Woodrow Wilson was the 28th president of the United States. Often remembered for the large role he played in ending World War I with his Fourteen Points plan, Wilson also greatly impacted the woman suffrage movement. He was a scholar for most of his life, the president of Princeton University, and the governor of New Jersey.
Wilson was born on December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. Wilson’s father was a Presbyterian minister, so the family moved from church to church. By the time Wilson was two the family moved to Augusta, Georgia where Wilson spent most of his childhood. While Wilson’s father was raised in the North, he quickly took up Southern values and politics. The family then moved to Columbia, South Carolina when Wilson was a teenager. Wilson grew up in the South during the Civil War; he saw his mother tend wounded Confederate soldiers and even saw General Robert E. Lee pass through town as a Union prisoner.
Wilson first attended Davidson College in North Carolina but quickly transferred to Princeton University. He graduated from Princeton in 1879, and then went on to law school at the University of Virginia. Wilson, however, dropped out after his first year and moved back home. While at home he continued to study law and in 1882 Wilson passed the Georgia bar examination. He and a friend then set up a law firm in Atlanta, Georgia. After about a year, Wilson had become bored with law and decided to go back to school. He went to Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland, to study history and political science. He received his Ph.D. in 1886. Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College until 1888 and then went on to Wesleyan University to teach for another two years. For his book, The State, Wilson was asked to teach law and political economy at Princeton.
In 1902, Wilson became the president of Princeton University. He was the first Princeton president who was not a clergyman. Wilson quickly began changing the old Ivy League school into a modern liberal university. Instead of the large lectures that had traditionally been given, Wilson copied Oxford University’s model. Small groups of students were tutored by an instructor. For the first four years of his presidency Wilson’s changes were accepted, but then starting in 1906 issues began to arise. Wilson wanted to build a new graduate school in the middle of campus, but was stopped by a dean. He also wanted to get rid of exclusive eating clubs and residential houses, to be replaced by common dining rooms and dormitories. Alumni and faculty refused to support this idea.
Approached by the New Jersey Democratic Party, Wilson agreed to run for governor of New Jersey. In 1910, he was elected and served one term. He called for election reform, wanting to rid the state of machine politics. These reforms caught the attention of the national Democratic Party.
Elected President of the United States in 1913, Wilson had many foreign and domestic issues to take on. Women’s suffrage was at a critical point and Europe was almost in crisis. The day before his second inauguration, Alice Paul helped organized a march of eight thousand women, protesting for suffrage. Despite this parade, Wilson was able to ignore suffrage during most of his first term. The Republican Party had been split for the election and Wilson was able to hide behind the Democratic platform. He did vote yes to woman’s suffrage in the New Jersey state election on October 19, 1915. Wilson announced only days before on the October 6th that he planned to vote for it; saying “I believe the time has come to extend the privilege and responsibility to the women of the State, but I shall vote…only upon my private conviction. I believe that it should be settled by the State and not by the National Government…”
This however, was not the case during his second term. Beginning in January of 1917, suffragists picketed outside of the White House day and night. They held signs and demanded their rights. By March these women were being arrested for disrupting traffic. It was not until his speech before Congress in 1918, that Wilson finally publicly endorsed woman’s suffrage by the federal government. It is believed that women’s roles during World War I helped Wilson see the need for suffrage. However, it would take another year before there were enough votes in Congress to support the passage of the 19th Amendment. It then took another year for enough states to ratify the amendment.
While still in office, in 1919, Wilson suffered a stroke. He was able to finish out his term, but was never as active. Wilson retired to his private home in Washington, D.C. once Harding became president in 1921. He and Bainbridge Colby tried to open a law firm, but it was clear Wilson did not have the energy. In August of 1923, Wilson published an essay encouraging an enlightened foreign policy, “The Road Away from Revolution.” Wilson died in his D.C. home on February 3, 1924.