First Lady

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This article is about the unofficial title for the spouses or partners of elected heads of state. For other uses, see First Lady (disambiguation).
A group of first ladies assemble in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, September 22, 2008
First ladies in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 25, 2009

First Lady is an unofficial title used for the wife or hostess of a non-monarchical head of state or chief executive.[1][2][3] The term is also used to describe a woman seen to be at the top of her profession or art.[4] Collectively, the President of the United States and his or her spouse are known as the First Couple and,[5] if they have a family, they are usually referred to as the First Family.

The term is sometimes used, particularly in the US, to refer to the spouse of other non-monarchical heads of state, even if they do not have that style in their own country. Some other countries have a title, formal or informal, that is or can be translated as first lady.[6] The title is not normally used for the wife of a head of government who is not also head of state. It is sometimes employed for the wife of a prime minister; an incorrect usage, as prime ministers do not precede the head of state.

The term in the United States is also used to refer to wives of governors and, less formally, to wives of male college and university presidents. It has even been used in reference to female spouses of men who were chairmen of major corporations. There has not yet been a male spouse of a US president, but the term "First Gentleman" is used in the United States for the husband of a state governor and in some literary works involving fictional presidents.

Origin of the term[edit]

The term originates in Anglo-Saxon or Old English.[7] The designation First Lady seems to have originated in the United States, where one of the earliest uses in print, in 1838, was in reference to Martha Washington.[8] Some sources say that, in 1849, President Zachary Taylor called Dolley Madison "first lady" at her state funeral, while reciting a eulogy written by himself; but no copy of that eulogy has been found.[9] The term might have roots as far back as the end of the Roman Republic. When Gaius Octavius became Emperor he did not want to assume the titles rex (king) or dictator since it could create resentment amongst senators and other influential men. He thus took the more humble title Princeps Civitatis, or the first citizen, which made his wife Principa Femina, the first lady.[10]

History of use in the USA[edit]

In the early days of the United States, there was no generally accepted title for the wife of the president. Many early first ladies expressed their own preference for how they were addressed, including the use of such titles as Lady, Mrs. President, or Mrs. Presidentress (in the case of Julia Tyler).[citation needed] One of the earliest uses of the term "first lady" was applied to Martha Washington in a profile by Mrs. C. H. Sigourney in 1838: Mrs. Sigourney, discussing how Martha Washington had not changed, even after her husband George became president, wrote that "The first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life. Indulging in no indolence, she left the pillow at dawn, and after breakfast, retired to her chamber for an hour for the study of the scriptures and devotion".[11] However, the term "first lady" would not come into common use until the late 1800s.

Harriet Lane, niece of bachelor President James Buchanan, was the first woman to be called first lady while actually serving in that position. The phrase appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Monthly in 1860, when he wrote, "The Lady of the White House, and by courtesy, the First Lady of the Land." Once Harriet Lane was called first lady, the term was applied retrospectively to her predecessors.[citation needed]

The title first gained nationwide recognition in 1877, when Mary C. Ames wrote an article in the New York City newspaper The Independent describing the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. She used the term to describe his wife, Lucy Webb Hayes.[citation needed]

While historically the term has generally been used to refer to the wife of a president, there were occasions when another woman, such as the President's daughter, has filled the duties of First Lady as hostess in the White House, if the President's wife was unwilling, unable, or if the President was a widower or bachelor.[citation needed]

The current First Lady of the United States is Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama.

The entire family of the head of state may be known familiarly as the "First Family".[12] The spouse of the second-in-command (such as a Vice President) may be known as the "Second Lady", or Vice-First Lady. Less frequently, the family would be known as the "Second Family".[citation needed] The spouse of the governor of a U.S. state is commonly referred to as the First Lady or First Gentleman of that state, for example "First Lady Tonette Marie Walker of Wisconsin".[citation needed] The practice is less common for spouses of mayors but is nevertheless used for some, particularly in large cities; example: "First Lady Amy Rule of Chicago" or "First Lady Kris Barrett of Milwaukee."[13] Mike Gregoire, husband of former Washington state governor Chris Gregoire, preferred to use his name instead of a common noun, calling himself "First Mike".[14]

Use in other countries[edit]

In American media the term First Lady is often applied to the wife of a head of state in another country, irrespective of whether a different appellation (or none) is used in that country.[citation needed]

In 1902, the American Munsey's Magazine said of the wife of Canadian Governor General the Earl of Minto: "As the first lady in the land, she has done much to weld together the heterogeneous components of a colonial society which includes peoples of different races and of antagonistic religions." [15] The term was also used by Munsey's to refer to the wife of Mexico's leader, President Porfirio Díaz. In an 1896 piece about "The Daughters of Mexico", author Jeannie Marshall said of Carmen Romero Rubio de Diaz: "She is still a young woman, though she has filled the position of 'first lady of the land' for many years, with marked success." [16] American Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa (of San Antonio TX) also called her "primera dama" when writing about her activities; referring to her as "La primera dama de Mexico, Doña Carmen Romero Rubio de Diaz".[17]


The wife of the current president is referred to as "Հայաստանի Առաջին տիկին" and "Первая леди Армении", which translate to (among other things) as "first lady of Armenia".[18][19]


The wife of the current president uses the term "Birinci xanım".[20][citation needed]


The wife of the president is called "Primeira-Dama".


The term "Lok Chumteav" is used.


The term "Primera Dama" is used.[6]

Czech Republic[edit]

The term První dáma is used for wife of the President of the Czech Republic.

Current first lady is Ivana Zemanová.


The term "First Lady" is less frequently used in India. The term might be used at times to refer to the wife of the President of India in newspapers, however the more widespread term in general usage is "Wife of The President" or more informally as the President's wife/spouse/husband. The term "First Lady" is not used to refer to the wife of the Prime Minister.


The term "Ibu Negara" is used for wife of the president.


During the administration of President Kamuzu Banda,[21] Malawi had an "Official Hostess" who served in the same capacity as "First Lady" because the President was unmarried. Banda was never married and therefore Cecilia Kadzamira served in this capacity for the nation.[22]


The title First Lady of Maldives is used by the office of the president, governmental offices, and by visiting dignitaries.[23][24][25]

New Zealand[edit]

The term "first lady" is not officially used in New Zealand, but is often used in the press and colloquially to refer to the wife of the Prime Minister.[26][27]


The term "first lady" has been used intermittently for the wife of the President of Nigeria. The wife of the President has no official title, but receives the same style as her husband: His/Her Excellency.[28]

Patience Jonathan, the wife of the former president, is referred to as the First Lady.[29]

A former president Shehu Shagari was a polygamist, and none of his wives were referred to as the "first lady".[28]


The wife of the current President of Peru uses the term Primera Dama.[30]


The consort of the President of the Philippines bears the customary title of First Spouse (Filipino: Unang Kabiyák), and among other duties, is host(ess) of Malacañang Palace. The title is genderless as many Philippine languages lack grammatical gender, and because there have been presidential consorts of both sexes.

When the official consort is female, she is known as "First Lady" (Unang Ginang); the title has also been applied to an immediate female relative serving in this capacity for a widowed President. There has only been one First Gentleman (Unang Ginoó) in history: José Miguel Arroyo, the husband of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the 14th President.


The term Pierwsza Dama is used by the wife of the current President of Poland.[31]

South Korea[edit]

The wife of the president is called "Yoeong-boo-in".


The term "first lady" is used by the wife of the President of the Republic of China.[32]

Trinidad and Tobago[edit]

The wife of the current president uses the term "first lady".[33]


First Lady of Ukraine is the unofficial title given by the society to the wife of the President of Ukraine. The post is highly ceremonial and rarely plays a role in social activism.

Non-spousal uses[edit]

In some situations, the title is bestowed upon a non-spouse. This includes terms like "First Family", "First Daughter", and "First Son".[citation needed]

In the past, occasionally another woman, such as the President's daughter, has filled the duties of First Lady as hostess in the White House, if the President's wife was unwilling, unable, or if the President was a widower or bachelor. Harriet Lane, niece of bachelor President James Buchanan was the first non-spouse to be called First Lady.[citation needed]

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been referred to as First Lady to former President Park Chung-hee, who is her father. The title was bestowed upon her after her mother's assassination.[34]

The title was also officially bestowed on Victoria Quirino-Delgado, the daughter of widower Elpido Quirino (1948-53), sixth President of the Philippines. Victoria's mother, Alicia Quirino née Syquía, had been killed by occupying Japanese troops towards the end of the Second World War. While President Corazón Aquino (1986-92) was also widowed, the title was not given to her older children who would assist her in official duties. These included her son (and incumbent President) Benigno Aquino III, who was a sort of de facto First Gentleman; his four sisters, as under their mother's presidency, now unofficially share the duties of the First Spouse.

In 1994, Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori officially named his daughter Keiko "First Lady", after he had separated from his wife Susana Higuchi.[citation needed]

After taking office as Puerto Rico's first female governor, Governor Sila Maria Calderón appointed her two daughters, Sila María González Calderón and María Elena González Calderón, to serve as First Ladies.[35]

Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, is single, so his sister, Esther Morales Ayma, fulfills the role of First Lady.[36]

Following the leadership spill which installed Julia Gillard as the first female Prime Minister of Australia on 24 June 2010, some news media referred to her de facto partner, Tim Mathieson, as the "First Bloke".[citation needed]

Apolitical uses[edit]

It has become commonplace in the United States for the title of "First Lady" to be bestowed on women, as a term of endearment, who have proven themselves to be of exceptional talent or unique notoriety in non-political areas. The phrase is often, but not always, used when the person in question is either the wife or "female equivalent" of a well-known man (or men) in a similar field. For example, the term has been applied in the entertainment field to denote the "First Lady of Television" (Lucille Ball), the "First Lady of Song" (Ella Fitzgerald), the "First Lady of Country Music" (Tammy Wynette, although Loretta Lynn was also known by the title), the "First Lady of Star Trek" (Majel Barrett), the "First Lady of American Soul" (Aretha Franklin),[37] the "First Lady of the Grand Ole Opry" (Loretta Lynn), and the "First Lady of the American Stage" (Helen Hayes) .[38]

The term "first lady" is also used to denote a woman who occupies the foremost social position within a particular locality, in this sense being particularly popular in Africa, where the pre-eminent female noble in some chieftaincy hierarchies, such as those of the Yoruba people, is often referred to by the title.[39]

In recent years, the term has also been used to refer to the wife of the pastor of a church, especially in predominantly black churches.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ First Lady, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, retrieved 2014-12-30
  2. ^ First Lady, Oxford Dictionaries, retrieved 2014-12-30
  3. ^ Amanda Foreman, "Our First Ladies and Their Predecessors," Wall Street Journal, May 30-31, 2015, C11,, retrieved 2015-5-30
  4. ^ First Lady, Collins English Dictionary, retrieved 2014-12-30
  5. ^ Collins English Dictionary definition. Retrieved 2013-12-08
  6. ^ a b Colombia government web site: example of the use of "Primera Dama"
  7. ^ "Lord & Lady: Their Surprising Origin". Bill Casselman's Words of the World. 
  8. ^ Mrs. Sigourney, "Martha Washington," St. Johnsbury (VT) Caledonian, August 7, 1838, p. 1.
  9. ^ "Dolley Madison". National First Ladies Library. Retrieved 2007-04-29. 
  10. ^ Encyclopedia Brittanica Vol 2, p. 687, '53
  11. ^ Mrs. Sigourney, "Martha Washington," St. Johnsbury (VT) Caledonian, August 7, 1838, p. 1.
  12. ^ "First Family — Definitions from". Retrieved 2007-07-19. 2. The family of the chief executive of a city, state, or country. 
  13. ^ "First Gentleman – What's in a Name?". State of Michigan. 
  14. ^ "About Mike". Governor Chris Gregoire's official state website. Archived from the original on February 16, 2007. 
  15. ^ "In The Public Eye: The Governor-General of Canada," p. 684.
  16. ^ Jeannie A. Marshall, "The Daughters of Mexico"
  17. ^ "Domincales," La Prensa, 19 September 1917, p. 4
  18. ^ Рита Саргсян Первая леди Армении - Президент - Президент Республики Армения [официальный сайт]
  19. ^ Ռիտա Սարգսյան Հայաստանի Առաջին տիկին - Նախագահ - Հայաստանի Հանրապետության Նախագահ [պաշտոնական կայք]
  20. ^ Mehriban Əliyeva
  21. ^ "Mystery of the Banda millions". BBC News. 2000-05-17. 
  22. ^ Malawi's hostess speaks out
  23. ^ The Office of the President, statement by The President of the Republic of Maldives, 02 January 2014
  24. ^ President Yameen and First Lady meet Sri Lankan President and First Lady, Office of the President press release, Maldives High Commission, 22 January 2014
  25. ^ First ladies of Pakistan, Maldives visit Bhaktapur, My Republica, Nov 28, 2014
  26. ^ PM's Trade Mission 2013
  27. ^ Hanging out with the political Wags,, 2 November 2011.
  28. ^ a b Okon-Ekong, Nseobong (2010-10-02). "Nigeria: First Ladies - Colourful Brilliance, Gaudy Rays". Thisday ( Archived from the original on 2012-07-26. Retrieved 2012-07-26. 
  29. ^ First Lady
  30. ^ Primera Dama: “Comencemos a formar una sociedad con valores” - Presidencia de la República del Perú
  31. ^ Oficjalna strona Prezydenta Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej / Pierwsza Dama
  32. ^
  33. ^ The First Lady - Office of the President, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
  34. ^ Geun Hye Park (2007). The Republic of Korea and the United States: Our Future Together. Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc. Retrieved on 2007-07-19.
  35. ^ Boricuas Hall of Fame: Biografía de Sila M. Calderón
  36. ^ Bolivia's First Lady hopes for unity, BBC News, 17 February 2009
  37. ^ Preston, Richard (2007-05-25). "Are you ready to think outside the box? The abuses of the English language that readers hated most have inspired a new Telegraph book, explains Richard Preston". Daily Telegraph. p. 24. 
  38. ^ Didion, Joan (2007-03-04). "The Year Of Hoping For Magic". New York Times. p. 1. 
  39. ^ Sellers, Maud (April 1894). "The City of York in the Sixteenth Century". The English Historical Review 9 (34): 275–304. doi:10.1093/ehr/IX.XXXIV.275. ; Russell, A. (1889). "Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York" 21. pp. 494–515. 
  40. ^ DuBois, Joshua. First Ladies of the Church. The Daily Beast, 2013-03-20.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bailey, Tim. "America’s First Ladies on Twentieth-Century Issues: A Common Core Unit," History Now 35 (Spring 2013) online, curriculum unit based on primary sources
  • Berkin, Berkin, ed., "America's First Ladies," History Now 35 (Spring 2013) online; popular essays by scholars
  • Burns, Lisa M. (2008). First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. ISBN 978-0-87580-391-3
  • Horohoe, Jill, “First Ladies as Modern Celebrities: Politics and the Press in Progressive Era” (PhD dissertation, Arizona State University, 2011). DA3452884.
  • Lugo-Lugo, Carmen R. and Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo. "Bare Biceps and American (In) Security: Post-9/11 Constructions of Safe(ty), Threat, and the First Black First Lady," Women's Studies Quarterly (2011) 39#1 pp 200–217, on media images of Michelle Obama
  • Watson, Robert P. "Toward the Study of the First Lady: The State of Scholarship," Presidential Studies Quarterly (2003) 33#2 pp 423–441.

External links[edit]