Ellen Axson Wilson was the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady of the United States from 1913 until her death in 1914.
“I am naturally the most unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me.” Mrs. Wilson was writing to thank President Taft for advice concerning the mansion he was leaving. Two years as first lady of New Jersey had given her valuable experience in the duties of a woman whose time belongs to the people. She always played a public role with dignity and grace but never learned to enjoy it.
Those who knew her in the White House described her as calm and sweet, a motherly woman, pretty and refined. Her soft Southern voice had kept its slow drawl through many changes of residence.
Ellen Louise Axson grew up in Rome, Georgia, where her father, the Reverend S.E. Axson, was a Presbyterian minister. Thomas Woodrow Wilson first saw her when he was about six and she only a baby. In 1883, as a young lawyer from Atlanta, “Tommy” visited Rome and met “Miss Ellie Lou” again — a beautiful girl now, keeping house for a bereaved father. He thought, “what splendid laughing eyes!” Despite their instant attraction they did not marry until 1885, because she was unwilling to leave her heartbroken father.
That same year Bryn Mawr College offered Wilson a teaching position at an annual salary of $1,500. He and his bride lived near the campus, keeping her little brother with them. Humorously insisting that her own children must not be born Yankees, she went to relatives in Georgia for the birth of Margaret in 1886 and Jessie in 1887. But Eleanor was born in Connecticut, while Wilson was teaching at Wesleyan University.
His distinguished career at Princeton began in 1890, bringing his wife new social responsibilities. From such demands she took refuge, as always, in art. She had studied briefly in New York, and the quality of her paintings compares favorably with professional art of the period. She had a studio with a skylight installed at the White House in 1913, and found time for painting despite the weddings of two daughters within six months and the duties of hostess for the nation.
The Wilsons had preferred to begin the administration without an inaugural ball, and the First Lady’s entertainments were simple; but her unaffected cordiality made her parties successful. In their first year she convinced her scrupulous husband that it would be perfectly proper to invite influential legislators to a private dinner, and when such an evening led to agreement on a tariff bill, he told a friend, “You see what a wise wife I have!”
Descendant of slave owners, Ellen Wilson lent her prestige to the cause of improving housing in the capital’s Negro slums. Visiting dilapidated alleys, she brought them to the attention of debutantes and Congressmen. Her death spurred passage of a remedial bill she had worked for. Her health failing slowly from Bright’s disease, she died serenely on August 6, 1914. On the day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Wilson “later” that she hoped he would marry again; she murmured at the end, “…take good care of my husband.” Struggling grimly to control his grief, Wilson took her to Rome for burial among her kin.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Ellen Axson Wilson’s spouse, Woodrow Wilson.