Martha Washington was a wealthy women, accustomed to a pampered life as mistress of the Mount Vernon plantation, which had over 300 slaves at the time of her husband George’s death. After seven years of disruption spent in army camps and on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, she wanted to return to that lifestyle. Instead she was drafted into the role of America’s hostess.
The first president, vice president, and cabinet – all men – decided amongst themselves that the wife of the president would have an official, constant, unpaid role. All of her socializing would be considered a public matter. No longer could she pay or receive social calls from her friends. Now she had a rigid schedule of structured engagements.
Washington hated the duties foisted upon her at the advanced age for the day of 57, in 1789. Her appearance was constantly scrutinized. She had to have her hair professionally set each morning and to wear impractical yet fashionable muslin frocks. She lived each day in the public eye. At one point Martha declared, “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else… as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.”
Thomas Jefferson was an 18 year widower when he was made the third President of the United States in 1801. His daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph performed the unpaid and then untitled job duties of White House hostess. Dolley Madison, wife of fourth president James, was the only spouse or hostess given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress. She is well remembered and beloved by historians and archivists for her successful efforts to save art and artifacts during a White House fire.
The wife of seventh president Andrew Jackson, Rachel, died shortly after the election, amidst a flurry of scandalous press calling her a bigamist. Her niece Emily Donnelson served as White House hostess for the childless widower elderly veteran general. Eighth president Martin Van Buren was another widower with no daughter. No matter. His son’s wife Angelica could be pressed into service.