Helen Herron "Nellie" Taft was the wife of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States of America. She was an ambitious woman of high intellect and great conviction. She encouraged her husband's political career even though he preferred a career in judiciary. She welcomed each progression in her husband's political career. Her political and social connections played a major role in winning the requisite support for her husband’s candidature. She was the first wife of a President to accompany the President on the Inaugural Day ride. She is known to be the only woman who served as both, the first lady and the wife of the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Even though hear health deteriorated after a heart stroke that she suffered just two months after entering the White House but her efforts in administration and management of the White House is well-known.
Childhood & Early Life
Helen Taft was born on 2nd June, 1861 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to John Williamson Herron and Harriet Collins Herron.
Her father, a district attorney, judge and Republican Party activist was at good terms with the then President due to a law partnership with him.
She was the fifth out of the ten siblings and called ‘Nellie’ during childhood.
At the age of six, she was enrolled in Miss Nourse School, Cincinnati, for primary education. She remained there till the age of ten where she was trained in various subjects like history, basic science, arithmetic, mythology etc.
It was during primary education that her inclination towards music and art grew under the guidance of George Schneider at the Nourse School.
She learnt German, Latin and Greek along with other subjects while in the secondary education phase.
Post her university education from the University of Cincinnati, Nellie worked as a teacher for two private schools.
In 1882, she began teaching French at Fredin's School, following which she took a regular job at White-Sykes School for Boys, a grammar school in Cincinnati, Ohio.
It was only in 1877 during a family visit to the White House that she aspired to become the first lady.
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Post marriage, Nellie Taft offered voluntarily teaching services in sewing and drawing as part of her mother- in-laws’s kindergarten movement in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, she also worked on art projects focusing on kindergarten learning.
In 1893, Nellie Taft could professionally pursue her love for music after becoming the president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Association which she managed single handedly while her husband travelled a lot as a circuit court judge.
She was a continuous support to her husband’s career by socially connecting with influential people and pushing her husband to take President Benjamin Harrison’s offer for Federal Circuit Court Judge in 1892. In all this, Nellie Taft was finding an opportunity to fulfill her childhood aspiration of becoming the first lady.
When her husband was made the Governor-General of Philippine Islands, she shifted to Manilla, where she initiated a program, “Drops of Milk”, a nutritional program for infants after.
Nellie Taft earned respect of the people as she learnt about the culture and languages of different regions and promoted natives participation at social events.
It was only on her pestering that Taft accepted President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer of the War Secretary (1904-1909) and then shifted to Washington where she tried her level best for winning the President’s support for her husband’s candidature for the President.
In the year 1908, she tried her best to get maximum support for her husband, thereby helping him create an identity of his own. She was in short the backend of all campaigning William did.
Finally in November 1908, her husband William won the Presidential election against Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Nellie became the first First Lady to join the inaugural parade of the President when Roosevelt denied company to William Taft till the White House.
Just two months after entering the White House, Nellie suffered a stroke and developed a speech deformity, which put a limit on her public interactions. After a recovery phase of a year, she was back but spent her majority time on household management and social events and a little bit of politics.
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In 1912, her husband William Taft’s sought re-election but got defeated in the same. After this, the couple moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Nellie resorted to writing and developing interest in theatre. They stayed there till 1921 after which William Taft became the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and they were back to Washington, D.C.
Post her husband’s death in 193, she spent time travelling and exploring. She used to spend winters in South Carolina, spring in Washington D.C. and summers in Quebec. Her return to Cincinnati was marked only for May Festivals in the city or any musical event
She made significant contribution towards the development of the West Potomac Park. The plantation of approx 3000 cherry blossoms all around the park area (Tidal Basin, south and west of Independence Mall, in Washington, D.C.) where the musical concerts took place and people irrespective of race gathered to enjoy it.
Within 11 days of becoming the First Lady, Nellie started to work on the federal working conditions and strove with the cabinet members to improvise them especially for the women workers.
Promoting herself as a “Qualified Suffragist”, she proposed the idea of women voting but only for the ones having considerable knowledge about politics.
Nellie Taft was the first First Lady to publish an autobiography ‘Recollections of Full Years’ in 1914.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1886, at the age of 25, she married William Howard Taft who was a lawyer in Cincinnati and whom she had met at a party in 1880.
The couple was blessed with three children - Robert Taft (Republican Senator from Ohio), Helen Taft (women's rights activist) and Charles Taft (co-founder of the World Council of Churches).
Helen Taft died in Washington, D.C. on May 22, 1943. She was the first wife of an American President to be cremated at Arlington National Cemetery.