A Reference Resource
"I am naturally the most unambitious of women, and life in the White House has no attractions for me." Despite these claims, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson was an active First Lady who came to love her position and used it to improve life both inside and outside the presidential mansion.
Ellen Wilson benefited from a vast array of experience when she assumed the role of First Lady. She met her future husband, Woodrow Wilson, while still living at home in Rome, Georgia. They married in 1885, and Ellen Wilson provided crucial support to her husband's academic, and later political, career. While Woodrow Wilson was serving as president of Princeton University, Ellen Wilson gained valuable skills and experience, both as a social hostess and a supervisor overseeing their daily life, including refurbishment of their living quarters at Prospect House. She directed the renovations and acquired furnishings which reflected the building's history. In addition, she redesigned the garden, adding flowers, footpaths, and a special area for roses. Through her roles as the first lady of Princeton University and then of New Jersey, Ellen Wilson learned to deal with the publicity attendant to her position, focusing some of that attention on issues that were important to her, including social reform, music, and art. Although entertaining often bored her, she came to see that the social events she hosted were essential to her husband in achieving his political goals.
So when Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913 and Ellen Wilson moved into the White House, she was not intimidated by her new responsibilities. She directed the refurbishment of the White House living quarters in an effort to create a brighter living space. She sought to expand the White House gardens and, like she did at Princeton, added a rose garden that now has become the desired location for outdoor presidential ceremonies. Since neither the First Lady nor the President were particularly fond of entertaining, she did not offer a full social calendar, providing instead a limited schedule of teas, dinners, and receptions. Acceding to the First Lady's wishes that the Christian Sabbath be observed, there was no entertaining at the White House on Sundays.
Ellen Wilson was an ardent public activist and used her position to focus attention on various causes and concerns. She supported regional arts and promoted children's issues, including truancy laws, child labor, child neglect, and the need for school recreation facilities. She toured and inspected public institutions, labored to improve working conditions for employees at the Postal Service and Government Printing Office, and campaigned for women's restrooms to be installed in public buildings and offices.
Her most public crusade, however, was for the improvement of the alleyway slums in Washington, D.C. She was the first First Lady to tour the area, inhabited mostly by blacks, and encouraged others to join her cause. Ellen Wilson sought to better the lives of those living in extreme poverty; her answer to the problem was to demolish the shanty houses and convert the former alleyways into parks; the alleyway clearance bill she supported included no provision for replacing the demolished slums with new homes. In fact, it offered no plan at all for the displaced residents.
To some observers, Ellen Wilson's alleyway clearance work smacked of racism, while others appreciated the First Lady's interest and dedication to action. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson seemed proud of his wife's efforts in all areas, writing her, "No president but myself ever had exactly the right sort of wife!" But Ellen Wilson realized that her activities and interests as First Lady came at a price, at one point writing that no one could understand the "exactions" of her life and "the nervous strain of it all."
To escape such demands and anxieties, Ellen sought refuge in art, which was more than just a hobby. She had studied painting in New York City before her marriage and shown her work at several shows. She installed a studio in the White House attic and continued to paint despite the demands of her public activism, her hostess duties, and the White House weddings of two daughters. Even as First Lady, she exhibited her paintings, and both critics and the public praised her work.
But Ellen Wilson's activism and artistry began to languish as she suffered the effects of Bright's Disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys. The First Lady had endured the illness throughout her tenure in the White House, but injuries from a fall exacerbated an already painful condition, and her health began to deteriorate sharply. On August 6, 1914, Ellen Wilson died from a condition her doctors described as kidney tuberculosis. In tribute to her activism, Congress passed the alley-clearance bill for which she had campaigned.
The first ladyship of Ellen Wilson is often eclipsed by the controversy surrounding that of her successor, Edith Wilson, both as First Lady and as Woodrow Wilson's wife. Although often forgotten in the debate over how much executive power Edith truly wielded while her husband lay incapacitated, Ellen Wilson's legacy as First Lady, although more subtle, is also important. While the Rose Garden is a tangible example of her influence, her activism on behalf of the downtrodden and the less fortunate served as an inspiration and example for those who would follow in her footsteps. Artist, activist, wife, mother, and First Lady, Ellen Wilson had been a partner with her husband from the beginning of his career and added greater dimension to the role of presidential spouse.