Venus Williams, Miley Cyrus, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, and Katie Couric are just a few of the notable figures who serve as role models for today’s young women. But in the 19th century, it was an altogether different matter! Barred from voting and severely limited in establishing an independent career, women rarely rose to national prominence. But Helen Herron, a Cincinnati teen found her role model – First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes.
At the age of seventeen, “Nellie,” as her friends called her, visited the White House. She and her entire family were guests of President Rutherford B. and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes. From that day forward, Helen knew that she wanted to become First Lady more than anything in the world. Years later, she recalled that her visit to the Hayes White House was “the only unusual incident of her girlhood!”
A short time after the Herron family visit, “Nellie” met “the adorable Will Taft.” They later married. William Howard Taft became solicitor general of the United States and then a federal circuit court judge. In 1900, Taft was appointed head of the civil government of the Philippines. Helen, the mother of three children, was more than willing to travel half way around the world to live in a foreign land if it helped her husband’s career. Four years later, the Tafts were back in Washington. President Teddy Roosevelt had chosen Taft as his Secretary of War. Helen was delighted at her husband’s rising political career.
In 1908, her lifelong dream came true! William Howard Taft was elected President of the United States! It was an exciting day when Helen Taft stepped into the role of First Lady. But only two months later, she suffered a severe stroke. Although ill for more than a year, Helen Taft was determined to resume her social obligations. By late 1910, the First Lady, with the help of her daughter, delighted the nation when she hosted the White House events during the Christmas holidays.
Helen Taft became famous for her elegant receptions for prominent dignitaries and foreign heads of state. In her memoir, Recollections of Full Years, the First Lady considered the celebration of the Tafts’ 25th wedding anniversary the “greatest event” of her White House years. Several thousand guests celebrated with them at an evening garden party.
Social obligations were not the First Lady’s only concern; she wanted to make the nation’s capitol a beautiful place for visitors. At her request, Japanese cherry trees were planted. The two original trees she helped plant at a ceremony still stand several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial. When the cherry trees bloom each spring, they serve as a reminder of a young Ohio teenager with a big dream and an indomitable will – First Lady Helen Herron Taft.