Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Forgotten First Lady: Ellen Axson Wilson

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Recently, I’ve grown interested in learning more about some of our First Ladies — that is, Presidential spouses — and have been reading with great interest a biography by Frances Wright Saunders, ELLEN AXSON WILSON: FIRST LADY BETWEEN TWO WORLDS .   This is a woman I’d never previously thought anything about, other than maybe a brief reference as “the first Mrs. Wilson” as she died in 1914, but Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914) was an extraordinary woman in her own right, being an artist of some renown, as the picture of her painting Side Porch, Griswold House (1910) reproduced here shows.

But art wasn’t the only thing the first Mrs. Wilson was great at; she was extremely bright and helped her husband, Woodrow Wilson, with the research for many of his books as she read and spoke German, French, and Italian whereas he only was able to read the languages (and that laboriously by his own account).   But she was a well-educated, articulate, artistic woman in her own right, someone who insisted that her three daughters be educated to the limits of their ability and that they be prepared to live the best lives they could whether they married or didn’t (as indeed, eldest daughter Margaret remained single).  Ellen Wilson helped her husband yet lived her own life, too.  And saw no contradiction in doing so, as indeed, there should be none . . . but who’d expect this from a woman born in 1860?  (Which just goes to prove the “value” of stereotypes . . . but I digress.)

One thing that struck me from Saunders’ biography that I wish more First Ladies would emulate was Mrs. Wilson’s absolute indifference to being fashionable.  Mrs. Wilson dressed well, yes.  But she did not wish to be a fashion plate, saying that she had better things to do with her time and money than that — and she put her money where her mouth was, using her time for her art and to learn, grow, and change productively.

Ellen Axson Wilson was someone who lifted up everyone around her, seemingly effortlessly, because she wanted what was best for them.  She put several of her cousins through college as she believed very strongly in higher education; she took in her younger brother, Edward, and made sure he, too, was well-educated and had a good start in life.  And she was the type of woman who judged people by their minds, not by how much money they had or their status in life — in fact, people who were stereotypical “social butterflies” bored her silly, and she wasn’t afraid to say so.

The more I’ve read about Mrs. Ellen Wilson, the more impressed I’ve been by her — truly, she embodied the adage that “behind every great man is a great woman,” and considering her abilities and skills, it’s really a shame that her story isn’t better known — especially the fact that even nearing the end of her life (she died young at age 54 from kidney disease), she insisted that poor blacks who were living in abject poverty in Washington, DC’s alleyways be helped.  And because she was such a powerful personality, even as she got closer and closer to death, the Congress actually passed “alley” legislation because it’s what she wanted.

Please see this link at the American Presidents blog for more about Mrs. Ellen Wilson; the content is great even if the spelling isn’t always up to par, and it will give you an idea of just how special the first Mrs. Wilson really was.   Which just goes to show that lives matter — what we do, what we learn, and who we interact with matters — whether others realize it, or not.

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Written by Barb Caffrey

January 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm

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