According to biographers at the National First Ladies Library, Nellie was strong-willed, bright and ambitious but hid deep-seated insecurities about her looks and worried that she would never be taken seriously because she was a woman. Her father was a law partner of former President Rutherford B. Hayes. She studied music in college and considered going to law school. After college, she organized a literary salon and taught school. Her earliest ambition, however, which she discovered on a trip to the White House at age 16, was to become first lady of the United States.
Nellie met William Taft at a literary meeting and, although it was not love at first sight, she admitted that he made her laugh. Their personalities were polar opposites: while she was outspoken and passionate about politics–qualities considered unseemly in a woman of the 19th century–he was more reserved and relaxed. Biographers claim that Nellie goaded Taft into pursuing politics. In 1890, after Taft’s tenure as an Ohio Supreme Court judge ended, Nellie embraced the opportunity to move to Washington, D.C., where her husband accepted a post as U.S. solicitor general to President Benjamin Harrison. She cultivated a friendship with Theodore Roosevelt and his family. After Harrison’s term, she and Taft moved back to Ohio, where he served on the U.S. District Court.
Following an appointment as commissioner to the Philippines, Taft continued to climb the political ladder, with his wife’s encouragement. In 1904, he became President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of war. Four years later, Roosevelt asked Taft which job he would prefer: president or chief justice; Nellie insisted he try for the presidency. With Roosevelt’s backing, Taft won the election of 1908.
A year into Taft’s presidency, Nellie suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed; it took her several years to recover. Despite this setback, Nellie organized the planting of cherry trees along the Potomac and designed the scenic Washington Drive. After leaving the White House after one term, Taft taught law at Yale University from 1913 to 1921, when he was appointed chief justice of the United States by President Warren Harding.