Michelle Obama is the most powerful woman in the world. That’s what Forbes magazine says, anyway, in its just-released list of the globe’s 100 most influential females. The US first lady beats Oprah Winfrey (No. 3), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (4), Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (5), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (11), and Sarah Palin (16).
Why is the first lady No. 1? Forbes cites Mrs. Obama’s forceful advocacy of better child nutrition and improvement in the lives of military families. The magazine also gives her kudos for fashion sense, calling her “Jackie Kennedy with a law degree.”
In the end, Forbes judges the first African-American first lady to be a “true change-maker." It adds, "[S]he’s changed the face of the office (literally) ....”
We think at the end there, Forbes is referring to the redecoration of the Oval Office, in Mrs. Obama may have had a hand. But we’re not sure.
The magazine also notes that she’s stayed away from hard policy, at least so far. That’s unlike Ms. Clinton, who pushed hard for health-care reform during her husband’s time in office.
Ms. Clinton failed, of course, but that effort would still put her high on the list of most powerful first ladies ever.
But is Mrs. Obama on the shortlist of the most powerful first lady ever? We’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, list-mania. Who doesn’t love a chance to argue and compare the merits of how others rank people, schools, or, say, rock music? Is Abraham Lincoln really the most influential figure ever in American history, as the Atlantic Monthly judged in its 2006 list of top 100 US figures? Is Harvard the top university, per U.S. News & World Report? Is Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” the greatest song ever, as Rolling Stone magazine recently judged?
(Personally, we prefer Mr. Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” but what other pick is a publication named Rolling Stone going to make?)
For the new power-woman list, Forbes says that this year it attempted to shake things up a bit and deemphasize traditional measures of clout in favor of a broader measure that includes “creative influence and leadership.”
This may explain the downgrading of Chancellor Merkel, who has topped these rankings in recent years but this year dropped a bit, despite being arguably the highest-ranking world woman in terms of political job description. Speaker Pelosi might have ranked higher if she were not a sort of House speaker-for-now, in great danger of losing her job if Democrats lose their majority in November.
But, c’mon, is Lady Gaga really more powerful than Pelosi? We bet Lady Gaga can’t raise your taxes. And is Angelina Jolie more powerful than Elena Kagan? Ms. Kagan is a Supreme Court justice: Not only does she rule on the most important questions facing America, but she can also perform weddings.
As for the most powerful first ladies ever, we’ll put down our ad hoc list here, and then you can discuss it amongst yourselves. No angry calls or messages please: This is just a conversation starter:
5. Michelle Obama. Everything Forbes says is true. But she needs to take on things of larger scope to move up the list.
4. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Per her health-care effort, we put her here. Also, we’ll note that the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people puts Ms. Clinton at No. 17. She’s the second-highest woman, after Chancellor Merkel.
2. Dolley Madison. Saved White House furnishings – or at least as many of them as she could – before the British burned the White House in 1812. Beloved in her day. She served as White House hostess not just for husband, James Madison, but also for Thomas Jefferson after the latter’s own wife died.
1. Edith Wilson. Surprised? Edith Wilson wasn’t even Woodrow Wilson’s first first lady. His first wife, Ellen Axson, died in 1914. He married Edith Galt a year later. But in 1919, President Wilson had a stroke, and Edith Wilson basically took over the running of the nation. She made key decisions and controlled both the people and paper that got to see her husband. No other first lady has wielded that kind of power.