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America's First Ladies: In Service to Our Nation

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Learn more about Natalie Gonnella-Platts.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts
Director, Women's Advancement
George W. Bush Institute

Throughout history, First Ladies have stood as prominent champions on behalf of those serving in our nation’s armed forces.  Advocating in support of troops in combat, veterans who have returned, and the military families that stand by those who serve, First Ladies have regularly leveraged their unique platforms to shepherd action in aid of the well-being of American service members.

On September 16 in Washington DC, Mrs. Michelle Obama and Mrs. Laura Bush will participate in a moderated conversation with Bob Woodruff of ABC as part American University’s The Legacies of America’s First Ladies Initiative.

The conference series features distinguished guests—first ladies, former presidents, and first families, White House staff, scholars, authors, members of the media—who highlight the significant contributions these women make by using their platform to advocate for issues, promote change, and improve our society.

Both Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush have worked closely with our service members and their families throughout their respective tenures as First Lady.

Through the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative (MSI), Mrs. Bush has worked to catalyze long-term, multi-sector solutions to address the core needs of service members, veterans, and their families. On behalf of President and Mrs. Bush, MSI fosters key partnerships and engages directly in awareness, policies, and programs that enable our warriors and their families to successfully transition from military service to civilian life.

In 2011, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, Second Lady of the United States, launched Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative that calls on all Americans to rally around service members, veterans, and their families and support them through employment, education and wellness opportunities.

And they are not alone in their advocacy.

Despite differences in politics, popular culture, and personal interests, support for veterans and their families has been a priority of the spouses of America’s Commanders in Chief.  Over the last century especially, First Ladies have proved notable champions for the needs of active and veteran service members. 

During World War I, Mrs. Edith Wilson contributed to everything from volunteering at the Red Cross canteen to introducing a flock of sheep on the White House South Lawn to cut landscaping costs and contribute to the war effort (their sheared wool generating $50,000 at auction).  At the end of the war, accompanying President Woodrow Wilson to France for the Paris Peace Conference, she visited allied troops and toured hospitals and clinics treating the wounded. Beyond her formal role as first lady, Mrs. Wilson remained a visible advocate, often joining her successors in their own efforts on behalf of American troops. 

Mrs. Florence Harding made service member support a cornerstone of her work, encouraging the Federal Government to act on veteran’s health and establishing the annual White House veterans’ garden party, among other actions, like volunteering her time to read to and write letters for those at Walter Reed Hospital.

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt toured military training camps, reporting back to President Roosevelt who was often unable to travel.  Like her predecessors, she assumed the role of advocate for the rights and well-being of service members, contributing to war bonds and charities, and tending to the needs of those serving oversees.  Breaking barriers, she embarked on a series of overseas trips to visit with troops in the Europe and Pacific arenas.

Mrs. Bess Truman was a regular USO volunteer.  Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower sponsored charitable activities and resumed the annual White House garden party initiated decades earlier by Mrs. Harding. 

From then to the present day, the well-being of service members and their families has been a focus for First Ladies. 

We all can share in the duty to better understand and support those who have volunteered to wear the uniform in defense of our nation. In doing so, we continue to enable a generation of resourceful, determined, and experienced leaders to serve and lead our nation for decades to come.