Putting Our Nation’s Health First

We’ve yet to see a woman become president of the United States, but that doesn’t mean women in the White House haven’t had a profound impact on our society, particularly when it comes to health-related issues. In fact, there’s a rich tradition of U.S. first ladies backing movements and legislation aimed at improving the lives and the health of U.S. citizens. Here we celebrate some of these women and the contributions they’ve made to our nation’s health and wellness.

Lou Henry Hoover
First Lady of the United States from 1929 to 1933
Wife of President Herbert Hoover

As women some of us may take for granted that we can participate in sports at all levels. In Lou Henry Hoover’s era, however, women and girls weren’t encouraged to be physically active. But as an ardent believer in the physical and mental benefits of sport—regardless of gender—Hoover encouraged girls to join the Girl Scouts, where they could learn and play sports. She was also a founding member of the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation, through which she promoted athletic opportunities for women of all ages.

Eleanor Roosevelt
First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945
Wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt’s very public support of the Red Cross—she served as honorary chair of the Red Cross National Volunteer Service in the 1930s—was a valuable contribution to those seeking the organization’s services and to the vitality of the Red Cross itself. Roosevelt’s hands-on involvement included knitting sweaters and clothing for the Red Cross World War II refugee relief program and personally inspecting installations in the Pacific. She also encouraged public support of the organization, stating in a 1934 radio address, “The Red Cross should receive from every person who can possibly afford it support and whole-hearted assistance.”1

Betty Ford
First Lady of the United States from 1974 to 1977
Wife of President Gerald R. Ford

The well-known Betty Ford Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center in California, was founded by Betty Ford in 1982. Mrs. Ford’s impact on healthcare, particularly women’s healthcare, however, is not limited the eponymous center. Because of her openness about a breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy in 1974 (while first lady), she is credited with raising public awareness of breast cancer at a time when then disease was not widely discussed. The Betty Ford Center is also a product of Ford’s personal health struggles: a few years before its founding, she underwent treatment for alcohol and prescription pill addiction.

Rosalynn Carter
First Lady of the United States from 1977 to 1981
Wife of President Jimmy Carter

Beginning while she was first lady of Georgia and continuing during her tenure as U.S. first lady and beyond, Rosalynn Carter has been a mental health advocate. She has supported legislative reform on mental health issues and as first lady served as the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. Carter is still active in mental health causes, work she continues through the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Nancy Reagan
First Lady of the United States from 1981 to 1989
Wife of President Ronald Reagan

Nancy Reagan worked to prevent drug abuse with her well-known Just Say Noawareness campaign. Her efforts focused primarily on educating children about the dangers of recreational drug use and raising awareness among the nation’s youth. During her tenure as first lady, President Reagan signed an important drug enforcement bill into law, and she took her antidrug message beyond U.S. borders, including an address to the United Nations General Assembly. Her influence continues in the prevention efforts of the many Just Say No clubs still active today.

Hillary Clinton
First Lady of the United States from 1993 to 2001
Wife of President Bill Clinton

Hillary Clinton may be the first lady most strongly associated with healthcare. Though the healthcare reform package proposed by President Clinton’s administration—a plan to provide universal healthcare—never passed, as head of the President’s Task Force on Health Care Reform, Hillary Clinton is credited with raising public awareness about access to insurance and other medical issues facing many Americans. As well, she supported the Children’s Health Insurance Program of 1997, a federal effort that provides state support for children whose parents are unable to provide them with health coverage, and she has backed various research and disease awareness efforts since.

Laura Bush
First Lady of the United States from 2001 to 2009
Wife of President George W. Bush

Laura Bush chose her health cause—women’s heart health—when she learned that heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women. As ambassador for the national women’s heart disease awareness campaign, The Heart Truth, Bush has worked to raise awareness about women’s risk of heart disease and has promoted heart-health education. In her addresses she has encouraged preventive screening and healthy diet and exercise. One of her most notable heart-health awareness efforts was an exhibit of red dresses worn by living former first ladies and herself, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in southern California.

Hillary Clinton may be the first lady most strongly associated with healthcare. Though the healthcare reform package proposed by President Clinton’s administration—a plan to provide universal healthcare—never passed, as head of the President’s Task Force on Health Care Reform, Hillary Clinton is credited with raising public awareness about access to insurance and other medical issues facing many Americans. As well, she supported the Children’s Health Insurance Program of 1997, a federal effort that provides state support for children whose parents are unable to provide them with health coverage, and she has backed various research and disease awareness efforts since.

Michelle Obama
First Lady of the United States from 2009 to Present
Wife of President Barack Obama

Michelle Obama has taken on childhood obesity among her causes. Her ambitious Let’s Move! campaign aims to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within one generation. The campaign’s areas of action include making healthier food available in schools; encouraging children to be more physically active; making healthy, affordable food more widely available throughout the country; and helping parents make sound food choices for their families. Obama is leading by example—she has had an organic garden planted at the White House, which supplies vegetables for family meals and official gatherings.