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updated: 6/27/2012 3:22 PM

First ladies and presidents

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  • Laura Bush at the First Ladies' National Library.

    Laura Bush at the First Ladies' National Library.
    Courtesy of the National First Ladies' Library


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Rachel Boehm's second-graders at Hawthorn Elementary North in Vernon Hills asked, "Why do we call Michelle Obama the First Lady? Where did the president get his title?"

First, the first ladies. first lady Michelle Obama was first called first lady when her husband became U.S. president. But not all first ladies have been called that.

First lady was first connected to the president's wife at first lady Dolley Madison's funeral.

There's no official title for the nation's first lady; the name is a reflection of the president's position as our nation's leader and the respect the president and his wife have earned by taking on the responsibility of the office.

"From the time George Washington was elected president, there was an ongoing dilemma about how to refer to the president's wife," said Patricia Krider, executive director of the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio.

"People didn't like the idea of using royal titles, although Martha Washington was referred to as 'Lady Washington' at times," Krider said.

The phrase first lady was permanently paired with the president's wife when Lucy Hayes, wife of the 19th president, traveled with her husband from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.

"The press dubbed her 'The First Lady of the Land' and the title stuck," Krider said.

Krider has met three first ladies -- Rosalyn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

What if you were asked to attend a White House dinner? How would you greet Mrs. Obama as she enters the dining room? Call her Mrs. Obama when you say hello. But if you need to introduce her to your parents, you can refer to her as first lady Michelle Obama.

Former first ladies, like Laura Bush, can be introduced as former first lady, but call her Mrs. Bush if you have a chance to meet her.

An exception would be former first lady Hillary Clinton, who was elected senator and now holds the position of secretary of state. Call her madam secretary.

As for the title of president, use of this word came about before there were 13 United States.

When the Founding Fathers were creating a new government, they wanted one leader. The job description they created was for someone who presides, and definitely not rules, over the citizens.

Before it became the title for our country's head of state, president was (and still is) a term used to identify the top job at colleges and universities in the United States.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution defines the office of the U.S. presidency and how the president is elected into office.

Learn more about first ladies at the First Ladies' National Library in Canton, Ohio, and on the organization's website,

The library, located in first lady Ida Saxton McKinley's home, and the accompanying research and education facility are repositories for books and multimedia information featuring U.S. first ladies. It is open for tours for youth and adults, as well as workshops and seminars for scholars.

First lady Michelle Obama is the library's honorary chairwoman. The library was established while former first lady Hillary Clinton's husband was president, and, in 2003, former first lady Laura Bush dedicated the library's Education and Research Center.

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