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Margaret Woodrow Wilson: First Lady, Suffragist, and Village Socialite

A remarkable number of people and places in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo played important roles in the move towards women’s suffrage. These neighborhoods were long centers of political ferment and progressive social change, and women and men here played a prominent part in removing barriers to women voting in New York State (which didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1917) and the country. In honor of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, Village Preservation created a StoryMap that chronicles the impact our neighborhoods and its residents had to ensure the right to vote for women.

First daughter Margaret Woodrow Wilson was known for her bohemian spirit and career as a singer, as well as her support for the cause of women’s suffrage. When her mother died in 1914 during her father’s first term in the White House, as the couple’s eldest, Margaret took over the role of First Lady until her father remarried in 1915. She was only the second First Lady to support women’s suffrage (after Helen Herron Taft).

Margaret Woodrow Wilson was born on April 16, 1886, in Gainesville, Georgia to Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Louise Axson. She was educated at Goucher College in Baltimore, and was trained in piano and voice at the Peabody Institute of Music. 

President Wilson had a conflicted relationship with suffragists; they frequently targeted and criticized him for his lukewarm support for the cause, even as he claimed to be a champion of freedom and democracy.

His three daughters made their support for women’s suffrage known both before and during their father’s term in office, getting out well ahead of him on the issue. Margaret seemed to express disagreement with her father on issues of race as well; while he institutionalized segregation of the federal workforce, Margaret, an education advocate, made a point of publicly visiting and calling attention to the poor conditions for African American students in the nation’s segregated capital. All three of Wilson’s daughters were reputed to have lobbied him on the issue of women’s suffrage. His racist policies, and his decision to enter the First World War, were protested by suffragists and others in the Village and beyond. 

Suffragists demonstrating against Woodrow Wilson in Chicago, 1916, Library of Congress]

Margaret’s singing was a part of her life throughout. You can still hear her in a grainy recording of The Star-Spangled Banner in 1915. As WWI raged, Margaret toured the U.S. to raise funds for the Red Cross, and traveled to France to sing for the troops in war-torn France.

Wilson also recorded her Star Spangled Banner to raise funds for the Red Cross.

Even though many encouraged the suffragists to take a break from their agitation for the right to vote during the war, they did not, staging daily protests outside the White House. Those and many other efforts finally bore fruit in 1918, when President Wilson voiced support for a constitutional amendment allowing women to vote. The President indicated that the Senate should vote in favor of passage of the amendment, which was ultimately key to its success.

After leaving the White House, Margaret moved to Greenwich Village, a place she had frequented in earlier years, residing at 134 West 4th Street. Along with other notable New York feminists like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, she became active in organizations like the Women’s City Club (now Women Creating Change). 

Margaret, and 134 West 4th Street as it looks now.

Of course, moving to West 4th Street was not Wilson’s first foray into the Village’s bohemian life and community; she had spent time in the Village amongst friends and colleagues. A February 26, 1914 column in the New York Times describes an event that she attended in the Village, where she made quite a favorable impression. It said: 

Miss Margaret Wilson, daughter of the President, was the belle of an old-fashioned Greenwich Village party last night. She went to the party, which was held in the assembly hall of Public School 41, at 36 Greenwich Avenue, in a big limousine; but once she entered the room and mingled with the Greenwich villagers she seemed to forget that there were such things as automobiles
The party came as a surprise to Miss Wilson. She had always taken a great interest in settlement and social centre [sic.] work, and especially in the Greenwich Commonwealth, one of the liveliest and most unaffected in the whole city. She had written to Mr. Bohen that she was going to be in the city on Wednesday evening and would like to meet the members of the Commonwealth. Mr. Bohen then hit on the idea of giving an old-fashioned party. 

In true bohemian fashion, Wilson never married. She did have a trust fund with an annual salary from her father, which continued as long as she did not marry. As was the convention, her theoretical husband would then assume responsibility for her needs, but she never gave anyone the chance. Instead, she pursued singing, though she retired as a singer in 1923 to work at an advertising agency.

In the 1930s during a visit to the New York Public Library, she encountered a book on Eastern mysticism, and soon became deeply enthralled. In 1938 she traveled to the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, India, where she remained for the rest of her life. As a member of the ashram she was given the new name ‘Nistha’, meaning “dedication” in Sanskrit, for her devotion to its teachings. She and scholar Jospeh Campbell edited the English translation of the work on the classical Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by Swmai Nikhilananda, published in 1942. In spite of entreaties from the U.S. government, Wilson refused to leave India during WWII; she died and was buried in Pondicherry in 1944. 

Margaret Woodrow Wilson is just one of over two dozen people, places, and organizations featured on our 19th Amendment Centennial StoryMap, including activists, labor organizers, and religious leaders including Rose Schneidermann, Chinese-American teenage suffrage and civil rights activist Mabel Ping Hua Lee, and three of our country’s most renowned abolitionists connected to the Mother Zion AME Church, which was located in Greenwich Village in the late 19th century. Want to find out more?Explore our interactive map further!

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