Woodrow Wilson's Daughters Go to School: Elite Education for Girls a Century Ago

The primary source documents used in the creation of this lesson plan are taken from the papers of Eleanor Wilson McAdoo held at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Jessie Wilson Sayre held at  Princeton University, both made available to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum courtesy of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.    

I.  Introduction to the Lesson

"I have just escaped with difficulty from three insatiable children clamouring for 'more poetry,' and again more...  'More about the Arabs' is their specific cry to-night, though I had already given them half a dozen poems on the subject, covering that gentleman's views regarding his sweetheart, his horse, his palm tree, & things in general."[1]  This is what Ellen Wilson wrote to her husband Woodrow in 1894, when her daughters were between the ages of five and eight.  That same year, Mrs. Wilson had written to him that while she was reading some verses of Tom Moore's "Who Has Not Heard of the Vale of Cashmere," her daughter Jessie "interrupted [her] with, 'Don't read that- read Shakespeare.'"  She added:  "How is that for six years old?"[2]  If this literary interest seems unusual for girls of their ages, it is because the education of the Wilson daughters was indeed well beyond average for their gender and time period.    

Woodrow Wilson, who would later become the twenty-eighth president of the United States, had married his wife Ellen Axson in 1885.  The couple was soon blessed with three daughters, born within three years of each other:  Margaret Axson in 1886; Jessie Woodrow in 1887; and Eleanor Randolph (nicknamed Nellie) in 1889.  The children, being so close in age, spent much of their childhood playing games and going to school together.  

The Wilson girls had parents who were highly educated.  Woodrow Wilson had received a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University in 1886.  His professional career took him from college professor to university president to Governor of New Jersey, and eventually all the way to the White House as President of the United States in 1913.  He was the first, and only, President with an earned Ph.D.  Ellen Axson enrolled in Rome Female College in the state of Georgia at the age of eleven, and went on to take such subjects as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, philosophy, logic, and botany, and excelled in French, English literature, composition, and art.  Later she continued her studies with postgraduate work in German, French, and art.[3]  Her academic accomplishments catapulted her beyond the intellectual levels of most women and many men, and she found potential suitors to be utterly boring[4]--that is, until she met her future husband, Thomas Woodrow Wilson.  

Professor Wilson held teaching positions at Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and finally Princeton University in 1890.  It was while he was at the latter that the education of his growing daughters became a pressing concern.  Because no primary schools existed in Princeton at that time, Mrs. Wilson gave her daughters their basic education at home. What a school it must have been!                         

"Every weekday morning Margaret, Jessie and Nellie were taught the three R's, geography, and history.  On Sundays they learned the Presbyterian "Shorter Catechism" by heart, and heard the Bible stories. But that was not all. Homer, Dryden, Shakespeare, and many other great poets were their daily fare, for Ellen believed that, when the meaning was obscure, her children would feel the beauty and the music of the words.  They did not disappoint her." [5]  

During the earlier years while Woodrow Wilson was establishing himself as a scholar of distinction, his family did not enjoy the ease of wealth.  In fact, in order to cut costs, Mrs. Wilson made her own dresses, as well as those of her daughters.  Eleanor, the youngest of the three, often had to wear the home-made hand-me-downs.[6]  Still, despite the necessary economizing, the girls did not lack for a rich, intellectually stimulating home atmosphere where spirited conversation and books abounded.  

This lesson will explore the educational attainments of Woodrow Wilson's daughters through letter and book excerpts.  Taken together, they will give a glimpse into the academic and literary environment that helped to nurture and prepare Margaret, Jessie, and Eleanor Wilson for the world in which they lived.  

II.  Background Information for Teacher and Student

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States could boast the largest school enrollment of any nation in the world.[7]  Statistics from the year 1900 reveal a telling story of widespread, if basic, educational achievement among the populace.  Despite the fact that most children were not as advantaged as those of Woodrow and Ellen Wilson, nevertheless the literacy rate was at almost 90% of the population.  The number of pupils enrolled in schools stood at sixteen million, with 100,000 graduating from secondary schools, double the figure from ten years earlier.  240,000 students attended the nearly 1,000 colleges and universities.  2,200 news organizations produced papers for the reading public; these were sold at newsstands and on street corners across the nation.[8] Clearly, many children during the time period of Margaret, Jessie, and Eleanor Wilson had at least a rudimentary knowledge of how to read and write.  

The literacy rate of the U.S. population was astonishing in light of the fact that many of the youngest Americans, on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the Wilson girls, were hard at work in factories, canneries, sweatshops, mines, and fields when the school bells rang in the morning.  Although numbers are hard to come by because of dishonesty on the part of both parents and employers, [9] it is reported that at least 1,752,187 children composed part of the work force in 1900.[10]    

The high numbers of child laborers resulted from the enormous growth of American industry in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  Children could be paid less than their fathers and mothers, and cheap labor allowed U.S. manufacturing to compete with foreign industry, or so employers reasoned.  Since they toiled daily in the workforce in order to bring home an extra pay envelope for the family, they could not attend school in the traditional classroom setting.  Statutes were passed in various states to guarantee a basic education to America’s youngest, but the laws had loopholes and were often ignored or flagrantly disobeyed.[11]  In light of the large numbers of children who worked long hours for six days a week, the U.S. literacy rate was indeed an amazing national accomplishment.  

While countless numbers of children trudged off to work before dawn every morning to help their families buy food and pay rent, the Wilson daughters awoke to have breakfast with both parents and then school lessons with their mother.  After spending time with their studies, they would act out what they had learned.  They played games involving Greek gods and goddesses and put themselves in imaginary situations in countries around the world.[12]  They played school where Jessie taught what she called "strongery," or how to leap, box, and wrestle like the Greeks, and Margaret instructed her students on how to be Amazons.  After reading “The Golden Legend,” a medieval account of the lives of the saints, the three girls had disputes among themselves over what constituted the best of the "cardinal virtues."[13]  

The subject matter of their dialogue with their teacher-mother was quite learned.  Ellen wrote to Woodrow in 1895, when the girls were between six and nine years of age:  

"You know how busy they keep me trying to define words; now they are constantly setting me a still harder task, viz. to sit in judgment on the relative “greatness” of every character they ever heard of, real or imaginary.  Who is the greatest, Shakspere [sic] or Homer, Milton or Dante, Themistocles or Miltiades, Zeus or Odin, Aeschylus or Sophocles, Epaminondas or Washington?  I think that last “parallel” as coming from them quite interesting, for I had never said a word to associate the two names in their minds…" [14]  

After a while the Wilsons were able to secure a governess from Germany by the name of Fräulein Clara Böhm, who came to live with the family and teach the girls the German and French languages, as well as German culture.  Still later, Margaret, Jessie, and Nellie attended private schools and went on to higher education.  

In addition, the girls were privy to other kinds of high level discussions at a young age. Because Professor Wilson was making a name for himself at Princeton University, many distinguished men from the U.S. and around the world came to call on this scholar who was contributing original ideas to age-old subjects.  The conversations were animated and exciting, and Wilson allowed his daughters to listen in, if they kept quiet and did not speak.[15]  

These occasions were unusual not only because of the girls’ exposure to intellectual discourse at such a young age, but also because the opportunities were extended togirls. Although the culture’s deep-seated reluctance to grant the full range of academic offerings to women was beginning to wane by 1900, they still did not have access to all of the scholastic opportunities afforded to men.  It is true that much progress in equalizing access to academia had been made.  For example, by 1900, ninety-eight percent of the nation’s high schools were coeducational.[16]  The U. S. Bureau of the Census in 1900 shows the breakdown of male to female students, which reveals that a little over 41% of the students attending school were female.  On the university level, the matriculation of women was on the increase; several elite colleges for women had been established after the Civil War, and some previously all-male colleges were beginning to offer admission to females.  John Milton Cooper, Jr., writes that in 1902, “over half of the undergraduates at the University of Chicago were women.”[17]  

Nevertheless, a woman’s prospect for gaining higher education still lagged behind that which could be anticipated by her male counterparts.  In the year 1910 in Woodrow Wilson’s birth state of Virginia, for example, four public colleges granted degrees to men, but there were no similar degree-granting institutions for women.  Although four non-accredited normal schools[18] for women existed, the first one getting its start in 1884, none granted its graduates regular diplomas during the early years.  Virginia women would have to wait for the years 1918 and 1920 when the doors of the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia swung open for the first time to admit women. [19] Because of the times in which they lived, and the heights of scholarship to which they were exposed, the Wilson girls’ opportunity to cultivate their minds was in fact rare.  

In later years, looking back on those childhood years when her father was a professor at Princeton, Eleanor fondly recalled a family circle that was warm, responsive, and intellectually stimulating:              

"Our evenings together ... were very happy ones.  When we had finished our lessons, we came down for a visit with father and mother; above everything else in the world we loved being with them, hearing them read or listening to their conversation.  Time after time, when our playmates called us to join in their games, we huddled together and pretended not to hear.  Mother did most of the reading aloud.  Her favorites were Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Browning, and at night she read us to sleep with Chapman’s Homer…. [Father’s] performances [in family charades] were solo and spontaneous and he did impersonations.  I think the “drunken man” was the general favorite.  We made him do it over and over, and the whole household responded with shouts of glee." [20]  

The education of the Wilson girls can be described as elite because the scope of learning was enjoyed by relatively few.  It was exceptional to the degree that it instructed the whole person--spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and moral; it was superior in its depth and diversity, even when judged by the standards of its own day.  

III.  Comprehensive Questions

1.  What kinds of subject matter, topics, and books composed a quality educational curriculum at the end of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century?

2.  How was the education of the Wilson girls exceptional, when contrasted with that of other children of their time period?  

IV.  Learning Objectives


After this lesson is completed, students should be able to:  

1.  contrast the daily lives of children in the lower socio-economic group with those in the more privileged classes.

2.  articulate what the Wilson girls read and studied, and explain why their educational opportunities were unusual for their ages and gender.

3.  describe the moral element in the girls’ education.

4.  compare and contrast the curriculum of the Wilson's daughters to that of U.S. students today.

5.  judge the strengths and weaknesses of American education at (a) the beginning of the twentieth century and the (b) beginning of the twenty-first century.  

V.  Getting Ready To Teach

Students will read: 

(1) a secondary source essay about the education received by the daughters of Woodrow and Ellen Wilson, the difficulty of educating poverty-stricken children who worked all day in industry, and general literacy attainments in the U.S. from the last decades of the nineteenth century until the first few years of the twentieth;

(2) letters to and from the Wilson girls revealing what subjects they studied and books they read; and

(3) excerpts of books they read.

The documents in numbers (2) and (3) are followed by comprehension and analysis questions.  

The secondary and primary source documents are located in the Document file that accompanies the lesson. Read through the lesson and make copies of the documents that you will use.  

The day before the lesson begins, make copies of the secondary source essay found onpages 1-4 of the Document file, and distribute to students. Assign the essay for homework reading.  

To keep students motivated, tell them that on the following day when the lesson begins, they will be divided into groups, and that the group that works the hardest will be awarded "Book Bucks," which can be used to purchase privileges, such as a homework pass, extra credit points, or a similar incentive. Images of "Book Bucks" are located onpage 5 of the Document file.  

Students may also use their "bucks" to make a purchase at a 20% discount at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Gift Shop, either online at  http://www.woodrowwilson.org/store/ or by visiting the shop at 20 North Coalter Street, Staunton, Virginia  24401.  If purchasing online, call the store first at (540) 885-6202 to make arrangements for the student discount.  Gift store items include books, videos, games, puzzles, toys, and collectible gifts.     

Announce these incentives to students the day the lesson begins, with "Book Bucks" displayed on the desk.                 

VI.  Student Activities

Begin class by discussing what the students read for homework.  Ask them to tell what they know of the Wilson family, and to evaluate the kind of home life the girls experienced. Which children in that time period did not have it so easy?  What was the literacy rate in 1900?  Is this surprising?  Why?  What kinds of subjects did the three girls study, and how do they compare and contrast to subjects taken by students today?  

Introduction:  Meet the Wilson Family  

Introduce students to the Wilson family by having them read biographical descriptions and view photographs at the links provided below.  

a.  Woodrow Wilson-- http://wwl2.dataformat.com/Document.aspx?doc=28165

b.  Ellen Axson Wilson--http://wwl2.dataformat.com/Document.aspx?doc=27699

c.  Wilson daughters when small--
http://wwl2.dataformat.com/Document.aspx?doc=29165 and http://wwl2.dataformat.com/Document.aspx?doc=29166

d.   Wilson daughters when grown--
Based on the picture of the girls when small, can you identify each of the daughters in this family picture in 1912?  

Part One:  Letter Excerpts:  The Books They Read and the Subjects They Studied  

For this part of the lesson, divide the students into groups of three or four and instruct them to read the letters together, found on pages 6-9 in the Document file.  They should note what the girls were reading and studying at their particular ages.       

Part Two:  Worksheet for Letter Excerpts: Answer the Questions  

Have students work collaboratively on the worksheets, which contain questions and answers based on the content of the letters. The worksheet is located on page 10 of the Document file.  

Part Three:  Book Excerpts and Comprehension Questions  

Instruct students to continue to work collaboratively in their groups.  This time, they will read the book excerpts, found on pages 11-16 in the Document file, and answer a few questions that will demonstrate comprehension of the material.  Tell them to note the Wilson girls’ ages when they read the books, and ask them to consider whether they could have comprehended the material at those ages.  

Group Discussion

When students have finished working in their groups, lead them in a discussion about what they have learned.  Emphasize that the Wilson girls’ education would have been exemplary even for its own time.  Find out if they noticed similarities and differences in the education of students then and now.  For instance, how do the subjects they took, at their ages, compare and contrast to today’s students?  Do they think the Wilson girls were better educated than students are today, or just differently?  

Put two columns on the board, with one column listing the books that Margaret, Jessie, and Nellie read, and the other column listing books that they read today, for pleasure and for school.  Current New York Times bestsellers for pre-teens and young adults are shown on the Amazon website at
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/feature/-/239365/ref=ed_nytbs_cc?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=browse&pf_rd_r=1SCFMP6N1PT35X30VRM5&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=484548911&pf_rd_i=549028.   (The path to this site can be accessed in the following way: go to www.amazon.com; under “Shop all Departments,” click on Books; on the left side under Browse Books scroll down to Best Books and click on The New York Times Bestsellers List; on the left side click on Children’s Chapter Books, and the current page will come up.)  If they have their school literature and history texts with them, ask a student to read several paragraphs to the rest of the class.  

VII.  Assessment

Two options are provided for assessing student comprehension of the lesson:          

1. Multiple-Choice Quiz, found on pages 17-20 of the Document file, and the Answer Key on page 21.  

2. Essay Questions, consisting of 1-2 paragraph answers, listed below.         

a.  How did the socio-economic status of children affect the kind of education that they would probably receive?  Include in your answer the obstacles to education faced by child laborers and the easier path to education experienced by the more privileged. Explain why a superior education could be obtained by children such as the Wilson girls.   

b. Give examples of what the Wilson girls read and studied, and explain why their educational opportunities were unusual for their ages and gender.        

c. Describe the moral element present in the girls’ education.  Give examples.       

d. Compare and contrast the education of children one hundred years ago with that of students today.  Give the strengths and weaknesses of the educational system during each time period.  

e.  If education should be geared toward preparing students for life, what does your education say about the kind of life you will lead?  What did the Wilson girls’ education say about the kind of world they would enter? 

VIII.  Expanding the Lesson  

Margaret, Jessie, and Nellie also wrote about reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott, specifically The Fortunes of Nigel, Adam Bede, and Ivanhoe.  If time permits, students might be interested in reading a selection from one of these.  An excerpt from The Fortunes of Nigel is provided on pages 22-23 of the Document file.  Have them read the selection, and then discuss the content of the text, the grade level of students that the text requires, and the general interest of the selection.  

IX.  End Notes

[1] Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, ed., The Priceless Gift: The Love Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson Wilson (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1962) 186.
[2] McAdoo 186.
[3] Frances Wright Saunders, First Lady Between Two Worlds:  Ellen Axson Wilson(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985) 14.
[4] Saunders 23.
[5] McAdoo 186.
[6] Saunders 98.
[7] John Milton Cooper, Jr., Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990) 3.
[8] Cooper 3.
[9] Juliet H. Mofford, Child Labor in America (Carlisle, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, Ltd., 1997) 9.
[10] Mofford 11.
[11] Mofford 10-13.
[12] Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, The Woodrow Wilsons (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937) 31.
[13] McAdoo 187.
[14] McAdoo 187.
[15] McAdoo 209.
[16] J. C. Furnas, The Americans: A Social History of the United States 1587-1914 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969) 744.
[17] Cooper 63.
[18] Normal schools were institutions of higher learning established for the purpose of training high school graduates to be teachers.  According to an article on James Madison University’s website, http://www.jmu.edu/centennialcelebration/normalschool.shtml, the word normal “doesn’t mean normal in the sense of average; it means normal in the sense of setting an excellent model- or ‘norm’- for other schools.”  James Madison University got its start in 1908 under the name “The State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg.”
[19] Suzanne Lebsock, “A Share of Honor”: Virginia Women 1600-1945 (Richmond, Virginia: The Virginia Women’s Cultural History Project, 1984) 129.
[20] McAdoo, The Woodrow Wilsons 26-27.

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did you know?

Wilson was president throughout World War I. He attempted to keep America out of the war and even won reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war." Nonetheless, after the sinking of the Lusitania, continued run-ins with German submarines, and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram, America became involved. with the Lusitania, the continued harassment of American ships by German submarines, and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram meant that America joined the allies in April, 1917.

Woodrow Wilson was President when the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920 giving women the right to vote.

Wilson piloted the ship that brought America onto the world stage. He made the first steps of leading us out of isolationism, violating Washington's tenet of avoiding foreign entanglements.

He led America during World War I. His fervent hope was for the US to join a League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.

A Woodrow Wilson Quote: "Life does not consist in thinking, it consists in acting."

A Woodrow Wilson Quote: "The Constitution was not made to fit us like a straitjacket. In its elasticity lies its chief greatness."

A Woodrow Wilson Quote: "I believe in democracy because it releases the energies of every human being."

The Seventeenth Amendment was formally adopted on May 31, 1913. Wilson had been president for almost three months at the time. The amendment provided for the direct election of senators. Prior to its adoption, Senators were chosen by state legislatures.

Wilson was the first president to receive a PhD which he got in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. He had received his undergraduate degree from the College of New Jersey, renamed Princeton University in 1896.

Woodrow Wilson could not read during the first decade of his life. Though undiagnosed, he may have suffered from a learning disability

Woodrow Wilson was known as "Tommy" until his college years.

Woodrow Wilson during his boyhood, helped establish the "Lightfoot Baseball Club" with his friends. Wilson played second base and was an avid sport fan throughout his adult life.

Woodrow Wilson was the first president to attend the Major League Baseball Fall Classic. He saw the debut of a young 20 year old pitcher by the name of George Herman "Babe" Ruth.

Woodrow Wilson was a graduate of Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University and the only president to hold an earned doctoral degree.

Woodrow Wilson image is on the $100,000 bill although it is no longer in circulation