Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era

Columbus Alive | April 14, 2005
Why is Ohio Governor Bob Taft named Bob Taft? His first name comes from his father Robert Taft, who got it from his father, also Robert Taft. But where did that Robert Taft get it?

No one in either his father President William Howard Taft’s or his mother Nellie Herron Taft’s family was named Robert before he was born. In fact, the Ohio judge who would one day become president wanted to name his first son after his own father, Alphonso Taft.

But according to her biographer, Carl Sferrazza Anthony, “Nellie insisted that it be ‘Robert,’ and so it was… It seems as if Nellie insisted on the name to affirm the fact that motherhood was not a sign she was transforming into a docile wife.”

As with seemingly all disagreements between the 27th president and his first lady, Nellie prevailed. Indeed, the very fact that William Taft became president seems to be as much Nellie’s doing as his.

In Sferrazza’s new Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era (William Morrow), he documents the Cincinnati-born Nellie’s early decision to marry a man who would one day be elected president of the United States, which in the pre-suffrage 19th century was the equivalent of a young woman deciding she would grow up to be president.

Nellie apparently found her man in William, though he seems to have disagreed—his well-documented life’s ambition was to be chief justice of U.S. Supreme Court, which he believed was the most powerful position in the country. Nellie constantly tried to steer him away from the bench and toward the White House, though rather than a Lady Macbeth type, Anthony paints her as more of a partner and co-president, along the lines of Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton.

As for the transformation into a docile wife, that’s a fate Nellie avoided, no matter how many children she had and how many gowns and tiaras she wore. She began drinking, smoking and playing poker at a young age; she worked a full-time job to support herself as a young woman; she was the first first lady to sit next to her husband at his inauguration, and the only one to try her hand at surfing.

It’s hard to pin the word “feminist” onto a woman who lived long before the word came into its current usage, but that’s exactly what she was.

As a young woman, she worried to her diary about the prospect of marrying, as it would mean giving up so much of her own life, and she kept William hanging for quite a while before eventually accepting his proposal. Much of her youth seems to have been spent in frustration and depression over the perceived uselessness of her life as a fairly well-off woman, for whom work was frowned upon.

“Of course a woman is happier who marries,” Anthony says she wrote in her diary, “if she marries exactly right, but how many do?” Too few, it would seem, but Nellie apparently married exactly right.

Anthony will be in Columbus on Sunday, April 17, to discuss his book and Nellie Taft at 2 p.m. at the Ohio Historical Society (click to ohiohistory.org for more). Also speaking will be another first lady named Taft, the guv’s wife Hope. Ask her if she would’ve fallen for her husband if his name was Alphonso.

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