Woodrow Wilson and the Suffragettes

Woodrow Wilson liked women – and he liked intelligent women.

WW: A Boy and His Family

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) grew up surrounded by three doting women: his mother, Jessie Woodrow – and two older sisters. A younger brother didn’t come along until “Tommy” was ten.

Woodrow bonded with his father from the start, the women in his family pampered and encouraged and loved him dearly. That woman-nurturing became essential to his well being. Throughout his life, his health was always affected by his emotional well (or ill-) being, and in constant need of woman-tenderness. The family always believed that Woodrow was destined for greatness. He may have believed them.

WW: Southern Gentleman

Wilson was born in Virginia, but he grew up in South Carolina and Georgia in the years following the Civil War. (The NJ-connection came much later.)

True to the culture of his upbringing, he was raised as a Southern gentleman: polite, deferential to women, respectful – with the usual manly-protectiveness. Women were the fair sex. The weaker sex. The ones to be treated with a velvet glove. He discovered his true vocation of theoretical government, or “political science” today, and at 25, still studying for an academic life, he met the Georgia peach who would become his wife three years later.

Wilson and the First Mrs. Wilson

Ellen Axson was a daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Wilson was immediately attracted, and they began a courtship, mostly by correspondence. During that exchange of long letters, he came to appreciate the intelligence, wisdom and intuitive understanding of his intended.

He also came to depend on her subtle assistance throughout their 30-year marriage. He never wrote a book, delivered a lecture or speech without her input and suggestions, most of which were, according to him, insightful and valuable.

WW: Charmer

Prof. Wilson and the women in his life.

Wilson was fast-tracked and popular professor. His classes and lectures were always well attended, thus, he was frequently invited to give special programs and seminars at other colleges and universities. With three daughters of his own, plus a house full of family members as long-term houseguests, he needed the extra money.

Ellen Wilson, understanding his need for a captive audience (including bright and appreciative women) and aware of her own societal disinclination, generously encouraged him to “go solo” to the rounds of dinners and receptions that accompany visiting lecturers.

Woodrow Wilson, at his best, was a charmer. Ladies were bowled over by his wit as well as his intelligence. He frequently introduced his lady-admirers to Ellen, who usually became friendly with them as well. She was, in a more subdued way, a charmer, as well.

As husband to a talented and intelligent woman, blessed with three intelligent and educated daughters, it would stand to reason that Wilson would enthusiastically espouse woman suffrage, but his feelings were tepid, at best.

Ellen died less than eighteen months after his inauguration, and his daughters were now grown and living their own lives. Any strong influence they might have exerted was no longer available to him.

Wilson and the Second Mrs. Wilson

His second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, who he married fifteen months after Ellen’s death and fifteen years younger than the President, was a Virginian who opposed suffrage, traditionally believing a woman provided far more influence behind the scenes, than by a constitutional amendment giving them the vote.

Woman’s Suffrage: 20th Century

The Ladies Remember Themselves.

Votes for women was not a new issue. Abigail Adams exhorted her husband to “remember the ladies” at the very beginning of the United States as a nation. He didn’t pay attention, and a hundred years passed before the ladies decided to remember themselves.

There was a “suffrage movement” years before the Civil War, to include less “lunatic fringe” subjects as women’s legal rights, property ownership, and higher learning. Women were active in abolition and temperance issues. They also went west with the pioneers, proving themselves a man’s equal in building a life.

Women rising in the workforce (IA Dept. of Cultural Affairs)

By the early 20th century, women were healthier, for one thing. More athletic and physically stronger. More and more of them were well educated – and not merely to domestic arts like their grandmothers. Many held meaningful jobs outside the home. And men, including important and powerful men, began giving them due (or at least grudging) respect.

WW: The Women

But Wilson was a Southern gentleman to the core, and an idealist to the core. The thought of women marching, and parading and petitioning upset him. Women didn’t behave like that. At least, they shouldn’t behave like that. It was, if nothing else, “unladylike.” Especially with a World War going on.

But march they did! All over the country – and in particular, outside the White House for all to see, under the nose of the President.

Protesting at the White House (LOC)

When it rained, the impassioned women marched in the rain, getting drenched in the process. The courteous President Wilson sent staff members with umbrellas for them. When it snowed and the winter temperatures dropped below freezing, President Wilson sent hot chocolate for them. That was the way he was raised.

But war or no war, whether they should or shouldn’t receive the vote (which by the mid-nineteen-teens had already been ratified by several states), it didn’t matter. Women paraded up and down in front of the White House, and when threatened with arrest – or even jail, were happy to chain themselves to the fence, literally daring the police to take them to jail. And they went gladly!

Idealism, intellectuality and confusion do not mix and Wilson was confused. The brilliant professor found it difficult to wrap his intellectual mind around women who no longer seemed to defer to men.

He finally came around to more than lip-service after World War I, and signed the amendment giving women the right to vote – but he also stated that nothing – nothing – gave him more grief as President, than the women.


Berg, A. Scott – Wilson – G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Heckscher, August – Woodrow Wilson: A Biography – Scribner’s – 1991



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3 Responses to Woodrow Wilson and the Suffragettes

  1. Feather Foster, Thanks for sharing this. Woodrow Wilson’s complicated relationship with the suffragists (the term American women preferred) is explored in my programs “Pickets & Persistence: War Service & Women’s Suffrage” and “Reclaiming Our Voice: NJ’s Role in the Fight for Women Suffrage.” — Carol Simon Levin TellingHerStories http://www.tellingherstories.com

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