Some of America’s greatest activists improved millions of lives across the country while working from the White House.
No, we’re not talking about American presidents.
Our country’s first ladies often brought about better social and economic outcomes than much of the legislation signed at the Resolute Desk.
In honor of International Women’s Day, let’s talk about some of the greatest activist causes of America’s first ladies.
Patricia “Pat” Nixon
One of Patricia Nixon’s favorite causes was encouraging volunteer work, promoting what she called “the spirit of helping people.” She took the lead on international charity work in June 1970 by taking a solo trip to Peru, where she distributed relief supplies to earthquake victims.
Her contributions to culture and the arts should be noted, too. She added 600 paintings and antiques to the White House Collection, funded operas and other music events and invited countless Americans to Sunday church services in the White House.
But Pat also took a keen interest in politics. She accompanied President Richard Nixon on his summit meetings with the Soviet Union. She also acted as an envoy to the president on his trips to Africa and South America.
When Pat was around, President Nixon was never without a very capable editor: She marked up his speeches, never sparing his feelings with her advice and constructive criticism.
Even before George W. Bush won his first term as president, Laura was engaged in activism, supporting breast cancer awareness and raising nearly $1 million for libraries while her husband ran for the Texas governorship.
Immediately after 9/11, Laura comforted the nation, talking to parents about how they could speak to their children about the country’s most devastating terrorist attack.
Like Pat, Laura took a keen interest in culture, working to secure America’s historical treasures with her “Preserve America” campaign. Also like Pat, her activism wasn’t contained to America’s borders. She traveled the world promoting literacy and health, even heading to Afghanistan to advocate expanded educational opportunities for women.
“Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare, and it’s time we in America stand up and replace those dreams,” Nancy Reagan famously said.
That’s right: Nancy Reagan’s activism was primarily centered around ending illegal drug use. In 1984 alone, she made 110 appearances and delivered 14 anti-drug speeches. Her outreach encompassed travel to 33 states and nine foreign countries.
She was ahead of her time in many ways. She not only encouraged teens and children to steer clear of drug use through her ‘Just Say No” campaign, but she also highlighted drug treatment and rehabilitation as options for those struggling with substance abuse
You don’t need to be in the White House to be an activist! Pat, Laura and Nancy’s activism couldn’t have been done alone.
They all required millions of Americans joining with them to effect positive change. Your engagement can make immeasurable difference in your town or state.
Think about the needs of your local community: What do you think people require most today? Consider how you can offer this service, and what skills you have that demonstrate your comparative advantage. Or join an organization already working to promote change.
On International Women’s Day, think about how our country’s best-known women made a huge difference.
And how you can follow in their footsteps.