Why Do We Call a President’s Wife “First Lady”?

One day, we might be asking the same question about "first gentlemen.”
Jackie, Michelle, and Dolley.
Jackie, Michelle, and Dolley. / Robert Knudsen/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (Kennedy), Paras Griffin/Getty Images (Obama), VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images (Madison), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (frame)

Presidents have had a lot of titles and nicknames, not all of them flattering. Andrew Jackson was “Old Hickory,” while William Henry Harrison was “Old Granny.” John Tyler was deemed “His Accidency” and Rutherford B. Hayes “His Fraudulency.” But the wife of every president has one common honorific. Why do we call her “first lady”?

The Origin of First Lady

Dolley Madison, wife of President James “Father of the Constitution” Madison, was one of the most beloved first ladies in the history of the White House. She was a charming and thoughtful hostess, was the first president’s wife to adopt a cause of her own, and rescued the famous portrait of George Washington from British troops burning the White House in 1814. Even after James Madison died, important people continued to call on Dolley Madison for her view on current affairs.

When she passed away in 1849, President Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” 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 used during her tenure, to the fanciful Mrs. Presidentress (Julia Tyler’s creative flourish). First lady was mentioned here and there, especially in reference to James “10-Cent Jimmy” Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Lane. Buchanan was a bachelor and it seemed that the public was at a loss when it came to titling Lane, who served as the official White House hostess during his term.

First Lady, Second Gentleman

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’s inauguration for the New York Independent and referred to Lucy Hayes as the new first lady. For whatever reason—possibly Ames’s 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 elect a woman president, the favored phrase seems to be “first gentleman.” Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, has already originated the role of second gentleman.

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A version of this story was published in 2011; it has been updated for 2024.