Ellen Wilson Juvenile/Educational Biography
Ellen Axson Wilson
May 15, 1860-August 6, 1914
Ellen Louise Axson was born on May 15, 1860 in Savannah, Georgia. Her mother was the former Margaret Hoyt; her father was the Reverend Samuel E. Axson, the local Presbyterian minister. The family moved frequently as her father changed church assignments, finally settling in Rome, Georgia, in 1866 where he was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. There, Ellen grew up and graduated from the Female Seminary. She grew into an unusually gifted young woman who was intelligent, attractive, energetic, and artistic. In fact, Ellen was a talented painter.
In April 1883, young Woodrow Wilson was visiting family in Rome, Georgia, and attended the First Presbyterian Church, since he was the son of a Presbyterian minister. There he met “Miss Ellie Lou,” and he was smitten. Ellen, however, was keeping house for her bereaved father and raising her younger brother. Woodrow had failed to successfully establish a law practice and had decided to return to graduate school for study. Marriage was not in their immediate future. The two courted by correspondence and became engaged in September, 1883. When Ellen moved to New York City to study at the Art Students’ League after her father’s death, they were close enough for an occasional visit. Woodrow thought, however, that marriage was not possible financially until he completed his education and had a job. He graduated with his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and received a job offer from Bryn Mawr College in 1885. The two were married in Savannah on June 24, 1885, by two Presbyterian ministers: Ellen’s grandfather and Woodrow’s father. They moved to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, keeping her little brother with them. The first of their 3 daughters, Margaret, was born in 1886; Jessie followed in 1887, and Eleanor in 1889.
By this point, Dr. Wilson was teaching as Wesleyan College in Connecticut and the following year, 1890, the 33-year-old professor went to Princeton University to serve as the chair of the Political Economy and Jurisprudence Department. In 1902 Woodrow became President of Princeton University. Ellen’s role changed markedly. Up to this point, she had served as her husband’s research associate and proofreader. She had mastered German, helped Woodrow when he struggled while learning the language, and was the foreign language translator for Woodrow’s scholarly books. She had coached him in the subjects she knew well, such as art, architecture, and literature. She had taught the girls to read before they went to school and had provided them with their religious instruction. Now as the wife of the president of Princeton, she was thrust into a prominent social role with many responsibilities. To escape from these demands, Ellen continued to paint, earning the privilege of have several one-woman shows. It is reported that the quality of her paintings compared favorably with professional art of the period.
Despite the change in her role and duties, from faculty wife to university president’s wife, Ellen and Woodrow continued to live a very simple life. Although Woodrow’s salary had certainly increased since his early teaching days at Bryn Mawr College, Ellen continued to sew her own dresses and those of her daughters in an attempt to economize so that Woodrow could have the books he wanted and the girls could have art and music lessons. She was well known at Princeton for a brown dress, her “best” dress, that she wore repeatedly to social events. Once a reporter approached her after Woodrow’s nomination for the Presidency and asked why she never wore jewels. She gave some quiet, noncommittal response. When pressed for an answer, she replied that she had no prejudice against jewels; she just didn’t have any.
In 1911, Woodrow moved from the realm of academe to the political world by winning election as governor of New Jersey. For the next two years, Ellen helped as Woodrow began thinking of running for the presidency in the 1912 election. She entertained key Democratic politicians, scanned newspapers for information, listened to him as he rehearsed his speeches, and gave him political advice. Once when Woodrow was out of town, William Jennings Bryan turned up in Princeton to give a speech. Bryan was still a major power in the Democratic Party. Ellen telegraphed Wilson to return home immediately and he just managed to get back in time to hear Bryan’s speech. Afterward, the Wilsons took Bryan out to dinner and reports indicated that Bryan was “charmed” by Ellen. During the convention, Bryan led a fight with the party regulars for control of the convention and sought the help of the presidential hopefuls, especially Wilson. Wilson’s advisors urged caution. Ellen urged Woodrow to take a stand with Bryan and the progressives. In the end, Bryan supported Wilson over the others and Woodrow went on to win the national election in November 1912.
Neither she nor Woodrow took much interest in the Washington social whirl, and their administration began without an Inaugural Ball. Although an experienced hostess, Ellen preferred small dinner parties; however, she entertained with ease at state dinners, teas, and receptions, as was expected of her. She continued to assist Woodrow by studying up on Mexico during a crisis in U.S.-Mexican relations in 1914, and she attended conferences with him. He continued to discuss policy matters with her and respected her opinion. And she continued to find time to paint despite the wedding of two daughters within six months in addition to her hostess duties. She had a studio in the White House and arranged for a skylight to be installed there in 1913.
Ellen also branched out into activities of interest to her. It was reported that she attended meetings of social workers, toured various government departments, and led the fight to have restrooms for women installed where they were lacking. But her greatest achievement was in the area of housing. Appalled by conditions among the impoverished blacks in the nation’s capital, she arranged tours for debutantes, civic leaders, Congressmen, and their wives to view the unsanitary shacks. The “Alley Bill,” also known as “Mrs. Wilson’s Bill,” passed in early August 1914.
Earlier that spring, Ellen had fallen in her bedroom. After several weeks of bed rest, she was able to make a few public appearances on behalf of the “Alley Bill.” However, she remained weak, listless, and had no appetite. In June, the family physician ordered her to bed again when it was clear that she was seriously ill. The diagnosis was Bright’s disease, a kidney disease for which there was no cure and little treatment. It was also rumored that she suffered from tuberculosis. Woodrow was distraught, spending hours by her bedside reading to her and coaxing her to eat. She died August 6, 1914, surrounded by her family and just hours after the passage of the Alley Bill. She was buried in Rome, Georgia, in her family’s plot.