Forgotten First Lady – The Other Mrs. Wilson

Ellen Axson Wilson

Woodrow Wilson’s wife was called The First Woman President, The Other 28th President, and The Petticoat President. All these nicknames were the result of her control over access to her stricken husband while he recovered from a severe stroke. She was still being honored in 1961 as a guest at President Kennedy’s inauguration. But there was another Mrs. Wilson who is today largely forgotten. She deserves to be remembered for many reasons.

Ellen Axson Wilson grew up in Rome, Georgia. Her family was socially prominent and well to do. Both her grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers, but Ellen showed little interest in following the examples of her mother and grandmothers. Her father declared her to be too “obstreperous and independent” for her own good, and she had a rebellious streak in her. Her dream was to go to New York and become an artist.

Ellen attended a local women’s college. After her mother died, she took care of her three younger siblings. She was just beginning to work out details of running the family and becoming a serious art student when Woodrow Wilson came along. He called her Eileen, and pursued her with a writing campaign consisting of what one historian has called “among the greatest love letters in the English language.”

They were eventually married, but not before Woodrow completed his graduate studies and Ellen went to New York to study art. She lived in a boardinghouse on West Eleventh Street and attended art classes nearby. She also enrolled in the New York Art Students’ League. While in New York, she taught two nights a week in a missionary school.

They married on June 24, 1885, and boarded with another family for the first year of their marriage. Wilson was earning $1,500 a year, and Ellen gave up her art classes for home economics classes. In their second year of marriage, they were able to rent a house of their own, which was fortunate as Ellen gave birth to two girls in 25 months. Two years later, she gave birth to a third daughter. Wilson had wanted a boy, but tried to be cheerful, writing his wife that he was “glad—almost as at the thought of having a boy.”

Ellen and Woodrow had something of a partnership in their marriage, although Ellen was the junior partner and stayed in the background. She was a skilled hostess who worked to further Woodrow’s career, but she also translated German texts for him and worked out administrative arrangements for him to submit to the Princeton faculty. All the while, she continued to paint and sell her work.

Ellen apparently knew of Woodrow’s long relationship with a wealthy woman named Mary Peck who lived near Princeton. Mary paid for one of Wilson’s trip to Europe. Woodrow met Mary Peck in 1907 during a trip to Bermuda. His long correspondence with Mary did not end until after Ellen’s death and his re-marriage in 1915. The wording in the many letters between them suggests that their relationship did not remain platonic. He wrote that he was “wild” with the thought that Mary might be able to join him and she replied that she wished she could be at his side “to fling myself where I would.”

Woodrow had not yet entered politics, but Ellen had high ambitions for him. She refused to appear jealous, and worked to head off any gossip that might hurt his chances. Ellen treated Mary as a family friend, and had her daughters do the same. When visiting New York, Ellen called on Mary, and had Mary join them on vacations. In ignoring the closeness between Woodrow and Mary, Ellen was protecting him. Ellen issued some “astute warnings” and then dropped the subject. The relationship ended with Woodrow’s second marriage, as his second wife Edith was considerably less tolerant of rivals.

At any rate, voters did not seem to suspect anything. Teddy Roosevelt summed it up when he said, “You cannot cast a man as Romeo who looks and acts so much like an apothecary’s clerk.” But if Ellen had not made such a point of treating Mary as a family friend, even inviting her to the White House, the political damage from the correspondence between Woodrow and Mary might have been considerably greater.

As First Lady, Ellen continued to paint, setting up a studio on the third floor of the White House. She sold her work, often under the signature of E.A. Wilson to disguise the identity of the artist, donating the proceeds to charity. Ladies Home Journal carried two of her landscapes in full-color pages, and Good Housekeeping and Current Opinion carried stories about her art.

Politics held little interest for Ellen, but her husband’s career did. In 1911, William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for President, came to speak at Princeton while Woodrow was out of town. Ellen invited the Bryans to dinner and wired Woodrow to get home immediately. Bryan’s support of Wilson in 1912 was crucial in getting Wilson the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Ellen, basically shy and reticent, was apprehensive about becoming First Lady. She burst into tears just before the pre-inauguration visit to the White House. Her youngest daughter predicted that the White House would “kill her.”

As First Lady, Ellen favored women’s suffrage but refused to take a public stand on the issue. She did take a public stand on housing, slums and civil rights for Negroes. She began touring the Washington slums and called for an investigation of the problem. She gained significant bi-partisan support for improving the slums since slum problems hurt everyone, through problems such as epidemics and crime. Her support of the issue gave it a new respectability and urgency. By February 1914, legislation known as Ellen Wilson’s Bill was introduced in Congress. It became the first piece of legislation to be passed with such direct and public support from a First Lady.

In addition to her public works, her responsibilities included the arrangements for two massive White House weddings for two of her daughters within six months of each other. Shortly after Jessie’s wedding in November 1913, Ellen’s health began to fail. She was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder that had proven fatal to President Arthur shortly after he left office. She rallied briefly for her daughter Eleanor’s marriage in May 1914, but soon grew worse. By August 1914, it was clear to everyone but the President that she was dying.

Ellen died on August 6, 1914. She was buried with her parents in Rome, Georgia. Shy and retiring, she was the first First Lady to directly affect legislation as well as custom. When Woodrow Wilson broke tradition and addressed Congress in person, Ellen and her daughters sat in the front of the gallery to offer support, a tradition continued today. She was the first to undertake serious political action, setting the precedent of the First Lady taking on social and political causes. She deserves to be remembered by history.