With the enthusiasm and support shown by audiences following her speech at the Democratic National Convention, and the social media reaction to her comments that followed, one would think that Michelle Obama might be the most popular outgoing first lady of all time.
She does rank pretty high on the list.
However, several women rank ahead of her, at least according to a famous poll by Siena College that has surveyed historians and academics several times over the past four decades.
Here’s who Obama is in league with as far as famous first ladies go:
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
Born barely 20 years after the closure of the Civil War, Eleanor Roosevelt made it through the Roaring Twenties as a writer and academic as the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and stood beside him through all the ailments, infidelities and pressures of presiding over the country during Great Depression and World War II for a record four terms.
Her legacy as a civil rights activist, humanitarian and foreign diplomat extends far past her husband’s death, which came while he was still in office. John F. Kennedy even reappointed her to a U.N. delegation she had served for under President Truman allowing her to bridge multiple generations.
“Put Eleanor Roosevelt’s picture next to first lady in any text,” says Dr. Don Levy, a top figure at Siena College. “Not only is she most highly rated overall and in many of categories, but among First Ladies of the 20th-21st centuries she is seen as best on advancing women’s issues, as the strongest communicator, greatest political asset, performing the greatest service to the country after leaving office and as creating a lasting legacy.”
According to Siena, Mrs. Roosevelt was ranked first in six of the categories: Value to the country, leadership, accomplishments, and courage.
2. Abigail Adams
President John Adams took over for George Washington, but by not being first that makes him far less memorable than the great presidents who surround him on the list.
The same can be said for his wife, Abigail, who ranks second according to the Siena poll.
During her time in the White House, Mrs. Adams — one of the president’s closest advisers and confidantes — frequently hosted dinner parties, made many public appearances, and threw her support behind her husband’s favorite policies. She also championed women’s rights and denounced slavery as a great “evil” to society.
3. Jaqueline Kennedy
As first lady in her three short years before JFK’s untimely death, Mrs. Kennedy oversaw a highly publicized restoration of the White House while aiding her husband’s image both on the campaign trail and while in office.
Kennedy was a fashion icon, but also contributed to the preservation of architecture and championed the arts.
Her dignity and grace following the murder of her husband in Dallas in 1963 helped a reeling country come to terms with a national tragedy, and she assisted Lyndon Johnson’s administration in a smooth transition to power.
Public image is one of the qualifiers for the Siena poll, in addition to managing the family while in the White House — both areas Kennedy scored considerably high in.
4. Dolley Madison
The wife of fifth president James Madison, Dolley, ranks even higher than the ever-popular Michelle Obama.
She sits fourth in the poll of 242 historians and political scientists for her complimentary role during a presidency that oversaw the Louisiana purchase — which doubled the size of America — and the successful War of 1812, along with the westward expansion of the United States.
Like other popular first ladies, Dolley is noted for her social graces and stewardship of the White House. She’s also the only first lady who’s been given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress.
5. Michelle Obama
In the categories of “being her own woman” and “value to the president,” Michelle Obama ranked incredibly high with the Siena pollsters in addition to her contributions toward advancing women’s issues.
And, as her husband is set to leave the White House, she also ranks incredibly high with the rest of America.
“I think she stands for kindness in America,” Alexis Shenkiryk, a 12-year-old Californian, recently told PBS. “She really encouraged me to try harder, and she promoted a lot of good things for everyone, not just certain people.”
While she isn’t likely to enter the foray of politics in the vein of Hillary Clinton, she is still seen as being one of the most powerful voices the Democrats have.
Bold, empowering, healthy, striving — these are all attributes associated with Obama, giving her top five status out of 44 first ladies in history.