From Aretha to Lucy: 10 Cultural ‘First Ladies’


Happy President’s Day! Today we celebrate Washington’s birthday and think about the impact our presidents (and our first ladies) have had on our history. Though we love the Michelle Obamas, Jackie Kennedys, and Nancy Reagans of our time, we can’t help but notice that some important first ladies never made it to the White House — they were first ladies of their respective fields, be it music, theater, fashion or fiction, but they were crucial cultural first ladies nonetheless. Click through for our ten favorite apolitical American first ladies.

First Lady of Soul: Aretha Franklin

Widely renowned as one of the most powerful, inspiring musicians of the past century (this lady was number one on Rolling Stone’ s best singers of all time list, after all), the First Lady of American Soul cemented her title by singing at the Obama inauguration in 2009.

First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Wanda Jackson

Also known as the Queen of Rockabilly, Jackson was one of the first popular female rock ‘n’ roll stars in the 1960s, covering songs by Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis as well as headlining shows with her own band, The Party Timers. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

First Lady of Television: Oprah Winfrey

Perhaps an even apter title for Oprah would be the “First Lady of Influence” — she routinely vaults books to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, creates household names out of random products, and launched the careers of media personalities like Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray. She hasn’t done too badly for herself, either — The Oprah Winfrey Show is the most successful daytime TV show in history.

First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald’s gorgeous voice spanned three octaves, and her jazz standards blow everyone else out of the water. Though she started out as a “diamond in the rough,” she wound up winning 13 Grammys and was awarded two national honors by presidents, the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H.W. Bush.

First Lady of the Theater: Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes, whose career spanned a whopping 70 years, started on the stage at age 5. Though she preferred Broadway, she won an Academy Award for the first sound film she ever appeared in, The Sin of Madelon Claudet . She’s one of twelve people to actually earn Tracy Jordan’s coveted EGOT — that is, she has an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award. Hayes was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan. Her “First Lady” title was also assigned to her contemporary and friend Katharine Cornell, though each lady generously swore the other deserved it.

First Lady of Pop: Madonna

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Madonna is the top-selling female recording artist of all time. She opened doors for women everywhere with her outspoken, unabashed sexuality and powerful presence. If that’s not enough, just think — there would be no Gaga without Madonna. Case closed.

First Lady of Fashion: Coco Chanel

Early in the 20th century, Coco Chanel freed women from the confines of boning and ruffles by creating smart, classy clothing in a looser silhouette. She is the original menswear-as-womenswear designer, incorporating jersey and masculine styling into her now-iconic and ever-chic fashions. She was also the first designer to create a fragrance, a side project all but required in the fashion industry these days. She’s also the lady that hired Karl Lagerfeld.

First Lady of French Cooking: Julia Child

Julia Child changed the face and flavor of American culinary culture by introducing French cooking in the 1960s through her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and subsequent TV shows. With her no-nonsense attitude (if you drop the chicken on the ground, just pick it up and brush it off even if you’re on TV) and genuine belief that anyone could become a good chef with a little practice, she cajoled the American people into embracing fine cooking in the home. She can also be blamed for our love affair with butter, but that is a price we’re willing to pay.

First Lady of Letters: Virginia Woolf

Woolf was not only an early author of feminist literature, but also a primary pioneer — male or female — in stream-of-consciousness, lyrical and experimental prose. Her innovation and modernist style has most likely influenced every writer since.

First Lady of Comedy: Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball is most famous for her titular role on I Love Lucy, but her comic brilliance on the show is only part of her legacy. After Lucy became successful, Ball turned her stardom into a media empire, becoming the first woman to be the head of a television production company and developing new filming techniques still used today. She taught courses on comedy at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, though she famously said, “You cannot teach someone comedy, either they have it or they don’t.”