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Cool Women in History: Nellie Taft

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism about, well, Roosevelt, Taft, and journalists (as the name would so cleverly imply).  Doris Kearns Goodwin was actually my university’s commencement speaker the year I graduated, though I don’t really remember much about it except for how hot it was.

Anyway, I’ve been interested in TR for a while after reading about his time as the police commissioner of NYC in Richard Zachs’ Island of Vice.  He was a Victorian in every sense of the world; upset with himself because he married again after his first wife died, for example, and trying to get rid of the brothels and saloons with the vigor and energy that only a Victorian mixed with a Puritan could muster.

But I do like his brand of Republicanism.  If he was running today, I’d totally vote for him.  Conserve the resources.  Get rid of sweatshops.  Balance corporate freedom with humanity and responsibility.


So one of the things I’m loving about this book is learning about the inestimable Helen Herron (Nellie) Taft, wife to William Howard Taft (President after Roosevelt and famous for not a lot except being really fat and possibly getting stuck in a bathtub) (though it didn’t actually happen).

Nellie was a badass.

She grew up in Cincinnati Ohio, and her parents were upper-middle-class-trying-to-be-upper-class.  She grew up around great wealth, but her father struggled to pay for his sons to go to college, and when it came to be her turn, he said they couldn’t afford it, despite her desperate pleas.

The idea of finding a husband and settling down didn’t appeal to her.  She had been to the White House with her father, a law partner of Rutheford B. Hayes once for an official dinner, and she had decided that she was much more suited to living an exciting life with lots of intellectual challenges than simply being a nice wifey.

She was musical, and practiced the piano 5 hours a day, eventually going to a music college and then she taught at a boys school, much to the chagrin of her mother, who thought it would ruin her socially.  It had the opposite effect though, making her a person of interest to all her friends.

She started a literacy Salon where each week she would meet with some friends, and they would talk about books.  The young, jovial, recently-back-in-Cincinnati-after-graduating-from-Yale lawyer Will Taft came to one of her Salons, and the two became good friends.  It wasn’t love at first sight, but rather a growing friendship where they discussed ideas, and Will enjoyed being challenged by her.  Eventually he realized that he was in love with her and proposed, which she declined at first.  Taft wasn’t one to give in easily, and he eventually persuaded her that he would be supportive of her intellectual interests, and not force her into some old fashioned stereotypical role of what a wife should be.  She obviously was persuaded, and agreed to an engagement.

When first engaged to Will, he wrote her a letter in which he wondered whether they would ever be in Washington in any official capacity, and then remembered that of course they would – when she became Secretary of the Treasury.

Nellie was the chief driving force behind Will Taft’s political rise; she was his campaign strategist and manager, and pushed him further than he ever would have wanted to go on his own.  If she had lived today, she probably would be the one running for President.

Sadly her tenure as First Lady was disappointing to her, as she had a stroke in 1909 and was paralyzed on one side.  She eventually regained some of her capacity for speech and handled some of her duties again, but she would never be the same.

Her enduring legacy is something that makes Washington famous now – the 3000 cherry trees she planted as First Lady, which blossom every year and are the focus of a huge festival.