She is the best friend of the President of the United States and also his best asset. When she chooses a dress to wear, it sells out within hours. When she chooses a dish to eat at a restaurant, the whole country wants the recipe. At the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, this former lawyer and hospital executive outshone President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson and Obama's re-election co-chair Eva Longoria. She has a higher popularity rating than any candidate or wife involved in the US presidential election. Is Michelle Obama's influence indicative of a new kind of First Lady, or has it always been this way?
1. Laureen Harper: the Canuck
Here in Canada, we prefer our politics to be a little less glam than our neighbours to the south. However, our own first lady, Laureen Harper, is as equal a partner to her powerful husband as MObama is to hers. Active in politics all her life and a former graphic designer, Laureen is known as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "secret weapon". While our PM is serious and cerebral, Laureen provides a balance of warmth and gregarious charm. It's a little known fact that she has turned the PM's official residence at 24 Sussex Drive into a foster home for wayward kittens to help out the Ottawa Humane Society.
2. Jacqueline Kennedy: the style icon
Perhaps the first and last of her kind, Jacqueline Kennedy defined the role of first lady as a style icon and it's in her elegantly clad footsteps that all first ladies are now expected to follow. She became US President John F. Kennedy's first lady in 1960 at the age of 31. While most of her duties included redecorating, shopping and press interviews, her short three years at the White House were tragically marred by the loss of a son who died at two days old and the assassination of her husband just three months later.
3. Hillary Clinton: the co-president
When Bill Clinton was campaigning for election as President of the United States, his wife Hillary, a lawyer and public policy advocate, was promoted as providing "two for the price of one." Once in the White House, Hillary headed the national task force on health care reform. While not all voters welcomed the idea of a "Billary" co-presidency, it did pave the way for voters to realize that behind every man-candidate is a politically astute and powerful woman. It also paved the way for Hillary's continuing political career as a Senator and currently as Secretary of State.
4. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: la presidenta
Prior to becoming Argentina's current president, Cristina was Argentina's first lady. Her husband, Nestor Kirchner, served as president from 2003 to 2007. The Kirchners achieved what Bill and Hillary only dreamed of - passing the political torch from one to the other. When Cristina succeeded Nestor as president, Nestor became first gentleman. Sadly, Nestor died from a heart attack in 2010 near the end of Cristina's first term. In 2011, she went on to win a second term.
5. Eva Peron: the saint
You may know her as Evita or Santa Evita. Maria Eva Duarte de Peron was the wildly popular first lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death of cancer in 1952. She not only campaigned vigorously beside her husband, Colonel Juan Peron, but once in office she ran the Ministry of Labor and of Health, established a charitable foundation and fought for the women's vote. She briefly ran for election as Vice President to her husband, until her health gave out. Eva's role as first lady was powerful enough to inspire a Broadway musical - something the former actress would surely have appreciated.
6. Isabel Peron: the shadow
After Eva died, Colonel Peron held office until 1955, then returned in 1973. It was during this term that President Peron's second first lady (and third wife), Isabel Martinez de Peron, followed Eva's ambitions and became his Vice President. After her husband's death in 1974, Isabel went on to become the first female President of Argentina. However, Isabel was no Santa Evita. Her presidency ended in a 1976 military coup and she was placed under house arrest for acts of violence and terrorism. She now lives in exile in Spain.
7. Mireya Moscoso: the Panamanian
Mireya Moscoso was the first lady of Panama, while her husband Arnulfo Arias served three non-consecutive terms as president. After he died, Mireya ran for office and won the presidency in 1999. Mireya was the first female President of Panama and served for five years, overseeing the US relinquishment of the Panama Canal. Today, she is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an association supporting collective action on matters concerning women and the developing world.
8. Edith Wilson: the stealth president
American President Woodrow Wilson also had not one first lady, but two. His first wife Ellen, died in 1914. One year later, he married his second first lady, a strong-willed, southern belle named Edith. During WWI, Edith famously rationed gas and food at the White House and used sheep to graze the lawn. In 1919 and into his second term of presidency, President Wilson was paralyzed by a stroke. It was Edith who pushed aside the Vice President and stepped up to the plate, making decisions, controlling access to the President and essentially running the nation from her husband's bedside.
The power of pillow talk
When faced with a choice of male candidates, it makes sense to take an interest in the candidates' wives. You know very well, in your own relationship, that if your husband was president, oh, you bet you'd have a say in the way certain things are run. And what can tell you more about what kind of man someone is, than knowing what kind of woman puts up with his dirty socks and coming home late? While we love seeing women in powerful leadership positions of their own making, it's important to recognize that some of the world's most powerful women are those first ladies who not-so-quietly stand on the side, influencing nations and their husbands.