Helen Taft Biography

Activist, Civil Rights Activist, U.S. First Lady, Women's Rights Activist(1861–1943)
Helen Taft was a schoolteacher, political adviser and U.S. First Lady who was the wife of President William Howard Taft.

Synopsis

Helen Taft was born on June 2, 1861, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went on to work as a schoolteacher before marrying William Howard Taft in 1886. An independent thinker, she became her husband’s primary political adviser and organized his presidential campaign. As first lady she established new traditions and was the first presidential partner to have her memoirs published. She died on May 22, 1943.

Childhood

Helen Taft, born Helen Louise Herron on June 2, 1861, in Cincinnati, Ohio, had politics in blood. Her father, John Williamson Herron, was a district attorney, judge and Republican Party activist. Her mother, Harriet Collins Herron, was the daughter and sister of U.S. congressmen. Helen would later recall that the only significant incident in her childhood was a visit to the White House with her parents at the invitation of President Rutherford B. Hayes, a family friend.

While music was Helen's passion while growing up, it wasn't a career option for a woman in Victorian 19th century America. Nicknamed "Nellie," Helen went to private schools before studying for one year at the University of Cincinnati. Afterward, she taught briefly at a school for boys in Cincinnati. She met "Will" Taft at a sledding party in the winter of 1880, and after a long courtship, the couple married in 1886. Taft was a young lawyer with aspirations to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but Helen had other ideas.

Promoting Her Husband's Political Career

Helen Taft was her husband's best advocate as he worked his way through state and federal political appointments. In 1890, while William Taft was serving as solicitor general, Helen established connections in Washington's high social circles. After the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley appointed Taft governor of the Philippines. Excited that the appointment would give her husband valuable experience as a chief executive, Helen traveled with him, and made an effort to learn the Filipino language and culture.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt offered Taft the position of secretary of war, and Helen encouraged him to accept, seeing the job as a possible stepping stone to the White House. In 1908, after Roosevelt decided not to run for re-election, Helen met with him privately and convinced him to support her husband for the presidency. During the 1908 presidential election campaign, Helen became Taft's chief advisor, consulting him on how to position himself, sometimes even suggesting the language he used in his speeches. In November 1908, Taft won the election against Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

U.S. First Lady

After only two months in the White House, Helen suffered a stroke that left her temporarily unable to speak. With indomitable will, she worked her way back to health. Upon her return, she concentrated on the social image of the administration, organizing lavish dinners and functions. She also continued her interest in politics, opposing prohibition, and promoting women's suffrage and rights for factory workers. Perhaps Helen Taft's greatest legacy was arranging the planting of 3,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin, south and west of Independence Mall, in Washington, D.C.

After William Howard Taft lost his bid for re-election in 1912, the couple moved to Connecticut, where Taft taught law at Yale University. In 1921, when Taft was confirmed chief justice of the Supreme Court, the couple returned to Washington, D.C., where Helen would remain until her husband's death in 1931. After returning to the nation's capital, Helen traveled and supported moderate Republican causes, as well as her son Robert's career as a U.S. senator.

Helen Taft died on May 22, 1943, in Washington, D.C. She is buried next to her husband at the Arlington National Cemetery.

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