveland with two of her three daughters, Marion and Esther.

By the time she neared the end of her tenure as First Lady in 1896, Frances Cleveland was more focused on her three toddler daughters than the fact that Utah restored suffrage and Idaho passed it, joining Wyoming (1890) and Colorado (1893) as the four states able to vote in the presidential election.

Likely influenced by her husband who strongly believed that if women were given the right to vote it would draw their interests into other public issues and away from what he revered as their traditional responsibilities for home and family, Frances Cleveland became a member of  The New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage a year after leaving the White House.

Molly McElroy.

Molly McElroy.

In doing so, Mrs. Cleveland joined Molly Arthur McElroy, the sister of widower President Chester Arthur who fulfilled the hostess role of  First Lady  Despite later perceptions of the states of New York and Ohio as liberal and conservative, respectively, when it came to the suffrage issue in the late 19th century, the political leanings of both states were just the opposite.

Daughter Helene behind her, Nellie Taft descending stairs from a suffrage parade she reviewed the day before she left the White House.

Daughter Helene behind her, Nellie Taft descending stairs from a suffrage parade she reviewed the day before she left the White House.

Like Lucy Hayes, Lucretia Garfield, Ida McKinley and Florence Harding, Nellie Taft had been raised in the Buckeye State, then known for its strong history of higher education for women.

In 1908, Nellie Taft became the first presidential candidate’s spouse to go public with qualified support of women’s suffrage. Mrs. Taft spoke carefully in answering a reporter’s question about her feelings about a woman’s right to vote. She articulated her belief that women should vote once they’d somehow proven they were informed on the issues.

The highly political and often contentious First Lady Nellie Taft.

The highly political Nellie Taft.

Then, in afterthought, she added a remark indicating a strong belief of gender equality, declaring that men should be held to this same standard, suggesting that the right to vote might well be revoked from men who proved to be ignorant of the issues.

Ellen Wilson publicly muted her private pro-suffrage view. i

Ellen Wilson publicly muted her private pro-suffrage view. i

As the Vice President’s wife in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt’s widow Edith had initially signaled support for suffrage by donating a gift to be auctioned for the cause but once she became First Lady, she offered no public support of it.

Edith Wilson, decidedly anti-suffragist.

Edith Wilson, decidedly anti-suffragist.

Similarly, during her husband’s 1912 presidential candidacy, Ellen Wilson was known to privately support women’s suffrage but refused to publicly state this.

The fight for women’s suffrage gained enormous momentum during World War I, suffragists making the point that the U.S. was fighting an overseas war in the name of liberty but denying half its population the basic right to vote.

Woodrow Wilson’s second wife Edith had come to despise the suffragists who kept a vigil protest outside the White House gates with banners demanding that he fulfill the principles of democracy by supporting the push for a constitutional amendment granting women the vote.

JFK and Mrs. Wilson.

JFK and Mrs. Wilson.

As Edith Galt, a decade earlier, she’d voiced support for suffrage but as First Lady at the time the 19th Amendment passed, she called suffragists “disgusting creatures” and in November of 1920 refused to use her new right to vote.

It may well have taken Edith Wilson forty years to get herself into a polling booth, there being no reports of her voting from 1936 to 1956, but in 1960, a year before her death, the 88 year old former First Lady cast a vote for Democrat John F. Kennedy as president.

In contrast, by 1920 Edith Roosevelt had issued her first statement of political support, in favor of presidential candidate Warren Harding, and called on women to vote for the Republican.

The earliest chronological First Lady who was photographed voting was former president's wife Frances Cleveland but no image exists that shows her at the polls. This is former First Lady Edith Roosevelt voting in New York in 1936.

The earliest chronological First Lady who was photographed voting was former president’s wife Frances Cleveland but no image exists that shows her at the polls. This is former First Lady Edith Roosevelt voting in New York in 1936.

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt would remain doggedly loyal to the G.O.P., especially irritated by the wide public misperception that she was the mother, grandmother or closely related to the 1932 Democratic Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, the husband of her late husband’s niece Eleanor.

Former First Lady Nellie Taft with incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936.

Former First Lady Nellie Taft with incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936.

Nellie Taft may have had to wait longer for the right to vote than her husband,  but her political desire was fulfilled a dozen years before his was. Theodore Roosevelt earned her permanent enmity when he implied that she wanted the presidency for herself more than she did for her husband.

It wasn’t until a year after Nellie marched over to the ballot box, that former President William Howard Taft was named Chief Justice by President Harding.

In reversal of her nemesis Edith Roosevelt, Nellie Taft never denied news reports that she was crossing her late husband’s partisan line to support FDR in 1936. Her son Robert, by then an isolationist US Senator who would seek his party’s nomination four years later, issued a statement claiming to quote his mother’s secretary that she was not going Democratic in that year’s election. The trouble was that she had no secretary.

The former First Lady Frances Cleveland in the 1930s.

The former First Lady Frances Cleveland in the 1930s.

Whether Frances Cleveland voted in 1920, 1924 or 1928 is uncertain, but she remained doggedly loyal to the dear old Democratic Party of her beloved late husband. In 1932, she “whooped and hollered some,” according to her nephew Jack Cadman in the early 1990s  boasting of her vote in 1932 for the man who was the son of her nice friend Mrs. James Delano Roosevelt.

By 1936, Frances Cleveland had blossomed into a full-on New Dealer after meeting the prominent pro-union peace advocate, party publicist (for the New York State Democratic one, not for nightclubs) leader of women organizations, radio show host, newspaper columnist, teacher, factory co-owner who had become First Lady in 1932.

Eleanor Roosevelt with her predecessor Frances Cleveland, fifty years after the White House bride had become First Lady.

Eleanor Roosevelt with her predecessor Frances Cleveland, fifty years after the White House bride had become First Lady.

Coming as part of Sara Roosevelt’s posse of high society matrons, former First Lady Frances Cleveland first met the incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at a formal affair hosted in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where she went with a tad incognito of an identity, attending as “Mrs. Thomas J. Preston, Jr.” (her married name by her second husband) and not the aged version of the college girl who’d been White House celebrity bride of the Victorian Age.

During the 1936 campaign, she stood around and waited in the back of a church in her hometown of Princeton, just so she could warmly greet the whirlwind Mrs. Roosevelt, then making one of her legendary speaking pitstops in a typical day of many pitstops. She went for FDR in a big way, more for his mother and wife than the New Deal. “I can’t keep all those letters straight. Like that old tariff.” In 1940, however, she refused to vote because, she told her son, “Your father was entirely against presidents seeking and having third terms.”

She nevertheless justified her vote for FDR in 1944, quipping, “Your father never said anything against fourth terms.”

In the last century, every woman who had a husband running for President voted.

Here are pictures of those dozen and a half who pulled the right lever, First Ladies voting, from Florence Harding in 1920 to Michelle Obama in 2016.

swirl 7

Florence Harding, an avowed suffragist and activist for gender economic, educational and professional equity, became the first woman to vote for her husband as President, in Marion, Ohio, 1920.

Florence Harding, an avowed suffragist and activist for equal rights for women on economic, health, and education issues, became the first woman to vote for her husband as President, in Marion, Ohio, 1920.

swirl 7

Grace Coolidge was, like her husband, able to vote by absentee ballot and posed as she filled out hers, October 30, 1924, to encourage other voters to do so.

Grace Coolidge was, like her husband, able to vote by absentee ballot and posed as she filled out hers, October 30, 1924, to encourage other voters to do so.

swirl 7

Lou Hoover voting in Palo Alto, California in 1932, in the election that denied her husband a second term as president.

Feminist and leader of numerous national women’s organizations, Lou Hoover voting in Palo Alto, California in 1932, in the election that denied her husband a second term as president.

swirl 7

Eleanor Roosevelt posing as she pulls the curtain lever of her voting booth, Hyde Park, New York, 1936.

At one point, a League of Women Voters official and vigorous advocate of all American women using their right to vote as a civic duty, Eleanor Roosevelt posed pulling the curtain lever of her voting booth, Hyde Park, New York, 1936.

swirl 7

“Look at those hemlines!” said Margaret Truman when she saw this picture of her mother, First Lady Bess Truman, far left, and herself, in their adjoining 1948 voting booths. Contrary to popular perception, Bess Truman was a strong feminist who urged the President to appoint women to key federal positions.

swirl 7

Mamie Eisenhower voting in the 1952 presidential election.

Her jumbo campaign button makes clear that Mamie Eisenhower is beaming her grin because she’s just voted for her husband’s Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. As both an incumbent and former First Lady, she displayed a more avid support than did her husband for Nixon’s presidential candidacies in 1960 and 1968. As a widow, she even taped a rare television campaign commercial for Nixon in 1972.

swirl 7

A tense but happy - and very pregnant - Jackie kennedy joined her husband to vote in the 1960 election at Hyannis, Massachusetts.

A tense yet happy and very pregnant Jackie Kennedy joined her husband to vote in the 1960 election at Hyannis, Massachusetts. She strongly believed that John F. Kennedy would make a good president, but was terrified of losing her anonymity.

swirl 7

Lady Bird Johnson casts her ballot in 1964 in - where else? Johnson City, Texas.

LBJ stuffed his ballot in the box and is ready to leave, but Lady Bird Johnson more gingerly slips hers in an old 1964 ballot box in – where else? Johnson City, Texas. In the months before Election Day she had conducted her own campaign speaking tour by railroad through the Deep South, trying to gently help move the Democratic Party from its historically racist demographic there to a pro-integration policy.

swirl 7

A smiling Pat Nixon emerges from her voting booth in the 1960 election. By late that night, when the razor-thin victory was given to Kennedy instead of her husband, Mrs. Nixon cried in public the first and only time; she believed there had been voter fraud in Texas and Illinois and urged her husband to demand a recount. He refused.

A smiling Pat Nixon emerges from her voting booth in the 1960 election. By late that night, when the razor-thin victory was given to Kennedy instead of her husband, Mrs. Nixon cried in public the first and only time; she believed there had been voter fraud in Texas and Illinois and urged her husband to demand a recount. He refused. The 1960 election left Pat Nixon permanently cynical about politics.

swirl 7

Betty Ford casts what proved to be her first and only vote for her husband as President in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, November 2, 1976.

A controversial First Lady because she unrelentingly lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment as a constitutional amendment, Betty Ford casts what proved to be her first and only vote for her husband as President in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, November 2, 1976.

swirl 7

Finding an image of Rosalynn Carter casting her vote at her local Plains, Georgia polling place either of the two years her husband ran for president, in 1976 and 1980, has proven impossible – let alone one from any year. Her work with the Carter Center in monitoring the voting in foreign countries – when invited by the political parties in those nations – may, however, prove to have had a greater impact in furthering democracy. She usually went with her husband, the former President, to oversee this process and ensure that elections were conducted without fraud. In October of 2011, however, the former First Lady (at center in the above photo) went alone to Tunisia to monitor that nation’s very first free elections. She is seen here checking polling registration records as citizens cast their first ballots.

swirl 7

Nancy Reagan peeks over into her husband's voting booth as if to ask, "Hey, who'd you vote for?" in Pacific Palisades, California, 1980.

Nancy Reagan peeks over into her husband’s voting booth as if to ask, “Hey, who’d you vote for?” in Pacific Palisades, California, 1980.

swirl 7

George Bush watches as his wife Barbara Bush casts her vote on November 3, 1992 at St. Mary's Seminary polling place in Houston, Texas. She was devastated that he lost his reelection bid, the last incumbent President to do so.

George Bush watches as his wife Barbara Bush casts her vote on November 3, 1992 at St. Mary’s Seminary polling place in Houston, Texas. She was devastated that he lost his reelection bid, the last incumbent President to do so. Eight years later, she cast a vote here that resulted more pleasantly for her – her son’s contested but ultimately successful presidential election.

swirl 7

While Hillary Clinton votes behind a curtain in the 2000 election, her husband and daughter hug and smile, keeping faith the woman in the booth would be elected US Senator by night's end.

The pantsuit legs are a good hint of the woman behind that curtain. While Hillary Clinton voted in the 2000 election, her husband and daughter, kept faith with a hug that she would go on to become the first First Lady elected to public office, winning her first of two campaigns as  US Senator by night’s end.

swirl 7

Laura Bush, ballot in hand, waits on line to vote in 2004 for her husband's successful re-election.

Laura Bush, ballot in hand, waits on line to vote in 2004 for her husband’s successful re-election.

swirl 7

Michelle Obama at an early voting poling site in Chicago, 2016.

Michelle Obama after making her choices at an early voting polling site in Chicago, 2016.

swirl 7
ide had become First Lady.[/caption]


Categories: First Ladies

Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: