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This essay maps the rise of the rhetorical first lady from Martha Washington through Laura Bush, contextualizing the public and private documents of these political women within the gender ideology of their time. In the process of evidencing the ways in which the first lady role both empowers and restricts the performance of the first lady, we illustrate the political contributions of first ladies from 1789 to 1920 in the areas of social politicking and benevolent volunteerism, which served as political antecedents for the gradual rise of the rhetorical first lady. When first ladies more routinely spoke from the first lady pulpit (1920-2002), they mimicked the performances of their predecessors, taking their volunteer efforts to the public stage. In the process, they extended the nineteenth-century ideology of republican motherhood; the twentieth-century republican mother, as performed by many contemporary first ladies, became a more outspoken advocate on behalf of the nation's children and other pressing social concerns. While the position often limited the activities of first ladies to perceived nongovernmental issues, many expanded the political nature of the position, taking their social politicking to a public stage and helping to craft a role for women's participation in the political sphere.