The best books about American first ladies

10 authors have picked their favorite books about American first ladies and why they recommend each book.

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Portia

By Edith B. Gelles,

Book cover of Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

Gelles has written several books and articles about Abigail (and John) Adams, but this is my favorite. Not a classic cradle-to-grave biography, It examines a series of episodes in Abigail’s life and her relationships with her husband, two sisters, and her children, especially her daughter Abigail junior (Nabby) and her son John Quincy. The series of well-crafted vignettes convey great insight into this important “founding mother,” the wife of the second president, mother of the sixth, and a lively intellect in her own right.


Who am I?

Nearly 200 years passed between the first English settlements and the American Revolution. Yet Americans today have a static view of women’s lives during that long period. I have now published four books on the subject of early American women, and I have barely scratched the surface. My works—Liberty’s Daughters was the first I wrote, though the last chronologically—are the results of many years of investigating the earliest settlers in New England and the Chesapeake, accused witches, and politically active women on both sides of the Atlantic. And I intend to keep researching and to write more on this fascinating topic!


I wrote...

Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

By Mary Beth Norton,

Book cover of Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

What is my book about?

An examination of American women’s lives during the late eighteenth century, Liberty’s Daughters is based primarily on their own writings, especially correspondence and diaries. It describes their experiences before, during, and after the revolutionary war—as wives and mothers, as patriots and loyalists, as single or married, as free or enslaved, as rural or urban residents. It covers white women’s increasing involvement in politics before the war, and their role in managing family property while their husbands were away in the army or serving in Congress. It also looks at how the war affected the lives of enslaved women in the South, allowing some of them to run away to seek freedom.

The book reveals the changes in women’s lives after Revolution, as young women began to attend newly founded academies (high school equivalents) and sought more personal independence in marital relationships. The first American feminist, Judith Sargent Murray, began to write and publish her ideas during and after the war; she was the American counterpart to the more famous Mary Wollstonecraft in England. The book argues that the Revolution had a major impact on women, and women likewise had a major impact on the Revolution.

First Women

By Kate Andersen Brower,

Book cover of First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies

The First Lady of the United States is a challenging role that has been navigated by an incredibly wide array of women over the years. Brower has interviewed many of them, and the insights she gives readers into their day-to-day lives—at turns uplifting and heartbreaking—make for an incredibly relatable and inspiring book. This is as behind-the-White House-scenes as you can get. From Jaqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, Brower offers an incredibly intimate look at this often misunderstood role in American politics.


Who am I?

Denise Kiernan is a multiple New York Times bestselling author of narrative nonfiction books including The Girls Of Atomic City, The Last Castle, and We Gather Together. Throughout her career as a journalist and an author, she has explored underrepresented stories and characters and the impact they have had on history. These stories of the unsung offer fresh perspectives on historical tales we think we already know. At the heart of many of Kiernan’s nonfiction explorations are women from a variety of different backgrounds and time periods.


I wrote...

We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace

By Denise Kiernan,

Book cover of We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace

What is my book about?

From Ancient Rome through 21st-century America, bestselling author Denise Kiernan brings us a biography of an idea: gratitude, as a compelling human instinct and a global concept, more than just a mere holiday. Spanning centuries, We Gather Together is anchored amid the strife of the Civil War, and driven by the fascinating story of Sarah Josepha Hale, a widowed mother with no formal schooling who became one of the 19th century’s most influential tastemakers and who campaigned for decades to make real an annual day of thanks.

Populated by an enthralling supporting cast of characters including Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Walt Whitman, Norman Rockwell, and others, We Gather Together is ultimately a story of tenacity and dedication, an inspiring tale of how imperfect people in challenging times can create powerful legacies.

The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison

By Dolley Madison,

Book cover of The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison

Because Dolley Madison didn't keep a diary, her letters are the best examples that we have of her personality. This social butterfly shows us how she slyly tried to set up a young woman to be romantically involved with her son. 

Yet for all of her Southern charm and pretension, Dolley had a steely side. After her first husband died, she wrote to her brother-in-law demanding the inheritance owed to her. After all, women couldn't easily get a job to support themselves. Her letters also show her pride in her parents for emancipating their slaves. Her most famous letter about saving George Washington's painting before the British military burned the White House reveals the chaos of this historic moment and the character of this woman who became known as the first, first lady.


Who am I?

As a writer of ten mostly historical nonfiction books, I tried to rely on the original writings of the people that I wrote about rather than third-hand accounts. What I love about reading people's own words is that letters allow you to see a person's humanity and their emotional reactions to their circumstances. I also love the cinematic qualities of the story of the burning of the White House. Both Dolley and James Madison went through an authentic, organic character change in the aftermath, much like characters in a movie. I also loved the revival of patriotism that took place in the aftermath, which is similar to the aftermath of  9/11.


I wrote...

The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812

By Jane Hampton Cook,

Book cover of The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812

What is my book about?

It's unimaginable today, even for a generation that saw the Twin Towers fall and the Pentagon attacked. It's unimaginable because in 1814 enemies didn't fly overhead, they marched through the streets; and for 26 hours in August, the British enemy marched through Washington, D.C., and set fire to government buildings, including the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

Relying on first-hand accounts, historian Jane Hampton Cook weaves together several different narratives to create a vivid, multidimensional account of the burning of Washington, including the escalation that led to it and the immediate aftermath. From James and Dolley Madison to the British admiral who ordered the White House set aflame, historical figures are brought to life through their experience of this unprecedented attack. The Burning of the White House is the story of a city invaded, a presidential family displaced, a nation humbled, and an American spirit that somehow remained unbroken.

Leave It to Abigail!

By Barb Rosenstock, Elizabeth Baddeley (illustrator),

Book cover of Leave It to Abigail!: The Revolutionary Life of Abigail Adams

I admire women who take it upon themselves to survive through resourcefulness and despite societal norms. Abigail was a girl whose spirit was too big to contain within the rules of colonial America. And because she had gumption and curiosity, she helped advance women by influencing her husband’s political views. The artist used needlework to partially illustrate the book which gives the reader a feel for the times.

Who am I?

When I learned that Jackie Kennedy Onassis had helped save Grand Central I had to know more about her! This lead to being curious about other First Ladies and how they served America during and after they were in the White House. Often their contributions were overshadowed by their husbands, so with this list, I’m shining a light on little-known facts about these well-known women.


I wrote...

When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for an American Icon

By Natasha Wing, Alexandra Boiger,

Book cover of When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for an American Icon

What is my book about?

When the owners of Grand Central wanted to build a skyscraper atop the famous train terminal, Jackie knew she had to stop them. She inspired people to come together and fight to protect the historic landmark – a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. This little-known story about an iconic First Lady celebrates winning in the face of great odds and how one person can make a big difference.

A Picture Book of John and Abigail Adams (Picture Book Biography)

By David A. Adler, Michael S. Adler, Ronald Himler (illustrator)

Book cover of A Picture Book of John and Abigail Adams (Picture Book Biography)

This story shows the relationship between John and Abigail and the role she played while he was serving as a diplomat in Europe for ten years. She managed the home and money, and lobbied for equal education for both men and women. What I enjoyed was learning more about the events that led up to the American Revolution. The Boston Massacre was started by snowballs! This book was published in 2010, back when picture books were wordier. But wordier is not always bad, especially when the reader can learn more versus glossing over historic events for the sake of spare text. 


Who am I?

I love relearning history I learned way back in high school and looking at it with wiser eyes. I wanted to pay tribute to both the Founding Fathers and Mothers since it took quite a few brave, smart and determined people to figure out how the new nation of the United States of America would operate. After watching the musical, Hamilton, I was curious to discover more about some of the characters. That’s what’s so great about children’s books – they can be used to extend and deepen the learning process for kids and adults.


I wrote...

The Story of Eliza Hamilton: A Biography Book for New Readers

By Natasha Wing,

Book cover of The Story of Eliza Hamilton: A Biography Book for New Readers

What is my book about?

The Story of Eliza Hamilton is an exploration of how Eliza went from a young girl during colonial times to an important keeper of history. She was married to Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father who helped form the United States. After he died in a duel, she lived for another 50 years and started an orphanage and free school. It is because of Eliza that we know so much about Alexander and his place in history.

The Mary Lincoln Enigma

By Michael Burkhimer (editor), Frank J. Williams (editor),

Book cover of The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America's Most Controversial First Lady

This collection of essays focuses on a variety of topics, including Mary's relationships, her siblings, her life at the only home she and her husband owned together, her travels, her fashion sense, her psyche, her depiction in photographs and illustrations, and her portrayal in fiction. Although these essays are relatively short, they're crammed full of interesting details. You can read the book straight through or (as I prefer) dip in and out of it at your leisure.

Who am I?

I write historical fiction about real-life characters, some relatively obscure, some very well known. One of my main goals is to avoid the stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions that have gathered around historical figures. At the same time, I strive to remain true to known historical facts and to the mores of the times in which my characters lived. I use both primary sources—letters, newspapers, diaries, wills, and so forth—and modern historical research to bring my characters to life.


I wrote...

The First Lady and the Rebel

By Susan Higginbotham,

Book cover of The First Lady and the Rebel

What is my book about?

The First Lady and the Rebel is the story of Mary Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, half-sisters whose affection for each other is tried when they find themselves on the opposite sides of civil war.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1

By Blanche Wiesen Cook,

Book cover of Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933

The irresistible first volume of Cook’s much-praised, magisterial 3-volume study of Eleanor Roosevelt’s eventful life. An expert narrator and historian, Cook follows ER through her difficult childhood, impactful education, challenging marriage, political training, and fascinating early career in public life, right up to the brink of becoming first lady in 1933. Sensitive, solicitous, and a triumph of biography.


Who am I?

Eleanor Roosevelt loved to teach history and she must have been really good at it. As a historian with a specialty in U.S. women’s history, I love exploring the life and impact of Eleanor Roosevelt. It's a rewarding way to experience the early decades of the 20th century, to gain familiarity with the culture, issues, and politics of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and, while so doing, to meet up with an astonishingly talented group of writers and scholars who have made their own inquiries into Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and works. Studies of ER now constitute a thriving subfield in scholarship and publishing; it's a privilege to be part of it.


I wrote...

Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words: On Women, Politics, Leadership, and Lessons from Life

By Nancy Woloch (editor),

Book cover of Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words: On Women, Politics, Leadership, and Lessons from Life

What is my book about?

Acclaimed for her roles in politics and diplomacy, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was also a prolific author, journalist, lecturer, broadcaster, educator and public personality. Using selections from her books, columns, articles, press conferences, speeches, radio talks, and correspondence, Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words tracks her contributions from the 1920s, when she entered journalism and public life; through the White House years, when she campaigned for racial justice, the labor movement, and the “forgotten woman”; to the postwar era, when she served at the United Nations and shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Entries convey Eleanor Roosevelt’s preparation for leadership, the skill with which she defied critics and grasped authority, her competitive drive as a professional, and the force of her message to modern readers.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia

By Maurine Hoffman Beasley, Holly Cowan Shulman, Henry R. Beasley

Book cover of The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia

An inspired reference book, ideal reader’s companion, and invaluable guide to further investigation of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, time, interests, passions, friends, enemies, and relationships. And most important, a perfect gift for any Roosevelt admirer! Even the most casual reader can open the pages at random, discover some fascinating entry, and become utterly immersed in one of ER’s experiences and absorbed in the contents of the book. Diversions abound! I cannot praise this unique and impressive volume too highly.


Who am I?

Eleanor Roosevelt loved to teach history and she must have been really good at it. As a historian with a specialty in U.S. women’s history, I love exploring the life and impact of Eleanor Roosevelt. It's a rewarding way to experience the early decades of the 20th century, to gain familiarity with the culture, issues, and politics of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and, while so doing, to meet up with an astonishingly talented group of writers and scholars who have made their own inquiries into Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and works. Studies of ER now constitute a thriving subfield in scholarship and publishing; it's a privilege to be part of it.


I wrote...

Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words: On Women, Politics, Leadership, and Lessons from Life

By Nancy Woloch (editor),

Book cover of Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words: On Women, Politics, Leadership, and Lessons from Life

What is my book about?

Acclaimed for her roles in politics and diplomacy, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was also a prolific author, journalist, lecturer, broadcaster, educator and public personality. Using selections from her books, columns, articles, press conferences, speeches, radio talks, and correspondence, Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words tracks her contributions from the 1920s, when she entered journalism and public life; through the White House years, when she campaigned for racial justice, the labor movement, and the “forgotten woman”; to the postwar era, when she served at the United Nations and shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Entries convey Eleanor Roosevelt’s preparation for leadership, the skill with which she defied critics and grasped authority, her competitive drive as a professional, and the force of her message to modern readers.

The Times of My Life

By Betty Ford, Chris Chase,

Book cover of The Times of My Life

While Gerald Ford’s memoir is useful, I liked Betty’s even more because of her candor. She tells the story of the wife of a congressman, vice president, and president who struggled with loneliness as her husband focused on climbing up the political ranks. His absenteeism contributed to her struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. Suddenly thrust into the role of First Lady, Betty publicized her fight against breast cancera disease that up to that point had received little public attentionand sought to walk the fine line between acting as White House hostess and drawing attention to issues of women’s rights. 


Who am I?

When I was 16 years old, my father, Burton Kaufman, who is also a historian, took me to the Jimmy Carter Library in Georgia to help him research a book on America's thirty-ninth president. Having had a love of history since the sixth grade, that trip deepened my desire to major in History in college and teach it as a profession. It also made me interested in learning more about the presidency, starting with Carter. Several years ago, I edited a series of essays on both the Ford and Carter presidencies, and realized there was need for an in-depth political biography of our thirty-eighth chief executive. The result was my book on Ford.


I wrote...

Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford

By Scott Kaufman,

Book cover of Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford

What is my book about?

Oftentimes remembered as little more than a caretaker president whose only significant act was to pardon Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford's life in politics, both in Congress and in the White House, was far more significant. A Republican Party loyalist who hoped to become speaker of the House, Ford was a moderate and pragmatic conservative willing to reach across party lines. Propelled by an unprecedented series of events from Congress into the White House, facing a Republican Party moving to the right and a Democratic Party that controlled Capitol Hill, and confronted by his own shortcomings, Ford’s presidency lasted only 895 days. Yet his career offers a broad perspective of American politics during the last half of the twentieth century. 

The Firebrand and the First Lady

By Patricia Bell-Scott,

Book cover of The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

In this engaging read, Patricia Bell-Scott explores the close relationship shared between Black feminist activist, lawyer, and writer Pauli Murry and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. This is a story of two divergent lives becoming intertwined as both women fought for self-definition and for their respective causes. One of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, Murray did not hesitate to criticize the Roosevelts. Nonetheless she was not only able to secure support from Eleanor Roosevelt for civil rights causes but also transform, in many instances, the First Lady’s thinking on racial affairs. This book takes us beyond FDR’s death and demonstrates the lasting impact that Black leaders, who emerged during the 1930s and 1940s, and Eleanor Roosevelt subsequently made on Black American lives specifically and the nation as a whole.

Who am I?

I am a Professor of History at California State University San Marcos where I teach United States Social and Cultural History, African American History, Film History, and Digital History. In addition to The Black Cabinet, I am also the author of three other books. Two of my books have been optioned for film and I have consulted on PBS documentaries. I believe that knowing history is necessary and practical, especially in these times. At this critical point, we can draw much wisdom from the lessons of Black history and the history of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


I wrote...

The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt

By Jill Watts,

Book cover of The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt

What is my book about?

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the Presidency in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, most Black Americans lived in poverty and were denied citizenship rights. As his New Deal was launched, a “Black Brain Trust” evolved within the administration and began documenting the inequalities that African Americans faced. Known as the Black Cabinet, they encountered an environment that was often hostile to change.

Black Cabinet members pushed to increase Black access to New Deal relief. Led by the dynamic educator Mary McLeod Bethune, they won several victories—the incorporation of anti-discrimination clauses into federal contracts, the creation of jobs and farming programs, and the growth of Black educational opportunities. But they also experienced defeats—FDR’s refusal to support federal anti-lynching legislation and the overall resistance to extending Black voting rights and ending segregation. The Black Cabinet never won official recognition, and with FDR’s death, it dissolved. But it had successfully laid the foundation for the later Civil Rights Movement.

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