Why Do We Call the President's Wife “First Lady”?
We may have Zachary Taylor to thank for coining the term, but it’s a journalist who popularized it nearly 30 years later.
As I’m sure many of you know, Dolley Madison was one of the most beloved first ladies in the history of the White House. She was a charming and thoughtful hostess, she was the first president’s wife to adopt a cause of her own, and the legend that she rescued the famous portrait of George Washington from burning with the Executive Mansion in 1814 has lived on for centuries. Even after James Madison died, important people continued to call on Mrs. Madison for her view on current affairs.
When she died in 1849, President Zachary Taylor spoke at her funeral, declaring her the nation’s beloved First Lady... at least, legend tells us that’s what happened. There’s no documentation from his eulogy, so we don’t know for sure.
Though Taylor had coined the perfect term, it took a while to catch on. Dolley’s successors created their own titles, ranging from the simple “Lady,” which Dolley herself went by during her tenure, to the fanciful “Mrs. Presidentress” (looking at you, Julia Tyler). “First Lady” was mentioned here and there, especially in reference to James Buchanan’s niece - Buchanan was a bachelor and it seemed that the public was at a loss when it came to referring to Miss Harriet Lane, the official White House hostess during his term.
Despite these scattered references over the years, the term didn’t really take off until a journalist named Mary C. Ames used it in 1877. Ames was covering Rutherford B. Hayes’ inauguration for the New York Independent and referred to Lucy Hayes as the new First Lady. For whatever reason - possibly Ames’ popularity as a journalist - the phrase finally stuck, and we’ve been using it ever since. Well, that or FLOTUS, depending on your affinity for acronyms.
In case you’re wondering what term will be used for the Commander in Chief’s spouse when we get our first female president, the favored phrase seems to be “First Gentleman.”