Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies. By Kristie Miller. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. 267 pp.
Kristie Miller begins Ellen and Edith by remarking that Woodrow Wilson "is among the most admired presidents in our nation's history" (p. xi)--a principal justification for writing this account of Wilson's two first ladies. Even if Wilson has recently become more reviled than admired in some quarters, the book is not any less justified or useful. One-half of Miller's subject--Edith Boiling Wilson--is one of the most well-known and controversial first ladies in American history, and so Miller's account is useful in bringing fresh light on an important topic. Wilson's first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, who died just eighteen month's into Wilson's first term, has received substantially less attention from historians, yet Miller devotes significant attention to her as well. In so doing, the author tells a story that has not really been told before, and even if her suggestion that Ellen had an impact that lasted beyond her husband's administration is not fully persuasive, the author does capture Ellen's considerable importance to, and influence on, Wilson himself.
While Wilson is most known for his presidency, for his stewardship of the country during the First World War, and for his idealistic vision of how to secure a lasting peace, he was also a prolific and influential academic prior to entering politics. His hefty volume of work on the theory of government and administration, developed over more than two decades as a professional academic, had a profound influence upon his political life. It is in tapping into Ellen's role in the development of Wilson as an intellectual that Miller hits on Ellen's principal contribution. Miller calls Ellen the "scholar's helpmeet," and in doing so, accurately expresses Wilson's intense dependence upon the support of women. This dependence existed not simply in the conventional sense, but even more so, as Miller explains, in Wilson's need for women as confidantes and enthusiasts for his ideas. While Miller does not go down this road, Wilson clearly saw himself as some kind of spokesperson for the spirit of humanity, and he seems to have needed the kind of affirmation of this vision that Ellen and others provided.
That Wilson had a deep dependence upon this kind of support from women is further evidenced by the fact that Ellen's attentiveness, as considerable as it was, proved insufficient...