First Lady Michelle Obama. Image credit: Flickr
First Lady Michelle Obama. Image credit: Flickr

First Lady is a term used to address the wife of a non-monarchical or elected official such as governor or president. All American presidents are given the “first lady” unofficial title. The honorable title is also bestowed upon women who’ve done remarkably well in a specific field. A first lady is, therefore, someone with great social prominence.

In case the president of America is a female, her husband would be referred to as First Gentleman or First Consort. The actual term may vary with regions. In several African-American congregations, First Lady is an honorable term used to refer to a pastor’s wife. However, it’s widely believed there’s no such reference made in the faith’s religious texts.

History

Dolley Madison. Image credit: Flickr
Dolley Madison. Image credit: Flickr

In America, the term first came up during the 1800s. The term was coined by former U.S. president Zachary Taylor who referred to Dolley Madison as “first lady” during his speech at her funeral (though there’s no documented evidence to prove this information). Dolley Madison was wife of America’s former president, James Madison, who was in office during 1809-1817. Dolley Madison was known for her charm and thoughtfulness; and she had her own agendas to take care of, and was not merely an accompaniment to her president husband.

After Dolley Madison’s death, the wives of future American presidents made their own unofficial titles – ranging from Lady, Mrs. President and Presidentress. However, the “first lady” term really took off when a journalist called Mary C. Ames used the term during an inauguration ceremony in 1877 when referring to Lucy Hayes, wife of U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes. Before the 1800s, wives of American presidents received no such special mention or honor, and were simply treated as private citizens like every other citizen.

Roles & Responsibilities, and Privileges

A first lady doesn’t hold any office responsibilities, unlike the president, and therefore she also doesn’t get paid like the president. The American Constitution doesn’t address any role for the first lady. However, she takes care of or hosts White House guests since the place is both the office and official residence of the president. If the president is a bachelor or widower, he may call upon surrogates for filling in the “first lady” role.

Lucy W. Hayes. Image credit: Flickr
Lucy W. Hayes. Image credit: Flickr

There are instances when the wife of Secretary of State may take up White House hostess duties if the president is a widower/bachelor. For example, Dolley Madison, wife of then Secretary of State, James Madison, was White House Hostess since Thomas Jefferson was a widower by the time he was elected to office. This prior experience made it easier for her to take up a first lady’s responsibilities when her husband became president.

The first lady does get immense respect for being the wife of the president, which invariably earns her the best seat in the house during events. Some first ladies view their status as a responsibility and may commit themselves to traditional women’s and kids’ issues. Most other first ladies restrict themselves to making speeches and running charities. And there are others who contribute to national and global causes such as environmentalism, literacy, women’s rights, and drug dependency treatment, to name a few.