Remembering Mrs. Nancy Reagan: The Influence of a First Lady

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

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan garnered global attention, encouraged activism among her peers, and ultimately influenced policy through her public service.

You learn something out of everything, and you come to realize more than ever that we’re all here for a certain space of time, and then it’s going to be over, and you better make this count.

– Mrs. Nancy Reagan

In this country and across the globe, spouses of government leaders have a unique opportunity to address challenges and improve lives. Mrs. Nancy Reagan is a prominent example of a first lady who used her podium to advocate on behalf of citizens. 

Her public service, both during and after her time at the White House, called attention to the need for leadership, partnership, and action on issues ranging from drug abuse, to foster care, to historic preservation, and many other causes.  Her tireless efforts garnered global attention, encouraged activism among her peers, and ultimately influenced policy.

For example, in April 1985 she hosted a First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse, welcoming 18 first ladies from around the world to discuss solutions regarding the growing problem of drug abuse.  Later the same year, 30 spouses of heads of government joined her in New York for the second First Ladies conference held during the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.  In 1986, she became the first First Lady to address the United Nations General Assembly (now a more common practice thanks in part to her example), where she highlighted the critical need to strengthen international drug interdiction and trafficking laws.  That same year, President Reagan signed into law the “National Crusade for A Drug Free America.”

From fellow first ladies to state leaders to the American public, her contributions have had lasting influence, as emphasized in the countless tributes over this last week, including:

Mrs. Reagan was fiercely loyal to her beloved husband, and that devotion was matched only by her devotion to our country. Her influence on the White House was complete and lasting. During her time as first lady and since, she raised awareness about drug abuse and breast cancer. When we moved into the White House, we benefited from her work to make those historic rooms beautiful.

President George W. Bush

Mrs. Reagan was a woman of incredible strength and grace, and she was a passionate advocate for so many important issues.  Through the example she set, both during her time in the White House and beyond, Mrs. Reagan reminded us of the importance of women’s leadership at every level of our society. And on a personal note, Mrs. Reagan also understood the value of mentoring…I am so grateful for her kindness and generosity to me and my family over the years, and I hope that our continued work to educate girls worldwide is a fitting tribute to her legacy.

Mrs. Michelle Obama

Nancy was an extraordinary woman: a gracious First Lady, proud mother, and devoted wife to President [Ronald] Reagan — her Ronnie…Her strength of character was legendary…She leaves a remarkable legacy of good that includes her tireless advocacy for Alzheimer’s research and the Foster Grandparent Program.

President Bill Clinton

The Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative supports First Ladies from around the world to effectively use their unique platforms to improve lives. Mrs. Reagan’s impact reminds us all of the value of this platform.  Her remarkable efforts to advance important causes in the United States and across the world will ensure that her legacy endures for generations to come.