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WASHINGTON - Michelle Obama Tuesday stepped into a long and illustrious line of US first ladies, adopting an unpaid role with no official duties, even though she is likely to wield considerable sway.

As the first African-American woman to take up the post as the nation's top hostess, Obama can look back through history to see how other women shaped their role and her destiny.

Since Martha Washington reluctantly debuted the role in 1789, a varied parade of American women has transformed the position along the way: from national hostess, to White House manager, behind-the-scenes policy advisor or public advocate of favorite causes.

Vivacious Dolley Madison (1809-1817), a celebrated hostess and fashion-setter, refused to leave the White House until a portrait of George Washington was taken to safety when British troops burned Washington during the War of 1812.

Mary Lincoln (1861-1865) lived one of the most tragic chapters in the role's history, seeing her 11-year-old son Willie die of disease in the White House and her husband shot dead. She later slipped into madness and died, impoverished, in 1882.

The gifted and ambitious Hellen Taft (1909-1913) was the first in the role to advocate women's voting rights, not established in the United States until 1920. She also replaced the White House corps of all-white male ushers with African-Americans.

When a stroke left Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) partly paralyzed in 1919, his wife of four years, Edith Wilson, ''took over many routine duties and details of government,'' her official White House biography says.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1935-1945) eschewed the duties of running the White House and became one of the most active first ladies ever, travelling across the United States and the world speaking on issues of the day, notably civil rights. …