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Ellen and Edith

Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies

Kristie Miller

New in Paperback: April 2015
360 pages, 22 photographs, 5-1/2 x 9-1⁄4
Modern First Ladies
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-2105-7, $24.95(s)

Also available in cloth:
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1737-1, $34.95

book cover imageThe wives of Woodrow Wilson were strikingly different from each other. Ellen Axson Wilson, quiet and intellectual, died after just a year and a half in the White House and is thought to have had little impact on history. Edith Bolling Wilson was flamboyant and confident but left a legacy of controversy. Yet, as Kristie Miller shows, each played a significant role in the White House.

Miller presents a rich and complex portrait of Wilson’s wives, one that compels us to reconsider our understanding of both women. Ellen comes into clear focus as an artist and intellectual who dedicated her talents to an ambitious man whose success enabled her to have a significant influence on the institution of the first lady. Miller’s assessment of Edith Wilson goes beyond previous flattering accounts and critical assessments. She examines a woman who overstepped her role by hiding her husband’s serious illness to allow him to remain in office. But, Miller concludes, Edith was acting as she knew her husband would have wished.

Miller explains clearly how these women influenced Woodrow Wilson’s life and career. But she keeps her focus on the women themselves, placing their concerns and emotions in the foreground. She presents a balanced appraisal of each woman’s strengths and weaknesses. She argues for Ellen’s influence not only on her husband but on subsequent first ladies. She strives for an understanding of the controversial Edith, who saw herself as Wilson’s principal advisor and, some would argue, acted as shadow president after his stroke. Miller also helps us better appreciate the role of Mary Allen Hulbert Peck, whose role as Wilson’s “playmate” complemented that of Ellen—but was intolerable to Edith.

Especially because Woodrow Wilson continues to be one of the most-studied American presidents, the task of recognizing and understanding the influence of his wives is an important one. Drawing extensively on the Woodrow Wilson papers and newly available material, Miller’s book answers that call with a sensitive and compelling narrative of how private and public emotions interacted at a pivotal moment in the history of first ladies.

“Miller’s text is filled with rich detail about how Wilson lived and interacted with his two wives . . . [That said,] Miller provides readers with important insights into Woodrow Wilson’s relationships that earlier works, which focused solely on one of the women in his life, have not.”—The Historian

“Eye-opening. . . . I had always thought of Wilson as a bit of a cold fish, an aloof figure and devout Presbyterian who had a Ph.D. in history and political science, and read books like Abel Hendy Jones Greenidge’s Handbook of Greek Constitutional History (1896). All of which is true, but he was also intensely romantic.”—Weekly Standard

“Miller explores how Woodrow Wilson’s two wives influenced his time in office, drawing a close connection between personal struggle and political action. Dying of kidney failure just 18 months after Wilson’s first inauguration, his wife Ellen Axson had been “quiet, intellectual, dutiful, and frugal.” An intensely loving partner who struggled with depression, Ellen tolerated and even abetted Wilson’s intense, possibly sexual, relationship with another woman. She was also the first presidential wife to lobby for her favorite cause: urban renewal. Fifteen months after Ellen’s death, Wilson married a “flamboyant, confident, and fashionable” widow, Edith Bolling Galt, who would become infamous for usurping executive power after Wilson was debilitated by a stroke during his second term.”—Publishers Weekly

“In this compelling book Miller has given us a rich portrait of Woodrow Wilson’s two wives, telling family stories that became deeply significant to the course of the twentieth century.”—John Milton Cooper, author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

“In felicitous prose, Miller brings to life two remarkable and very different first ladies. Readers will never view Wilson or his presidency the same way again.”—Stacy A. Cordery, author of Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker

“A fascinating, original contrast of two first ladies and with it a fresh view of their complex husband. An authoritative dual biography.”—Michael McGerr, author of A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920

“Woodrow Wilson desperately needed adoring women to warm up his austere personality and to advise him. One of America’s most important presidents and the historic defender of internationalism and the right of self-determination, Wilson could not be a great man without feminine support. . . . Deeply researched and graced with balanced judgment, this is a book you must read to understand Wilson and the twentieth century.”—Kathleen M. Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life

KRISTIE MILLER is a research associate at the Southwest Center, University of Arizona, and author of Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman and Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880–1944. She is also coeditor of A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway, 1904–1953, and We Have Come to Stay: American Women and Political Parties, 1880–1960.


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