Ellen Louise Axson Wilson
May 15, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia
August 6, 1914, in Washington, D.C.
Ellen Wilson was 52 years old when she became first lady upon the inauguration of her husband, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913. Unfortunately, during the second year of Wilson’s first term, Ellen contracted the incurable kidney disorder known as Bright’s Disease. The Wilson’s oldest daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, assumed the responsibilities of first lady throughout Ellen’s illness and until her death. When Ellen died in 1914, Margaret left the White House to pursue her singing career, and so the president’s cousin Helen Bone, who was the only woman left living in the White House, assisted with the social functions until Wilson remarried in 1915.
Ellen was a talented painter who continued to pursue her art even during her tenure as first lady. She created a painting studio in the White House and sold some of her paintings so that she could donate the profits to charity. As first lady Ellen followed in the footsteps of Lucy Hayes and used her position to advocate for a particular cause. Though Lucy had selected Temperance as an issue important to her, Ellen identified the shameful state of housing for the poor in Washington, D.C., as a severe problem that needed to be addressed. Not only did Ellen raise awareness of the problem, she also actively lobbied Congress to improve the housing conditions. Another precedent set by Ellen was that she and her three daughters regularly attended the president’s addresses to Congress. This was the first time that family members sought to be included in these events.
Ellen and Woodrow loved each other deeply and respected each other’s talents and opinions. Woodrow once wrote to his wife, “It would be hard to say in what part of my life and character you have not been a supreme and beneficent influence. You are all-powerful in my development.”
Regarding Ellen’s artistic talent, The New York Times reported, “Mrs. Wilson’s paintings show her to be a real lover of nature and the possessor of a fine faculty for interpreting it.”