Sure, she’s got one heck of an organic green thumb and likes to get gussied up in sustainable duds, but Michelle Obama isn’t the first first lady of the United States to make one of her passions the well-being of Mother Nature. Obama, who has been instrumental in bringing widespread attention to the importance of eating organically, locally and most important, healthily, may have picked up a few pointers from past eco-minded White House matrons. Heck, even though their main causes weren’t body- and planet-friendly edibles, Obama’s two most recent predecessors, Laura Bush (education, women’s health) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (health care reform), were both insistent that the food served at the White House was organic whenever possible.
With President’s Day around the corner, here’s a look at five American first ladies — Helen Taft, Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon — who transcended their official roles as White House hostesses and injected a bit of green into their spouse’s administrations in various ways.
Drinker, smoker, tree-planter: Helen Taft (1909-1913)
Helen “Nellie” Taft, born Helen Louise Herron in Cincinnati, is perhaps most famous for her vices: She was a defiant “Wet” during the Prohibition era and partook in some un-first-lady-like habits like smoking and gambling. She also rallied to improve working conditions in American factories and installed a larger bathtub at the White House to accommodate her 350-pound husband. However, Nellie Taft is also known for leaving a distinguishing mark on Washington: She was instrumental in the creation of the city’s West Potomac Park and its iconic Sakura or Japanese cherry blossom trees.
Inspired by Manila’s Luneta Park, in 1910 Taft helped to orchestrate an initial shipment of 2,000 cherry blossom trees from Tokyo to Washington. However, these trees were found to be diseased and were destroyed. It wasn’t until 1912 that an additional 3,000 trees were shipped and planted on the north bank of the Tidal Basin. Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first saplings during a small ceremony. The legacy of this tree-planting event lives on today as the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
The original Girl Scout: Lou Hoover (1929-1933)
A first lady who was just as comfortable roughing it in the great outdoors as she was receiving guests on the State Floor of the White House, Louise Henry Hoover is well-known for being passionate about … rocks. Educated in geology — she actually meet her husband, future president Herbert Hoover, then a geologist and mining engineer, through her geology professor at Stanford University — Lou Hoover was also a skilled camper, hiker, architect, horseback rider, forager and overall lover of the natural world.
Not surprisingly, prior to, during and after her life in the White House, Hoover was heavily involved with a fledgling organization called the Girl Scouts, taking on various roles such as national commissioner, president, honorary president, vice president and even troop leader throughout the years.
Veggies for victory: Eleanor Roosevelt (1933-1945)
An outspoken champion of human rights, Eleanor Roosevelt’s political life was a busy one during husband Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and after as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. One of Roosevelt’s lesser-known accomplishments (and there were many) is that in 1943 she, against the wishes of the Agriculture Department, introduced the concept of the wartime “victory garden” to the White House lawn. Roosevelt’s actions inspired an entire nation of civilian green thumbs to help reduce pressure on the strained-by-WWII commercial agriculture industry by practicing self-sufficiency on the home front. In fact, during the war an estimated 20 million victory gardens were planted in the front and backyards of homes across America.
Although other first ladies have given gardening a stab in the time since Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House residency, the first full-on vegetable garden at the White House since the Roosevelt era didn’t emerge until Michelle Obama moved in.
Our lady of the wildflowers: Lady Bird Johnson (1963-1969)
Perhaps the greenest of the former first ladies — Time magazine declared her the “First Green First Lady” after her death in 2007 at the age of 94 — Lady Bird Johnson, born Claudia Alta Taylor, made it her mission to protect and beautiful the American landscape during husband Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. A native Texan, Lady Bird Johnson supported a massive beautification project in Washington called the Society For a More Beautiful National Capital and 1965’s Highway Beautification Act (AKA “Lady Bird's Bill”), an act that aimed to limit the placement of unsightly billboards and junkyards along federal highways. To Lady Bird Johnson, the term “beautification” meant much more than a cosmetic face-lift; it meant “clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and the preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas.”
Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy of environmental stewardship lives on at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and at several parks and areas of natural beauty across the country named in her honor.
Park-gate: Pat Nixon (1969-1974)
Although she was referred to as “Plastic Pat” because of her uber-domestic, “Susie Homemaker” persona, Pat Nixon, the first first lady to appear in public wearing pants, didn’t put all of her energy into decorating the White House, raising her family and defending her disgraced husband. Nixon’s major cause throughout her tenure was volunteerism, and she also sponsored the Legacy of the Parks program, described by the Nixon Foundation as “the most significant environmental conservation program of the 20th century.” Through Legacy of the Parks, protected federal land was turned over to individual states and local entities and transformed into parks. By the late 1970s, over 80,000 acres of unused land were opened to the public in the form of over 640 new parks.
It should also be noted that however historically maligned, Richard Nixon was behind some extremely important environmental policies: He signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the National Environmental Policy Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
Click for photo credits
Helen Taft, Lou Hoover: Library of Congress
Lady Bird Johnson: ZUMA Press
Pat Nixon: National Archives
Eleanor Roosevelt: Associated Press