Survey: The best of the first ladies
1940: Eleanor Roosevelt making an address at the headquarters of the American Red Cross at Washington DC appealing for donations to a Red Cross War Relief drive.
February 15th, 2014
09:00 AM ET
7 months ago

Survey: The best of the first ladies

(CNN) – The longest-serving first lady also outranks the others who have held the title in integrity, accomplishments and public image.

At least when it comes to a survey of historians and experts on what best epitomizes the characteristics of a first lady: Eleanor Roosevelt is their choice.

Roosevelt’s legacy is followed by Abigail Adams. Jacqueline Kennedy is third, and Dolly Madison is fourth.

The Siena College Research Institute survey ranks first ladies based on 10 categories – from background, public image and integrity; to accomplishments and value to the country.

The study, conducted five times since 1982, adds Michelle Obama to the mix for the first time in fifth place, bumping Hillary Clinton down two spots from fourth to sixth - since the last time the survey was conducted.

Rounding out the top-10 list are Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Martha Washington and Rosalynn Carter.

“Put Eleanor Roosevelt’s picture next to first lady in any text,” said Dr. Don Levy, Director at the Siena Research Institute. “Not only is she most highly rated overall and in many of categories, but among First Ladies of the 20th-21st centuries she is seen as best on advancing women’s issues, as the strongest communicator, greatest political asset, performing the greatest service to the country after leaving office and as creating a lasting legacy.”

Roosevelt broke precedents in her role as first lady from 1933 to her husband’s death in 1945, holding news conferences, traveling the country and expressing her opinions openly in a daily syndicated newspaper column, according to a White House biography.

Presidential material

Still, the political potential for others has yet to be seen.

Clinton comes out on top for those most capable of running the country – a good spot to hold considering the former secretary of state and Democratic senator is seriously considering a White House bid in 2016.

Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Obama are a distant second and third, respectively, in the presidential material category.

Obama, a self-proclaimed “mom-in-chief” whose “Let’s Move” campaign pushes youth nutrition and exercise, ranks highest for a balance of family life.

“Clinton is not surprisingly seen as the one first lady most readily capable of moving from the White House quarters into the Oval Office, a feat that may come to pass by the next First Lady Survey,” Levy said. “Michelle Obama finishes third as a potential President and rates strongly on attributes including balancing family life, women’s issues and communicating.”

Lowest rated FLOTUS’

First Ladies Jane Pierce, Eliza Johnson, Letitia Tyler, Florence Harding and Margaret Taylor bring up the tail end of the list.

Scholars and experts rated Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush, as the first lady who could have done more with her time at the White House. Bush is followed by Pat Nixon and Mamie Eisenhower.

According to the study, combined with Siena’s 2008 Rankings of the American Presidents, the capital’s highest ranking power couples were Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. The Washingtons came in second followed by Edith and T.R. Roosevelt.

Mary Lincoln proved to be the greatest drag on her husband’s legacy. Abe Lincoln is ranked as third in Siena’s 2008 study of presidents, but his wife’s ranking pulls the couple down to seventh in the latest survey.


Filed under: Hillary Clinton • Michelle Obama • White House
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Rick McDaniel

    This stuff is just nonsense. Just look at the realities of history.

    February 15, 2014 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  2. GARY

    "Scholars and experts rated Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush, as the first lady who could have done more with her time at the White House."
    But she was too busy chasing George around the White House smacking him on the head with a broom stick. Yelling
    " Shut up George"
    " Com'on George, not another war"
    " Geez whiz George, would you please learn the English lanquage"
    " Can't we spend some time in this beautiful house, do we need to go back to Texas again?"
    " Duck!!, that shoe almost got you this time"

    February 15, 2014 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  3. Harold Read

    "Believe me, as a busy single mother..."

    Be sure to tune into CNN's new reality show , "Life After Barack". Follow the life of a Former First Lady and former wife as she lives life after the Obama Administration. Episode 1, Michelle goes off on Denmark. November 2016... Be there!

    February 15, 2014 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  4. J'Cincinnati'Redd

    The 1st lady job is an easy one. You live in a big house that you never have to clean. You eat the best food that you never have to cook. You fly 1st class,air force one style. I mean how hard can that gig be?

    February 15, 2014 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  5. Stuffitu

    Is Michelle ranked first in the frivolous use of taxpayer money, like her corrupt husband? I'm sure if she was it would call for another glamorous taxpayer paid vacation.

    February 15, 2014 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  6. Bill from GA

    She sure has ONE thing in common with Hillary: They both put up with cheating husbands.

    February 15, 2014 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  7. Chris-E...al

    Y0u are right Rand @ just like that that thing in libya . that hillary said that was done an 0ver with. s0 sad.

    February 15, 2014 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  8. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    How manly to beat up on the wives of people you don't like.

    February 15, 2014 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  9. jesus f. christ

    Bill, You should breath through your nose. You get more oxygen to the brain that way.

    February 15, 2014 07:49 pm at 7:49 pm |
  10. ozzieboy

    Eleanor Roosevelt is without question the greatest First Lady of the 20th Century. A great fighter for civil rights, an international champion for equality, woman's rights, a fantastic U.N. Ambassador and a world class humanitarian. They don't come any better than her. She did not spend her time as First Lady decorating the White House, that was not her style.

    February 15, 2014 10:03 pm at 10:03 pm |
  11. davidUSAF

    Michelle Obama should be #1. Her "Drink more water campaign" not only saving America from destruction, it saved the world!

    February 15, 2014 10:32 pm at 10:32 pm |
  12. rs

    J'Cincinnati'Redd
    The 1st lady job is an easy one. You live in a big house that you never have to clean. You eat the best food that you never have to cook. You fly 1st class,air force one style. I mean how hard can that gig be?
    ____________
    Oh, I dunno, the petty sniping from the political trolls on the FLs, their kids, and never mind what get's dished on the President probably makes it much more Hellish.

    February 15, 2014 11:42 pm at 11:42 pm |
  13. Winston Smith

    This survey is ridiculous, even moreso that Michelle O was able to rank so high. Which Michelle won the hearts and minds of the people, Michelle 'first time I've been proud of my country' or 'all this for a damn flag' Obama.

    February 16, 2014 07:59 am at 7:59 am |
  14. Beth

    In my lifetime, and I'm no kid, I greatly admire Lady Bird Johnson for making a difference we can all see. Mrs. Carter I also admire for being a true lady in every sense of the word. Laura Bush also gets high marks for pushing reading and for also being another true lady. After that everyone is tied except for Clinton. She had a big mouth and didn't respect the fact the only reason she was in the White House was because of her "husband's" job.

    February 16, 2014 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  15. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    @ After that everyone is tied except for Clinton. She had a big mouth and didn't respect the fact the only reason she was in the White House was because of her "husband's" job.

    In a couple years, it will be "her" job. Enjoy!

    February 16, 2014 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |