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The 5 Worst First Ladies America Has Had

Let’s talk about America’s worst first ladies!

The American President serves as both head of government and state, using the first lady to help do both. The presidential spouse serves several important functions, such as hostess, independent public figure, advisor to the president, and presidential surrogate.

The worst first ladies provide us with a kind of anti-role model as well as remind us that even the powerful and rich can trouble individuals. We think it may be interesting to see why certain first ladies are ranked so low. If we take a look at failures, we can understand what is deemed to be important.

According to the official website of the National Park Service, a First Lady is “a symbol of strength, a political reformer, a presidential liaison, a policy advocate, a keeper of the People’s House, and a director of social affairs.” But this position has taken on numerous roles throughout American history.

As the cultural landscape shifted, so did the responsibilities and expectations of a first lady. Since this article is about the worst first ladies our country has had, it may be worth saying a couple of things about the ones sitting on the other side of the spectrum.

What makes a first lady good?

Since the beginning, the basic role America’s First Lady was expected to maintain was that of hostess of the White House. This obviously requires understanding and skills to be a good social leader.

Even in America’s early days, the First Lady was often a fashion trendsetter as well. She served as a public symbol of not only the White House but also the country. In the process, the presidential spouse became a role model for women nationwide.

This being said, someone who is very shy, who resists social graces, or who isn’t a people person would obviously not be a good fit for the role of America’s First Lady.

Of course, that’s pressure! No wonder even the best First Ladies our country hasn’t thrived at everything. So, let’s take a look at those who didn’t make the cut! Here are America’s worst first ladies!

worst first ladies
Unknown 19th century American photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Jane Pierce (1853–1857)

President Franklin Pierce was a compromise choice, and there’s a good chance many people would add him on his own to the list of rather bad presidents. But what about his spouse? Well, Jane Pierce fainting when she learned that her husband was nominated was a bad omen. According to some, she was probably the worst antebellum first lady.

Jane Pierce suffered from depression, and on top of that, she was also very shy. Never a fan of the political world, the death of her son before the inauguration was what sealed the deal. As one of the worst first ladies, Jane Pierce was basically a recluse, leaving her official chores to others.

She only made an appearance as presidential spouse at a New Year’s Day reception in 1855, but she definitely wasn’t in her element.

However, Jane Pierce did something as the First Lady: she helped redecorate the White House. She also had a very close relationship with her husband, who was considerate and understood her struggles.

This being said, it’s safe to say that being a first lady wasn’t Jane Pierce’s thing.

2. Mary Todd Lincoln (1861–1865)

Some of the early first ladies were somewhat controversial, including Rachel Jackson, who passed away before her husband was sworn in. Not only did President Andrew Jackson blame critics for her death, but a serious dispute arose in part due to his sensitivities toward another woman’s honor.

Mary Lincoln was one of the most controversial first ladies, generating a lot of controversy even in the years following the assassination of her husband. She is still ranked among the “worst first ladies.” While some say she did a good job, this is probably in part because President Lincoln is still a high bar to meet.

Mary didn’t violate the “be her own woman” rule, but she did give her husband a great deal of trouble public relations-wide. She was believed to be wasteful in her spending and too emotional. Some even speculated that she was a Confederate spy because of her Southern family connections.

Mary’s mental state was also questioned. In fact, she was committed for a time after her husband passed away. Similar to Jane Pierce, some of this is understandable, with several children dying and eventually her husband being assassinated.

Moreover, similar to other worst first ladies, it’s evident her marriage was unhappy, though it’s not like Abraham Lincoln himself didn’t have a lot of problems.

However, Mary did try to be a good presidential spouse, including supporting her husband and being a devoted Unionist during the Civil War. She didn’t shun her duties as first lady, including social functions and visiting military hospitals.

Some experts say that Mary Lincoln’s reputation might not have been so bad if she wasn’t Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. Nonetheless, she could not avoid controversy, including private, debilitating depression and public outbursts that led some to claim that she suffered from bipolar depression.

worst first ladies
Photo by Everett Collection from Shutterstock

3. Florence Harding (1921–1923)

Moving forward with the list of worst first ladies our country has had, we have Florence Harding. She was the first to deliver speeches, vote, and publicly declare her sense of obligation to step into government affairs affecting specific constituencies, such as working women, veterans, and humane societies.

Florence’s drive and abilities played a key role in Harding’s rise in politics and business. She spent a lot of effort on her hostess duties, helped pick Cabinet members, and did much to protect her husband from public criticism.

Florence’s drive and abilities played a key role in Harding’s rise in politics and business. She spent a lot of effort in her hostess duties, helped pick Cabinet members, and did much to protect her husband from public criticism.

So you may ask yourself, why is she on the list of America’s worst first ladies?

It’s perhaps a reverse Abraham Lincoln situation: President Harding had a scandal-packed administration, passed away in office during his first term, and overall had a reputation (perhaps unfair) as an awful, unfit president. So, obviously, the First Lady got tainted in the process.

Moreover, many blame Florence for helping such an unfit character. Not only is she considered one of the worst first ladies, but she’s also called a “first lady of deceit.” She also appears to have been tarred with labels such as domineering and scheming.

And it didn’t help at all the fact that Florence decided not to allow an autopsy when her husband passed away in office. This made Americans, already inclined to dislike her and see her as one of the worst first ladies, even accuse her of poisoning her husband.

It’s safe to say that Florence Harding’s ranking as one of the worst first ladies wasn’t always fair. It does show that rankings are pretty subjective. If we were to look at her activities as a presidential spouse, we would say that Florence Harding was an impressive character.

4. Nancy Reagan (1981–1989)

Lady Nancy Reagan never had her husband’s national influence and personal appeal. She is remembered for sparking multiple controversies without enough positive traits to balance things out.

This doesn’t mean that she didn’t possess some qualities required for the role of America’s First Lady. Nancy, a former actor like her husband, did gain popularity for her glamor and fashion. But this was rather a two-edged sword, because she was known for her wasteful spending.

Nancy also stirred controversy for her astrological beliefs, which she sometimes employed to make public decisions. She has also been criticized for not supporting her friend Rock Hudson, who passed away from AIDS.

Nancy Reagan is honored as a helpmate and a supportive spouse for her husband. Nonetheless, though her consistently high rankings on the worst first lady list might be a matter of Americans being so familiar with her, as a whole, she had a lot of problems as a first lady.

worst first ladies
Photo by a katz from Shutterstock

5. Melania Trump (2017-2021)

Melania Trump is attractive, speaks multiple languages, and allegedly tried to protect her son Barron from the limelight. But she’s also Donald Trump’s third, much younger wife, and some people say she doesn’t have a class reputation. Is this enough to consider her one of the worst first ladies our country has had?

She infamously wore a jacket that seemed to pretty much rub it in the faces of the public, indicating that she didn’t care what they thought. Even those who supported her husband had limited reasons to find her appealing.

The general opinion is that Melania didn’t seem to want to be the presidential spouse anyway. Basic first-lady chores like decorating for Christmas seemed to her to be a big waste of time.

All these factors together made people see her as one of the worst first ladies our country has had. Moreover, unlike someone like Jane Pierce, Melania didn’t have enough grounds to obtain the public’s sympathy.

There are many more interesting things to say about these women, but we’ll leave them for another time. Until then, we recommend this book, which offers insights into this group of remarkable figures.

If you liked our article on America’s worst first ladies, you may also want to read 13 Surprising US Politicians Who Went Broke.

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