Ida McKinley: Perseverance through Hardship

Ida McKinley at the White House
Ida McKinley at the White House

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A Progressive Upbringing

Ida McKinley, the fifth of the seven Ohio first ladies, was born in Canton, Ohio, on June 8, 1847, to James and Kate Saxton. The Saxtons raised Ida in the Saxton-McKinley House with her two younger siblings, Mary and George. Ida grew up in a wealthy, progressive family and was exposed to abolition and the women’s rights movement. Additionally, Ida was encouraged by her father to pursue higher education, a rare occurrence for women at the time. Ida’s level of education would amount to a Master of Fine Arts degree today, and she excelled in advanced mathematics, literature, music, and foreign languages.

As a young woman, Ida worked as a teller and manager at her father’s bank, even though the notion of a woman working such a job was controversial at the time. Ida was so skilled that she was given charge of the bank whenever her father left. In 1869, Ida went on a six-month “Grand Tour” of Europe with her sister Mary, which was an exhilarating and eye-opening experience for her. Ida and Mary extensively explored many European countries, including England, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany. The two young women found themselves engaging with artists across the continent, hiking in the Swiss Alps, and becoming frustrated with the poor conditions of female lace-makers in Belgium. In 1870, soon after returning from Europe with a fresh perspective on the world, Ida began courting the young lawyer William McKinley, and the two developed a deep romance. The couple married on January 25, 1871, at Christ Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio.

 
McKinley Profiles
Ida and William McKinley were married in 1871 at the Christ Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio.

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Family Tragedy and Political Life

Ida and William McKinley rented a house from Ida’s father that was down the street from the Saxton House, Ida’s childhood home. The McKinleys had two daughters, Kate and little Ida, born in 1873 and 1875. Unfortunately, little Ida passed away only four months after her birth from an unknown illness; Kate passed away shortly before her fifth birthday, most likely from a childhood fever or a heart condition. These deaths, coupled with the passing of Ida’s mother and grandfather, a difficult pregnancy with little Ida, and a prior back and neck injury, took a toll on Ida’s health. She started to suffer from migraines and what is thought to have been petit mal epilepsy. These conditions would negatively impact her mobility throughout her life and limit her public involvement in William’s political career.

Ida lived with William in Washington, D.C., during his tenure as Representative and later in Columbus, Ohio, during his term as Governor; though, whenever the couple was in Canton, they lived in the Saxton House with Ida’s sister Mary and her family. William and Ida chose to no longer lived in their newlywed home, as the home held too many memories of their passed daughter. They ended the lease after little Ida’s death.

 
Ida in Conservatory
Since Ida's health was fragile, she avoided shaking hands with people at political events by holding a bouquet of flowers.

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McKinleys in the White House

In 1895-1896, William conducted a successful presidential campaign, using his and Ida’s former newlywed house as the site of his front porch campaign; though, he and Ida still lived primarily at the Saxton House. The Campaign House served as a public facade, rather than a genuine residence.

During William’s presidency (1897-1901), Ida generally played a more reserved role as First Lady due to her epilepsy. However, she still insisted on being visible to the public and involved in politics when possible. Throughout William’s political career, Ida made a habit of sitting outside his office and listening to his political meetings, later discussing the events with him and offering valuable advice and insight. As a supporter of woman suffrage, Ida frequently exchanged letters with and met suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony; when she was able to speak to organizations, chose to meet with those supporting women’s rights. When she was unable to speak for other charities and social causes, Ida crocheted slippers that were auctioned at charitable events. Over her lifetime, Ida would crochet over 3,000 slippers to be auctioned or given as personal gifts to friends and family.

Unfortunately, Ida’s first ladyship and William’s second term in the White House were cut short in September of 1901. While greeting people at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, William was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6 and died from infection on September 14. Ida was at his side.

 
McKinley Memorial
Theodore Roosevelt delivered an address at the dedication of the McKinley National Memorial in Canton, Ohio. Ida, William, and their daughters are interred at the monument.

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Life After William

Ida returned to Canton with William’s body, but, for unknown reasons, chose not to attend his funeral. In the years following William’s death, Ida retired to the former Campaign House and made daily visits to the vault in West Lawn Cemetery where his body was held. She also supervised the construction of the Canton memorial for her husband. After two years of deep mourning, Ida continued her usual activities; she visited her sister’s family frequently and went to shows at Canton theatres, having been a lifelong patron of the theatre.

Ida passed away, likely from the flu, on May 26th, 1907, shortly before her husband’s memorial was finished. Ida, William, and their two daughters are interred at the William McKinley National Memorial. The First Ladies National Historic Site celebrates her understated and determined tenure as First Lady amidst hardship and disability.

 
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Last updated: March 4, 2020

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