Contrary to recent feminist maxims, the first woman president is not alive today. In fact, she was born in 1872, and her name was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. She hightailed her way out of Appalachian poverty and into the highest echelons of American power, and in 1919 effectively became the first woman president of the US (before women could even vote) when her husband, Woodrow Wilson, was incapacitated. Beautiful, brilliant, charismatic, catty, and calculating, she was a complicated figure whose personal quest for influence reshaped the position of first lady into one of political prominence forever. And still, nobody truly understands who she was.
For the first time, we have a biography that takes an unflinching look at the woman whose ascent mirrors that of many powerful American women before and since, one full of the compromises and complicities women have undertaken throughout time in order to find security for themselves and make their mark on history. She was a shape-shifter who was obsessed with crafting her own reputation, at once deeply invested in staking claim to her own power while also opposing women’s suffrage. With narrative verve and fresh eyes, Untold Power is a richly overdue examination of one of American history’s most influential, complicated women as well as the surprising and often absurd realities of American politics.
Untold Power (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (Audible) (AbeBooks)
As a lover of Presidential history, as soon as I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. After all, so much has been made in recent years about a woman trying to ascend to the presidency, when any historian knows that for about 18 months, a woman was de facto president. I knew of Edith Galt Wilson in a peripheral sense, and this book takes a closer look at one of the most influential first ladies in our nation’s history.
Boggs Roberts does a fine job with her research and subsequent telling of Edith’s life, from childhood up until her death. She relies on contemporary accounts, Edith’s own autobiography, and historical resources. What results is a well-rounded look at Wilson, both before her public life and after.
All I knew about Edith Wilson was that she was a wealthy widow living in Washington, D.C. when Woodrow Wilson spotted her. Boggs Roberts tries her best to shed light on Edith’s first marriage, which brought her wealth. She was only married for 12 years, but she benefited greatly from the Galt family business (jewelry). She took care of several of her brothers and sisters throughout her life with her good fortune.
Edith Galt was not interested in politics or the president like some might assume. She had, through her society circles and relations, been invited to Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration and turned it down. Wilson was still married at the time to his first wife, Ellen, and had three daughters. During his first term in office, not only did Wilson resegregate federal offices, he kept the United States out of the Great War, saw two daughters marry, and lost his first wife to Bright’s disease. None of this was on Edith Galt’s radar.
It turns out that Edith and Wilson has much in common. Both were racists and anti-suffragists. It makes it hard to understand how Edith navigated her world after the death of her first husband yet didn’t think women had the right to vote. It’s a head-scratcher for sure.
Wilson, a very passionate and devout man, was besotted by Edith when they met and he ardently pursued her, writing her several letters a day when he should have been doing more important things like running the country. His adoration, and Edith’s coolness, reminded me of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s relationship. Even though it hadn’t been that long since his first wife’s death, Wilson became so enamored of Edith that he proposed.
When the Wilson’s got married, Edith hated the term First Lady and all the trappings that the role held, like hosting parties. The last thing she wanted to do was invite and entertain politicians and their wives. She made a great counselor to her husband in everything he did, but a premiere hostess, she was not.
During Woodrow Wilson’s second term, when he was traveling the country to sell his ideas of the League of Nations, he became quite ill and eventually suffered a debilitating stroke. It was then that Edith and Wilson’s doctor perpetrated conspired to keep Wilson out of the public eye. Edith would help run things in the White House now, shielding even the Cabinet members from seeing the President. She took control and was the gatekeeper to her husband for the rest of his presidency. She, in effect, ran the country during those months.
Even after Wilson left office in 1921, Edith protected Woodrow and his legacy. They settled in Washington, D.C., and spent the last few years of Wilson’s life guarding who saw him and organizing his papers. After he died, Edith lived a quiet life, controlling the myth that Wilson had his full faculties after his stroke, and penning her autobiography. She played host to every Democratic presidential nominee and died in the early 1960’s.
I’m glad that more women historians are exploring the women in history and shedding light on their contributions to society. For Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, her contributions were great. She was the first female President of the United States.
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