Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Wilson Ladies: Shaping the Role of First Lady a Bit and a Bit Too Much

Although most of the attention when it comes to the Wilson First Ladies is on Edith, Ellen did a lot more to change the role for future First Ladies.

Edith gets a notorious reputation because, in 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke when he was on a tour promoting his League of Nations idea. Wilson had a long recovery ahead of him and under doctor’s orders rested behind closed doors while he recovered. He didn’t even have a cabinet meeting for 8 months. At the time not many people knew what was ailing the president. Everyone was just told that Wilson had nervous exhaustion. Edith served as the gatekeeper to decide what was important enough to warrant his energy and attention. Otherwise, it seems that Edith made political and governmental decisions that were not hers to make. Edith is accused of being the acting president during this time.

Edith Wilson

Biographers Kristie Miller and John Milton Cooper have sympathy for Edith. It’s not that she was power hungry. She was just doing what she could to protect her husband’s health while preserving his presidency and legacy. And there was no precedent for this event. There was no constitutional provision for a disabled president.

Wilson eventually regained his health enough to function as president. When his presidency ended he and Edith moved into a house close to the White House. There Wilson died in 1924 and Edith remained until her death in 1961.

But before there was Edith, there was Ellen.

Ellen Wilson
Ellen and Woodrow meet in church one Sunday in 1883 when Woodrow was visiting town and worshipping at the Presbyterian church where Ellen’s dad was the minister. Woodrow couldn’t take his eyes off of her despite her black mourning veil for her recently deceased mother. Ellen found in Woodrow the intelligent and interesting man that she had been looking for. Their relationship was passionate as told through the library-sized collection of love letters to each other.  Ellen and Woodrow married and had three daughters.

One of the many love letters from Woodrow Wilson to Ellen Axson.  

Ellen was smart. She spurred Woodrow on intellectually. She was also a gifted painter although once she was First Lady she had a hard time knowing whether people really liked her art or if they were just trying to flatter the First Lady. Before her First Lady term, she was recognized as a painter and even held a one woman art show.

Ellen Wilson, although she is First Lady for a little longer than a year, makes her mark on the role by choosing a cause and using her government ties to get some “municipal housekeeping” done. Other ladies had passions and causes, but Ellen wisely used her connections to get government funding and interest in her cause. Ellen’s cause was the alleyways of Washington D.C. which were shacks without plumbing that poor families were calling home. She visited the dwellings herself and then visited model homes built by the Sanitary Housing Company to see what shelters could replace the alleyways. She took members of Congress to see the slums for themselves and eventually Congress created a committee and gave funding to build better housing for the alleyways.

Other First Ladies had causes, like Frances Cleveland and her kindergarten movement, but they relied more heavily on philanthropists like Harriet Lane to fulfill the needs. Ellen used her role to get government action and provision to meet the need.

Ellen is the First Lady I have been waiting to read about! I didn’t know it was her, but I knew that someone along the line would set the example of having a non-partisan cause to present to the legislature.

Ellen’s alleyway cause further shapes the First Lady role for future First Ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt (who was a Congress wife during Wilson’s term and who went along with Ellen to see the alleyways for herself).

Edith tries to shape the role a bit too far in her decision-maker status and garners lasting criticism which begins in her day and has lasted through the present day. 

In preperation for this blog post and as part of my goal to read a biography of each of the First Ladies in chronological order, I read Kristie Miller's book, Ellen and Edith Wilson: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies. The book was well-researched a little on the dry side, but still a pleasure to read.  However, Kristie Miller was anything but dry when she was featured along with John Milton Cooper on C-SPAN's Influence and Image series to discuss the Wilson ladies. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Nellie Taft: The Pros and Cons of Ambition

Nellie Heron Taft was never content to just sit around and wait for life to happen. She had ambition for herself and especially for her husband, William Howard Taft.

Ambition, like many other character traits, has its pros and cons.

Ambitious for Work

When young Nellie’s schooling was complete, she was expected to live leisurely and wait for a husband. But sports (like tennis which was popular at the time) and needlework did not satisfy her. She was bored and restless.

So she decided to work for pay. She was a teacher at several different schools.

This certainly raised eyebrows in town. What was Nellie Heron doing working? Certainly her family didn’t need the money. But Nellie’s ambitious spirit needed to be constantly active.

Ambitious for Intellectual Stimulation

Nellie was ambitious to keep her mind sharp. She started and hosted a salon which is like a highly educated book club.

This is when she began spending a lot of time with William Howard Taft called Will.

Will had his own ambitions. Namely, he wanted to marry Nellie. He proposed to her many times and would not give up even after receiving a negative answer time and time again.

Nellie had already purposed in her heart long before meeting Will that she would only marry someone who would be President of the United States. This might seem like a far-fetched goal, but her family was dear friends of President and Lucy Hayes. Nellie had visited at the White House with the Hayes and there her dream was born.

The problem was Will did not want to be president. He wanted to be on the Supreme Court.

Will and Nellie’s ambitions did not seem to meld together. But eventually, Nellie must have decided that Will was president material and she agreed to marry him.

Ambitious for Music

Nellie was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and continued to live in Cincinnati once Will and she married.

Carl Anthony pointed out in Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era that Nellie had the ambition to make Cincinnati as culturally prominent as New York City was. Nellie was also a musician and had a desire to see Cincinnati have its own orchestra. From 1893-1900 she was the president of the Cincinnati Orchestra Association. She was not just president in name. She worked hard! She took care of contracts for the musicians, ran the stockholder and board meetings, and chased down the conductor that she wanted and insisted that he take the job.

Ambitious for Embracing Philippino Culture

After the Spanish-American War, Will Taft was appointed Governor-General of the Philippines. He really shined in this role as he created laws and brought the people together to warm up to the Americans which was no easy task especially after the military presence of MacArthur.

Nellie shined in her role of governor’s wife. She was willing to respectfully go out of her way to embrace the Philippino people which was not the popular view at the time. She shook hands with them. She welcomed the natives into the governor’s home.

She even made an amazing trek without Will to a remote people group to get to know them and represent America to them.

Ambitious for the Presidency

Her highest ambition was to see her husband ruling in the White House. After their time in the Philippines, Will was appointed to be Secretary of War under Roosevelt. Will accepted and the Tafts moved to Washington, D.C. This was not the family’s first time living in Washington, but this return gave Nellie the chance to further work out her ambition to get Will into the presidency. She played politics more so than any other First Lady before her advising her husband what to do and say and planning with other political leaders including TR.

After Will was elected, Nellie remained ambitious once she was in the first lady role. But Nellie didn’t work within ladies only organizations like other First Ladies had done. Because of her work with the orchestra, she was used to working with educated men.  She wasn’t afraid to do new things like:
·         Get rid of the horses and buggies in the White House stables and bring in the automobiles. It was not unusual to see Nellie herself cruising around D.C. in her car.
·         Create a place for outdoor concerts. Potomac Park was her brainchild including the thousands of Japanese cherry trees.
·         Work through the National Civic Foundation to improve working conditions for children and women especially in government work.
·         She was the first and only First Lady to attend the Presidential Nominating Convention of the opposing party. (This was after her husband’s presidency.)

She did many other ambitious things in her first lady role despite the fact that she had a stroke two months into her husband’s presidency and had to relearn how to speak.

But what stood out the most is that she was deeply involved in playing politics more than any First Lady I’ve read for a long time. Maybe since Abigail Adams. A lot of her politics came to play when it came to the Roosevelts.

Ambitious to Defeat the Roosevelts

The nation loved dear Teddy Roosevelt. Before TR left office he promised not to run for another term. But Nellie didn’t believe him. She was convinced even before there seemed to be actual proof that TR wanted to run again. She was irked that no one could see TR for the scheming man he was and especially irked that Will couldn’t see it. Will certainly trusted him until the Bull Moose Party was formed and TR announced his presidential run. It broke my heart to read how when Will Taft had to publically contradict something TR had said while campaigning against him, he went back into the train car and wept and said, “he was my best friend.”

In Nellie Taft by Carl Anthony, it was fascinating to see TR through Nellie’s eyes. Since I read the First Lady biographies in order, I had just read the biography of Edith Roosevelt in which nothing but good was mentioned about TR. That biography painted the Tafts in a poor light especially Nellie who was described as rude and curt. (This is one of the many reasons that Mr. Anthony’s biographies have been among the best I’ve read during this journey. He presents each person honestly, flaws and all, which makes the subject seem like a real person.)

Nellie’s dislike or jealousy of the Roosevelts seems to begin with or be enhanced by the cold relationship between Nellie and Edith once Will accepted the position of Secretary of War.

Carl Anthony entertains the question: how different would America be today if Edith and Nellie had been warm and welcoming to each other? What would have happened in the Republican Party had they been kinder to each other? A great question! 

Blinded by Selfish Ambition

Carl Anthony also dealt with the differences between Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft. They were very different women with different backgrounds and different approaches to the role of First Lady. But most of all, they differed in their approaches to their husband’s ambitions.

Edith respected her husband’s choice to guide his own destiny. Not just politically, but with his ranching in the West and safari adventures in Africa and in South America. Edith supported him through many wild ambitions.

But Nellie refused to even acknowledge her husband’s dream. Will’s dream from the beginning was to be on the Supreme Court. But Nellie worked against that dream and paved his way to the White House, a place he never really wanted to go which he didn’t really like.

After the White House, Nellie’s ambition having been realized, Will was able to fulfill his ambition. In 1921, he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. By that time Will and Nellie’s marriage had grown to the point that Will did not check his decisions with his wife anymore. He said yes to the appointment, then informed his wife about it rather than checking with her first like he had previously in his political life.

My Ambitions

For myself, Nellie Taft reminds me to make sure that I have ambitions. As my kids grow, there is time for me to pursue ambitions in addition to being a mom which is the only ambition I had previously ever dreamed about. Reading through the First Lady biographies is one of the ambitions I have. I eventually want to read through the Newbery Award winners, too. I also don’t just want to consume books, but I have ambitions for writing as well.
The First Lady biographies that I read so far and own.
There are others I have read that I borrowed from our library.
I'm thankful for our library since some books have
been out of print, hard to find, or just too expensive to buy.

Nellie Taft’s life also encourages me to take initiative to support my husband’s ambitions as well. What will I do if our ambitions clash? I believe then submission comes into play like Ephesians 5 says.

Ambitions drove Nellie Taft to accomplish so much in her life. Her courage and bravery to accomplish her ambitions are admirable. Although her ambitions caused her husband to live through four years of stress in the White House in a position he never desired, thankfully, there was a happy ending for him as he lived the last nine years of his life as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 

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