The third Monday of every February has been designated Presidents Day in the United States. Over the decades this observance has morphed from being a celebration of George Washington to a celebration of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to a day that is now viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. Presidents, past and present. In fact, no American President to date was actually born on this day. The holiday is celebrated on a Monday as a result of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act to create more three-day weekends for workers and to spur retail sales.
On Presidents Day, The Junior League says “remember the ladies,” a sentiment that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams in 1776, as men were gathering to write the Constitution. Her sentiments were quite bold—not what you might imagine from an 18th century wife,
“…I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and “favourable” to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If “perticuliar” care and attention is not paid to the “Laidies” we are determined to foment a “Rebelion,” and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
On Presidents Day, The Junior League says, “Let’s also remember the ladies, in particular the First Ladies who served the United States throughout our history. The Junior League is proud to claim five of them as our own:
Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the Junior League of the City of New York. She served as the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945 during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office, making her the longest serving First Lady of the United States. She was an early champion of civil rights as well as an advocate for women, American workers, the poor and young people. Roosevelt encouraged her husband to appoint more women to federal positions, and she held hundreds of press conferences for female reporters only at a time when women were typically barred from White House press conferences. After the White House she went on to serve as the U.S. Delegate to the United Nations and headed the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. She stands out as one of the most revered women in U.S. History.
Betty Ford, a member of the Junior League of Grand Rapids, was First Lady from 1974 to 1977, alongside her husband, President Gerald Ford. She was noted for raising breast cancer awareness following her 1974 mastectomy. In addition, she was a passionate supporter of, and activist for, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and was a leader in the Women’s Movement. She was known for being a candid and outspoken First Lady tackling controversial issues including feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment, women’s rights, and gun control. She also raised awareness of addiction when in the 1970s, she announced her long-running battle with alcoholism and substance abuse—the first First Lady to do so. After leaving the White House, she continued to lobby for the ERA and remained active in the feminist movement. She was the founder of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Nancy Reagan, a member of the Junior League of Los Angeles, was First Lady from 1981 to 1989 during her husband Ronal Reagan’s terms in office. She was an outspoken advocate for drug abuse awareness and education. Her “Just Say No” campaign culminated in the passage of the “National Crusade for a Drug Free American Act” in 1986. After the Reagans left the White House, the former first lady established the Nancy Reagan Foundation to support after-school drug prevention programs. She also was committed to the Nancy and Ronald Reagan Research Institute in Chicago, an affiliate of the National Alzheimer’s Association, to accelerate the progress in Alzheimer’s disease research, the disease that ravaged President Reagan.
Barbara Bush, a member of the Junior League of Houston, was First Lady from 1989 to 1993, as the wife of President George H.W. Bush. While First Lady, she started the nonprofit Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, whose goal is to empower families through literacy. As a passionate reader herself, she set out to raise awareness about the importance of family literacy, giving children and their parents the opportunity to learn and achieve together. Today the Foundation is the leading advocate for family literacy with proven results in reversing developmental delays and improving grade-level skills. Barbara Bush and Abigail Adams are the only two women in U.S. history to have been both the wife and mother of U.S. Presidents.
Laura Bush, a member of the Junior League of Dallas, was First Lady from 2001 to 2009, as the wife of President George W. Bush. She has long been an advocate for education reform and the well-being of women and families worldwide. As did her mother-in-law, Laura Bush championed literacy through programs like “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn.” She founded the National Book Festival, a program that the JL of Washington has long supported. Founded in her name in 2002, the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries provides support to libraries in underserved communities. She has addressed literacy and women’s issues on a global level as the honorary ambassador of the United Nation’s Literacy Decade, as the honorary chair of the US-Afghan Women’s Council and as a founder of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research and the Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research of the Americas.
These are but five of the many women who have made a difference to the United States and the world as First Ladies. Today we celebrate Presidents Day and we celebrate the women who served with them.