Ellen Louise Axson Wilson was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1860. At age four, her family moved to Madison where her father became pastor of the Madison Presbyterian Church. In 1866 the family moved again, this time to Rome, Georgia, to join it’s First Presbyterian Church.
It was following a Sunday service in 1883 that Ellen met young Woodrow Wilson, who was in town on legal business. The two courted by correspondence and through occasional visits once Ellen began studies at the Art Students’ League in New York City. They married in June of 1885 in Savannah.
Over the next few years, Woodrow taught at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan University, during which time Ellen bore three children—all girls. In 1890, at age 33, Woodrow took a position at Princeton University as chair of Political Economy and Jurisprudence. In 1902 Ellen became first lady of Princeton University when Woodrow was elected university president. She served as research associate and foreign language translator for many of her husband’s scholarly books.
Ellen was a devoted mother who made time for her artistic talent. She established a scholarship at the Berry School near Rome for the education of underprivileged and rural mountain children. The scholarship was in honor of her brother who drowned in 1905 with his wife and young son.
In 1910 Woodrow became governor of New Jersey. Just two years later he was elected President of the United States. Ellen became America’s first activist First Lady.
As First Lady, Ellen was her husband’s most trusted advisor and strongest supporter. She used her influence in matters of importance, holding open houses and visiting government offices—particularly the Government Printing Office and the Post Office Department where she crusaded for better working conditions for all people—but for women in particular.
Ellen also led tours showing civic leaders, congressmen and their wives the poverty and substandard housing that surrounded them in the nation’s capitol. She sponsored legislation to improve the living conditions of Washington’s disadvantaged citizens. The “Alley” bill—credited to Ellen—was passed by Congress on August 6, 1914. Ellen died the same day, knowing her bill had passed. It would be one of many legacies she left behind in service to her country and its neediest citizens.
Sara Hightower Library
Rome, GA 30161
Florence Griswold Museum
96 Lyme Street
Old Lyme, CT 06371