First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes
Since the first slave ship arrived on our shores, there have been those who have stood against them. I want to feature this first College graduated First Lady who has led the way of how to be one by example. Her decision to ban alcohol from White House events earned her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy” from her critics, although it was her husband who decided, but she was a popular first lady, and her public support and dedication to a variety of causes, including adequate funding for mental health care and education, set a standard for political activity among first ladies.
This is why Lucy’s status needs to be risen up the ranks of “best first ladies” and an inspiration to all those who follow.
Lucy Webb Hayes’ moral views were shaped by strong familial influences. When she was around 2 years old, her abolitionist father, Dr. James Webb, traveled to his family home to free the slaves he had inherited, and was fatally infected when he tended to those suffering from cholera. Her mother, Maria Cook Webb, rejected the suggestion that she sell those slaves to support her now-fatherless children, noting she would rather clean for others to raise money. This is why I honor her during Black History Month. She stood by her morals and became a strong voice for equality.
The enthusiastic Lucy appealed to just about every constituent as first lady. She loved animals and enjoyed the presence of children, for whom she began the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. But she was perhaps most widely admired for the attention she devoted to the less fortunate. Lucy made regular visits to the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and the National Soldier’s Home for disabled veterans, and arranged for flowers to be delivered from her greenhouses to the local children’s hospital. She also personally raised funds for Washington’s poor communities by nudging cabinet members for contributions, leading by example when she and Hayes donated approximately $1,000 in January 1880.
HISTORICAL FACTS: Lucy encouraged Hayes’s participation in the Civil War, but she endured a major scare when he was seriously wounded at the Battle of South Mountain in September 1862. Given the wrong information about his whereabouts, she frantically searched the Washington, D.C. hospitals before finally locating him in Middletown, Maryland. Lucy made sure to accompany her recovered husband to successive encampments, where she contributed by helping to care for the sick and wounded. Her efforts were so appreciated by the soldiers that she earned the nickname “Mother of the Regiment.”
While in the White House, the pair toured New England and the South in 1877 and the northern Midwest the following year. Their most famous excursion was a 72-day journey through Utah, Washington, California and New Mexico in 1880, marking the first time a sitting president and first lady had visited the West Coast. It wasn’t altogether a luxurious trip; the rail line through New Mexico was incomplete, forcing the Hayeses to ride in horse-drawn wagons for three days until they reached another rail head. They were then accompanied by a military guard for another 60 miles as they traversed a dangerous territory controlled by Apache Indians and outlaw cowboys.
First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1831. In 1844, she moved with her widowed mother and two brothers to Delaware, Ohio, so her brothers could enroll at Wesleyan University. As a teenager, Lucy enrolled in the Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College and graduated in 1850.
Shortly thereafter, Lucy married Rutherford B. Hayes, who wrote about her in his diary, saying: “Intellect, she has, too, a quick sprightly one, rather than a reflective, profound one… She is a genuine woman, right from instinct and impulse rather than judgement and reflection.” When her husband became president in 1877, Lucy Webb Hayes became the first college-educated first lady.
Lucy used her education to advocate for causes throughout her life. She was staunchly opposed to slavery, supported the temperance movement by not serving alcohol in the White House, and demonstrated a commitment to community service. She also encouraged others to pursue an education and sponsored a scholarship for African-American students at the Hampton Institute, a historically Black university in Virginia.
Lucy’s quest for expanded education, especially for African Americans, was shared by her husband, and in his last year as president, Hayes sought to extend free and accessible education to all men who could vote. In 1880, President Hayes wrote, “To guard the sacred truth of equal rights we must go one step further. We should furnish to all our countrymen the means for that instruction and knowledge without which wise honest self-government is impossible.”
Following her time as first lady, Lucy Hayes became the president of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Missionary Church (WHMS) after receiving encouragement from her college friend, Eliza Davis. As president of WHMS, she remained committed to advocating education reform and opportunities for immigrants and African Americans.
While Lucy was the first college-educated first lady, she certainly was not the last. As the nineteenth century came to a close, it became more common for college-educated women to fill the role of first lady and use their position to help advocate for causes close to their hearts.