It was evident that she had a quality of greatness, yet her life is never imprinted in the history books like Mary Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt.
Helen "Nellie" Herron Taft was the wife of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States. She was the First Lady from 1909 to 1913, and by the time she moved into the White House, she was well-traveled and spoke four languages. Nellie was known as the First Lady of many "firsts."
In my research of First Ladies, I came across Nellie Taft and immediately realized she has been completely overlooked as a memorable First Lady. As I read a few of her biographies and listened to some podcasts about her life, it was evident that she had a quality of greatness, yet her life is never imprinted in the history books like Mary Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt. In my opinion, she could be considered the "Hillary Rodham Clinton" of the early 20th century.
Nellie was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1861, and was a graduate of the Cincinnati College of Music. She wanted to continue her music education, but her mother did not approve and wanted Nellie to pursue the traditional life of a debutant and find a husband. Though, in her diary, she wrote about her one true goal. The Herron's were a politically connected family and it was Nellie's goal to be in the White House.
Nellie was an unconventional young woman. She did not want to be tied down by a man that would love her in the traditional way. She wrote of finding her perfect match that would one day become the president. She went against her parent's wishes and took a position as a teacher at an all boy's school. It was challenging for her, but surprisingly she found an outlet by going to beer halls and sampling the hops, smoking cigarettes, and gambling.
Nellie met William Taft when she was a teenager, but their romance did not evolve until he attended the literary salons she founded in 1884 to engage in political and intellectual discussions. As William wooed Nellie, she kept him at a distance until he spoke of her intellect and less of the traditional reasons to be married. They were married in 1886.
Early in their marriage, Nellie Taft distinguished herself as founder and president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Association. She had a knack for management and was responsible for the Taft finances. Nellie was able to take several vacations to Europe as well as build and furnish the Taft home in Cincinnati on William's meager salary of $4,000 a year.
In 1908, the current president, Theodore Roosevelt, announced he would not run for re-election. Nellie met with Mr. Roosevelt and convinced him to support her husband as the next president. Nellie became William's campaign manager, wrote his speeches, and was his chief advisor. She was relentless in her pursuit of this lofty goal.
However, Nellie also carried resentment towards the Roosevelts because she believed that Edith and Alice never truly respected her. In a biography, The Unconventional First Lady written by Carl Sferrazza, he cites several diary entries from Nellie regarding her mistrust and often loathing of the Roosevelt family. Nellie was instrumental in removing many of Roosevelt's appointees even though their agreement for his support was to keep his political platform. In addition, Sferrazza described Nellie as a rueful woman that resented her middle-class upbringing and at times plotted against the high society she yearned to belong.
Even though the Taft's gave the impression of being feminist and fought for equal rights for all citizens, they made exceptions to these rights and limited them to the wealthy and influential people. William was at times characterized as a conservative feminist. Which by definition means that he believed women should be educated and paid equally - but they would end up married with children to raise and not using their education in the way it was intended. It wasn't until their daughter sought to for her right to vote. Helen Taft was a lot like her parents. She earned a law degree from George Washington University.
A stroke in 1909 sent Nellie's unrelenting forward thinking to come to complete halt. She slowly saw her way back from the stroke, but she never was the same. She spent her years in the White House on her social image, with lavish dinners and functions. Her claim to fame was riding next to her husband back to the White House after the inauguration. Planting the Japanese cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin. She was the first First Lady to bring alcohol into the White House, which was very controversial as it was just before the temperance era. She never gave up drinking, smoking cigarettes, or playing poker. Yet, there is no evidence that Nellie had a drinking problem.
William lost his bid for re-election and as he frequently claimed, "politics makes me sick." He returned to Yale University and became a professor of constitutional law and in 1921 he was appointed by President Harding chief justice of the United States, his life-long ambition.