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Woodrow Wilson’s family in 1912, before entering the White House. From left to right: Jessie Wilson, Margaret Wilson, Ellen Wilson, and Nell Wilson.

Library of Congress

American women did not yet possess the right to vote when Woodrow Wilson was elected to his first term in office as President of the United States on November 5, 1912. Despite the efforts of suffrage activists, there was little reason to hope that they would attain that right anytime soon. Although he was an intellectual and a man of high ideals, Wilson opposed women’s suffrage. It was doubly ironic, then, that during his two terms as president women would attain degrees of prominence and influence in the White House that they had never known before—and that by the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on August 18, 1920, while Wilson was still president, women did indeed achieve the right to vote.

Six remarkable women accompanied Wilson to the White House on March 4, 1913, and a seventh would rise to prominence two years later. First among them was the president’s first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson. Born on May 15, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia, she was a well-educated woman with a strong intellect complementing that of Woodrow Wilson, whom she met in 1883. After a short but passionate courtship—memorialized in hundreds of letters that survive today—but a lengthy engagement, they were married in Savannah on June 24, 1885. In the years that followed she proved every bit as ambitious as her husband, supporting his political career and assisting in his education (she was more widely read than he). Ellen even took over the management of Woodrow’s complex finances, preparing all of his business correspondence and buying and selling stocks and bonds—on his behalf, but under her name.1

Ellen and Woodrow had three daughters: Margaret, born on April 16, 1886; Jessie, born on August 28, 1887; and Eleanor (Nell), born on October 16, 1889. All were single adults when their father entered the White House, and the Washington, D.C., media found them fascinating. Reporters followed the women everywhere—to shows, banquets, and especially when they participated in equestrian activities at the Washington Riding and Hunt Club. A dispatch of April 15, 1913, reprinted in newspapers throughout the country described how Nell snatched her suitcase from porters while heading for the train, ignoring their calls to “Wait a minute!” “Miss Eleanor didn’t ‘wait a minute,’” the report continued; “She just jauntily continued her way, swinging the suit case, which didn’t seem a bit of a load to the youngest daughter of the White House Family.”

Ellen Wilson’s secretary Helen Woodrow Bones (left); Dr. Cary Grayson; and Nell Wilson at a horse show in 1913.

Library of Congress

The “President’s daughters have already got the reputation of being most independent young women, abundantly able to look out for themselves on all occasions and quite willing to do so,” readers were told.2 They demonstrated their independence by their actions throughout Wilson’s two terms as president and beyond. Although Ellen and Woodrow both thought their daughters far too young for romance, let alone marriage, Jessie and Nell each became engaged early in the president’s first term, and each got married in the White House. Jessie married Frank Sayre, a New York lawyer, on November 25, 1913. Nell married William Gibbs McAdoo—Woodrow Wilson’s campaign manager and Treasury Secretary, and a widower twenty-six years her senior—on May 7, 1914.3 Jessie later became active in the League of Women Voters; Nell, who divorced her husband in 1934, became a successful author who wrote a book about her parents. As for Margaret, she refused to get married but was a fine soprano vocalist who performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and sang at Red Cross benefits during World War I. She later moved to India and became a Hindu nun.

Two other professional women were prominent in the Wilson White House, both entering as secretaries to the first lady. Helen Woodrow Bones most interested the media. Born in 1874 in Rome, Georgia, she was a first cousin of Woodrow Wilson’s. Although hailed as a tantalizing beauty when she entered Georgia society in the 1890s, she had remained unmarried and moved north to work in the publishing industry in Chicago and New York. She loved her work and agreed to serve as Ellen Wilson’s secretary with some reluctance. The other secretary, Isabella (Belle) Hagner, was a Washington, D.C., native born in 1876, and had previously served First Lady Edith Roosevelt. More tough-minded and businesslike than the bookish Miss Bones, Hagner was nevertheless affable and with a booming laugh that delighted White House guests.4

Belle Hagner, Ellen Wilson’s social secretary, in 1915.

Library of Congress

Newspaper reporters frequently became confused over which woman served as “secretary” and which as “social secretary” to Ellen Wilson. Hagner was officially the social secretary, but in fact their duties were more or less interchangeable. Both were omnipresent at social events in and outside the White House, although Bones—perhaps deemed more visually presentable than the stocky Hagner—appeared more frequently at public venues, for example regularly joining the Wilson daughters at the Washington Riding and Hunt Club. Part of their job was simply chaperoning the young women; Ellen Wilson preferred that they dance conservatively, but on one occasion Bones had been unable to prevent them from “trotting nimbly and even doing the tango in an extreme style.” Both Hagner and Bones nevertheless engaged in heavy clerical and administrative work, and the latter took over management of the president’s business correspondence.5

Helen Bones would play another vital role—that of introducing the president to his second wife. Ellen Wilson died on August 6, 1914, devastating her husband. With the marriage and departure of his two younger daughters and Margaret’s interest in singing, heavy responsibility fell on Bones and Hagner not just to help manage administration but to keep the president from withdrawing within himself. Dr. Cary Grayson, one of the president’s military aides and a close confidante, became concerned at Bones’s isolation in the White House with the gloomy president, and introduced her to widow Edith Bolling Galt (born on October 15, 1872, in Wytheville, Virginia) as a potential companion. The two not only became friends, but Bones introduced Galt to Woodrow Wilson, who quickly fell in love with her.6

Edith Galt, Woodrow Wilson’s future second wife, circa 1913.

Library of Congress

Wilson and Galt were married on December 18, 1915, shocking some observers who thought that he had not observed a sufficiently long period of mourning. Their marriage proved portentous. Less intellectual than Ellen Wilson, Edith was nevertheless energetic and determined. Under her guidance, work on remaking the East Garden—begun by Ellen and another notable woman, celebrated landscape designer Beatrix Farrand—was completed. She also rearranged many of the furnishings in the White House, including the Lincoln bed. Beloved by the White House staff, Edith Wilson also took a firmer hand in household management, which became all the more necessary as Belle Hagner left to get married in 1915 and Helen Bones went to New York to resume her literary work in 1918.7

Edith Wilson’s most important contribution to the history of the White House and of the United States, however, came after the president—exhausted by his campaigning for the League of Nations—suffered a series of severe strokes in the autumn of 1919. His recovery was excruciatingly slow, and for many months the first lady maintained complete control over access to the president, whose condition was at first concealed from the media. As her role became better known in the spring of 1920, one newspaper called her “one of the foremost statesmen in Washington,” while another proclaimed that she deserved “the greatest deference and admiration as ‘Mrs. Wilson, the acting President.’” Even as Woodrow Wilson became better able to take up his political duties later that year, she maintained a measure of influence in the White House not seen before or since from a first lady.8

It was in this atmosphere that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution—fruit of the work of thousands of women over many years—enshrined the right of women to vote. By this point the president, who had bristled at suffragist demonstrations in front of the White House during World War I—no longer opposed the measure. Over his two terms as president he had been surrounded by exceptional women whose accomplishments—thanks to their prominence on the public stage—had also been showcased to the country.

This article was originally published March 21, 2017

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Kristie Miller, Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), 5-10; Helen Woodrow Bones to Robert Weeks, July 10, 1914, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress.
  2. The Monroe Journal (North Carolina), April 15, 1913.
  3. William Seale, The President’s House: A History (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2008), 2:46-48.
  4. Helen Woodrow Bones to Ellen Wilson, July 26, 1912, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress; Miller, Ellen and Edith, 68-69; Priscilla Roosevelt, Introduction: Memoirs of the First White House Social Secretary Isabella Hagner (https://www.whitehousehistory.... Times-Democrat (New Orleans), April 6, 1913; Miller, Ellen and Edith, 81; Helen Woodrow Bones correspondence with Robert Weeks, 1913-1919, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress.
  5. Seale, The President’s House, 2:54-55.
  6. Selae, The President’s House, 2:59; Woodrow Wilson to Robert Weeks, August 4, 1919, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress.
  7. Phyllis Lee Levin, Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House (New York: Scribner, 2001), 429.

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