Election 2020

Jill Biden would be the first official First Lady from the Philly area

President Andrew Jackson’s daughter-in-law, briefly assigned the title, was born in the city.

Joe Biden kicked off his presidential campaign with a rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia on Saturday, May 18, 2019. Among the estimated 6,000 attendees were his wife Dr. Jill Biden and other members of his family.

Joe Biden kicked off his presidential campaign with a rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia on Saturday, May 18, 2019. Among the estimated 6,000 attendees were his wife Dr. Jill Biden and other members of his family.

Erin Blewett / For Billy Penn
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On the second night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Dr. Jill Biden delivered a pre-recorded speech from the high school classroom where she taught in Delaware. There, she detailed her upbringing in suburban Willow Grove, five miles outside Philadelphia. Throughout the campaign, Biden has been leaning hard into her roots as a “Philly girl.”

If her husband defeats President Donald Trump in November, Biden would become the first First Lady from the Philadelphia region. The first active one, anyway.

From colonial days onward, the First Lady was considered the “social hostess” in the male-dominated White House. Two centuries later, in the 1970s, spouses expanded the role. Today, First Ladies are considered public figures in their own right, offering opinions on national issues and taking up their own causes, both during and after their time in office.

Few have concentrated on their hometowns as a political project — but in Philadelphia and the surrounding region, being “from here” means something.

It means fighting about whether or not you’re from here, or to what degree. Fighting about what you mean by “here.” Case in point: as Biden spoke Tuesday night, “Willow Grove ain’t Philly” popped up all over Philly Twitter, while others argued about the educator’s accent.

Whether or not you’re a city limits truther, a First Lady Biden would come closest to being the first from Philly — with one caveat:

Technically, there already was a First Lady from ye olde city, but she wasn’t actually married to the commander in chief. A number of early U.S. presidents became widowed before or during their time in office, in which case they appointed a “de facto” First Lady to fill the honorary hostess role.

These were usually presidents’ sisters, daughters and nieces. One of the most notable was Sarah Yorke Jackson, daughter-in-law of former President Andrew Jackson. Born to a wealthy merchant family in Philadelphia in 1803, she would technically be the first official First Lady with birth roots in the region.

Sarah Yorke Jackson (b. 1803) of Philadelphia

Sarah Yorke Jackson (b. 1803) of Philadelphia

However, Sarah Jackson didn’t serve the full term. She was one of two relatives who served as the de facto White House “social hostess” for Jackson, whose wife had died, he claimed, from the stress of a nasty and presidential campaign in 1828. So Biden would be the first regional native to fill the role full time.

One more local geographic pathology to address, before my alter ego Rob from Mayfair bursts into my home office and starts screaming: Jill wasn’t even born in Philly!!!

Yes, chill, Rob. Biden was born in New Jersey. A sin, true. But she spent virtually all of her childhood in Willow Grove, which makes her from the region.

According to a Billy Penn review of first lady biographical information, having a First Lady from this area is rare, despite its role as a seat of government in the founding days of the country. Many early presidents and their wives lived in Philadelphia at various times, but few had childhoods in this proud, idiosyncratic region.

U.S. First Ladies most commonly hailed from parts of Virginia, across the Midwest and New York City. There’s a smattering from the Carolinas, and, in recent years, two from Chicago. There are none from California or the west coast.

Only three hailed from Pennsylvania at all — through former President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife were residents of Harrisburg, where they bought their first home and spent their final years.

Where did U.S. First Ladies come from?

This list is numbered by the order of presidents. Note: Some presidents had more than one first lady.

1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Married to George Washington
Born June 2, 1731
Chestnut Grove, Virginia

2. Abigail Smith Adams

Married to John Adams
Born November 22, 1744
Weymouth, Massachusetts

3. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

Married to Thomas Jefferson
Born September 27, 1772
Monticello, Virginia

4. Dolley Payne Todd Madison

Married to James Madison
Born May 20, 1768
Present-day Greensboro, North Carolina

5. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe

Married to James Monroe
Born June 30, 1768
New York City

6. Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams

Married to John Quincy Adams
Born February 12, 1775
London, England

7. Rachel Donelson Jackson

Married to Andrew Jackson
Born June 1, 1807
Donelson, Tennessee

Rachel died weeks after Jackson’s election, so her niece Emily and daughter-in-law Sarah served as de facto First Ladies.

Emily Donelson Jackson
Born June 15, 1767
Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Sarah Jackson
Born July 16, 1803
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

8. Angelica Singleton Van Buren

Daughter-in-law of President Martin Van Buren, whose wife Hannah died before he took office
Born March 8, 1783
Kinderhook, New York

9. Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison

Married to William Henry Harrison
Born July 25, 1775
Morristown, New Jersey
Anna died on the first day of her husband’s term

Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper
Harrison’s daughter-in-law served as de facto First Lady after Anna Harrison’s death until the president remarried
Born June 14, 1816
New York City, New York

Jane Irwin Harrison
Harrison’s second wife
Born May 4, 1820
Gardiners Island, New York

10. Letitia Christian Taylor

Married to John Tyler
Born November 12, 1790
Cedar Grove, Virginia

Daughter in-law Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper served as de facto First Lady after Letitia’s death
Born September 10, 1842
New York City, New York

11. Sarah Childress Polk

Married to President James Polk
Born September 4, 1803
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

12. Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor

Married to Zachary Taylor
Born September 21, 1788
Calvert County, Maryland

13. Abigail Powers Fillmore

Married to Millard Fillmore
Born March 13, 1798
Stillwater, New York

14. Jane Means Appleton Pierce

Married to Franklin Pierce
March 12, 1806
Hampton, New Hampshire

15. Harriet Lane

Served as First Lady for her uncle, James Buchanan, who never married
Born May 9, 1830
Franklin County, Pennsylvania

16. Mary Todd Lincoln

Married to Abraham Lincoln
Born December 13, 1818
Lexington, Kentucky

17. Eliza McCardle Johnson

Married to Andrew Johnson
Born October 4, 1810
Telford, Tennessee

18. Julia Dent Grant

Married to Ulysses S. Grant
Born January 26, 1826
St. Louis, Missouri

19. Lucy Ware Webb Hayes

Married to Rutherford B. Hayes
Born August 28, 1831
Chillicothe, Ohio

20. Lucretia Rudolph Garfield

Married to James A. Garfield
Born April 19, 1832
Garrettsville, Ohio

21. Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur

Sister of Chester A. Arthur, whose wife died two years before he took office
Born January 12, 1880
New York City, New York

22. Frances Folsom Cleveland

Married to Grover Cleveland
Born July 21, 1864
Buffalo, New York

Sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland also served as First Lady
Born June 13, 1846
Buffalo, New York

23. Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

Married to Benjamin Harrison
Born October 1, 1832
Oxford, Ohio

Daughter Marry Scott Harrison served as de facto First Lady after her mother’s death
Born April 3, 1858
Indianapolis, Indiana

24. Frances Folsom Cleveland (again)

Married to Grover Cleveland
Born July 21, 1864
Buffalo, New York

25. Ida Saxton McKinley

Married to William McKinley
Born June 8, 1847
Canton, Ohio

26. Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt

Married to Theodore Roosevelt
Born August 6, 1861
Norwich, Connecticut

27. Helen Herron Taft

Married to William Taft
June 2, 1861
Cincinnati, Ohio

28. Ellen Axson Wilson

Married to Woodrow Wilson
Born May 15, 1860
Savannah, Georgia

Daughter Margeret Wilson served after her mother’s death
Born April 16, 1886
Gainesville, Georgia

Followed by second wife Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
Born October 15, 1872
Wytheville, Virginia

29. Florence Kling Harding

Married to Warren G. Harding
Born August 15, 1860
Hometown: Marion, Ohio

30. Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge

Married to Calvin Coolidge
Born January 3, 1879
Burlington, Vermont

31. Lou Henry Hoover

Married to Herbert Hoover
Born March 29, 1874
Waterloo, Iowa

32. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt

Married to Franklin D. Roosevelt
Born October 11, 1884
New York City, New York

33. Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman

Married to Harry Truman
Born February 13, 1885
Independence, Missouri

34. Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower

Married to Dwight Eisenhower
Born November 14, 1896
Boone, Iowa, U.S.

35. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy

Married to John F. Kennedy
Born July 28, 1929
Southampton, New York

36. Claudia Taylor Johnson

Married to Lyndon B. Johnson
Born December 22, 1912
Karnack, Texas

37. Patricia Ryan Nixon

Married to Richard Nixon
Born March 16, 1912
Ely, Nevada

38. Elizabeth Bloomer Ford

Married to Gerald Ford
Born April 8, 1918
Chicago, Illinois

39. Rosalynn Smith Carter

Married to Jimmy Carter
Born August 18, 1927
Plains, Georgia

40. Nancy Davis Reagan

Married to Ronald Reagan
Born July 6, 1921
New York City, New York

41. Barbara Pierce Bush

Married to George H. W. Bush
Born June 8, 1925
Queens, New York

42. Hillary Rodham Clinton

Married to Bill Clinton
Born October 26, 1947
Chicago, Illinois

43. Laura Welch Bush

Married to George W. Bush
Born November 4, 1946
Midland, Texas

44. Michelle Obama

Married to Barack Obama
Born January 17, 1964
Chicago, Illinois

45. Melania Trump

Married to Donald Trump
Born April 26, 1970
Novo Mesto, Yugoslavia/present-day Slovenia

Want some more? Explore other Election 2020 stories.

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