The term “First Lady” is used in two different senses. In the first sense, the First Lady is a wife of a prominent elected official, such as a President or Governor. The term is also used to describe women who are the forefront of their field, especially in the performing arts, which is why you hear Ella Fitzgerald referred to as the First Lady of American Song. In both senses, the term is meant to suggest that a woman is socially prominent and that she should be viewed as an object of veneration and respect.
People first started using the term in the United States, to refer to the wife of the President of the United States. The term arose in the late 1800s, and quickly spread to other regions of the world. A First Lady is not only the wife of a prominent official; she is also a hostess and official symbol for her country or region, and by convention, First Ladies often engage in their own social events and champion private causes while their husbands are in office.
There is some dispute as to what the male spouse of a female elected official should be called. As a general rule, male spouses are referred to as the “First Gentleman,” although you may also hear the term “First Consort.” Much like a First Lady, a First Gentleman often plays an important role in his society.
The First Lady of the United States in particular tends to be a very prominent and well known public figure. Many First Ladies have worked on various social causes, ranging from education to healthcare, and they have played important political roles in the United States. While early First Ladies were largely seen and not heard, by the 20th century, the First Lady was expected to be socially active and engaged in American society.
Some notable First Ladies include Jacqueline Kennedy, who became a notable celebrity in American culture during her husband's Presidency, along with Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dolley Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt. By tradition, if an American President is unmarried, a close female relative or companion may be referred to as the First Lady.
The use of “First Lady” to honor women who are particularly accomplished in their field is more recent. In addition to being used to refer to woman who are especially talented in the arts, the term is also sometimes used to refer to women who are prominent socially, along with the wives of religious officials and university Presidents.