Edith Wilson

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Edith Wilson
Edith Wilson cropped 2.jpg
De Facto President of the United States
In role
October 2, 1919 – March 4, 1921
First Lady of the United States
In office
December 18, 1915 – March 4, 1921
President Woodrow Wilson
Preceded by Margaret Wilson (Acting)
Succeeded by Florence Harding
Personal details
Born Edith Bolling
(1872-10-15)October 15, 1872
Wytheville, Virginia, U.S.
Died December 28, 1961(1961-12-28) (aged 89)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting place Washington National Cathedral

Edith Wilson (née Bolling, formerly Edith Bolling Galt; October 15, 1872 – December 28, 1961), second wife of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, was the First Lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921. She married the widower Wilson in December 1915, during his first term as President.

President Wilson suffered a severe stroke in October 1919. Edith Wilson began to screen all matters of state and decided which were important enough to bring to the bedridden president. In doing so, she de facto ran the executive branch of the government for the remainder of the president's second term, until March 1921.[1]

Early life[edit]

Edith Bolling was born October 15, 1872, in Wytheville, Virginia, to circuit court judge William Holcombe Bolling and his wife Sarah "Sallie" Spears (née White).[2] Her birthplace the Bolling Home is now a museum located in Wytheville's Historic District.[3] Edith was a descendant of the earliest English settler colonials to Virginia Colony. Through her father, she was also a direct descendant of Mataoka, better known as Pocahontas, the daughter of Wahunsenacawh, the Paramount weroance of the Powhatan Confederacy.[4] The Powhatan Confederacy consisted of thirty-three distinct Algonquian nations of the Eastern Woodlands. As a condition of her release from English captivity, Mataoka married John Rolfe, the first English settler to cultivate tobacco as an export commodity. Rolfe's granddaughter, Jane, married Robert Bolling, a wealthy slave-holding planter and merchant.[5]

Edith was the seventh of eleven children, two of whom died in infancy.[6] The Bollings were some of the oldest members of Virginia's slave-holding, planter elite prior to the American Civil War. After the Civil War, Edith's father turned to the practice of law to support his family.[7] Unable to pay taxes on his extensive properties, and forced to give up the family's plantation seat, William Holcombe Bolling moved to Wytheville, where most of his children were born.[8]

The Bolling household was a large one, and Edith grew up within the confines of a sprawling, extended family. In addition to eight surviving siblings, Edith's two grandmothers, and several aunts and cousins also lived in the Bolling household. Many of the women in Edith's family lost husbands during the war.[9] The Bollings had been staunch supporters of the Confederate States of America, were proud of their Southern planter heritage, and in early childhood, indoctrinated Edith in the post-Civil War South's narrative of the Lost Cause. As was often the case among the planter elite, the Bollings justified slave ownership, saying that the persons that they owned had been content with their lives as chattel and had little desire for freedom.[10]


Edith had little formal education. While her sisters were enrolled in local schools, Edith was taught how to read and write at home. Her paternal grandmother, Anne Wiggington Bolling, played a large role in her education. Crippled by a spinal cord injury, Grandmother Bolling was confined to bed. Edith had the responsibility to wash her clothing, turn her in bed at night, and look after her 26 canaries. In turn, Grandmother Bolling oversaw Edith's education, teaching her how to read, write, speak a hybrid language of French and English, make dresses, and instilled in her a tendency to make quick judgments and hold strong opinions, personality traits Edith would exhibit her entire life.[11] William Bolling read classic English literature aloud to his family at night, hired a tutor to teach Edith, and sometimes took her on his travels. The Bolling family attended church regularly, and Edith became a lifelong, practicing Episcopalian.[12]

When Edith was 15, her father enrolled her at Martha Washington College (a precursor of Emory and Henry College), a finishing school for girls in Abingdon, Virginia[13]. William Holcombe Bolling chose it for its excellent music program.[14] Edith proved to be an undisciplined, ill-prepared student. She was miserable there, complaining of the school's austerity: the food was poorly prepared, the rooms too cold, and the daily curriculum excessively rigorous, intimidating, and too strictly regimented.[15] Edith left after only one semester.[16] Two years later, Edith's father enrolled her in Powell's School for Girls in Richmond, Virginia. Years later, Edith noted that her time at Powell's was the happiest time of her life.[17] Unfortunately for Edith, the school closed at the end of the year after the headmaster suffered an accident that cost him his leg. Concerned about the cost of Edith's education, William Bolling refused to pay for any additional schooling, choosing instead to focus on educating her three brothers.[18]

While visiting her married sister in Washington, D.C., Edith met Norman Galt (1864-1908), a prominent jeweler. The couple married on April 30, 1896 and lived in the capital for the next 12 years. In 1903 she bore a son who lived only for a few days. The difficult birth left her unable to have more children.[19] In January 1908 Norman Galt died unexpectedly at the age of 43. Edith hired a manager to oversee his business, paid off his debts, and with the income left to her by her late husband, toured Europe.[20]

First Lady of the United States[edit]

Re-marriage and early First Ladyship[edit]

In March 1915, the widow Galt was introduced to recently widowed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the White House by Helen Woodrow Bones (1874-1951). Bones was the president's first cousin and served as the official White House hostess after the death of Wilson's wife, Ellen Wilson. Wilson took an instant liking to Galt and proposed soon after meeting her. Unfortunately for Wilson and Galt, rumors that Wilson had cheated on his wife with Galt threatened the burgeoning relationship.[21] Unsubstantiated gossip that Wilson and Galt had murdered the First Lady further troubled the couple. Distressed at the effect such wild speculation could have on the authenticity of the presidency and respectability of his personal reputation, Wilson proposed that Edith Bolling Galt back out of their engagement. Instead, Edith insisted on postponing the wedding until the end of the official year of mourning for Ellen Axson Wilson.[22] Wilson married Galt on December 18, 1915, at her home in Washington, D.C. Attended by 40 guests, the groom's pastor, Reverend Dr. James H. Taylor of Central Presbyterian Church, and the bride's, Reverend Dr. Herbert Scott Smith of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C., performed the wedding jointly.

Hostessing and the First World War[edit]

Wilson's official White House portrait

As First Lady during World War I, Edith Bolling Wilson observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays to set an example for the federal rationing effort. Similarly, she set sheep to graze on the White House lawn rather than use manpower to mow it, and had their wool auctioned off for the benefit of the American Red Cross.[23]

Though the new First Lady had sound qualifications for the role of hostess, the social aspect of the administration was overshadowed by war in Europe and abandoned after the United States formally entered the conflict in 1917. Edith Wilson submerged her own life in her husband's, trying to keep him fit under tremendous strain, and accompanied him to Europe when the Allies conferred on terms of peace.

Role after husband's stroke[edit]

Woodrow Wilson's first posed photograph after his stroke. He was paralyzed on his left side, so Edith holds a document steady while he signs. June 1920.

Following his attendance at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson returned to campaign for Senate approval of the peace treaty and the League of Nations Covenant. However, at the age of 62, he suffered a stroke in October, which left him partly paralyzed. The United States never did ratify the Treaty of Versailles nor join the League of Nations, which had initially been Wilson's concept. At the time, isolationist sentiment was strong.

Edith Wilson took over a number of routine duties and details of the Executive branch of the government from the onset of Wilson's illness until he left office almost a year and a half later. From October 1919 to the end of Wilson’s term on March 4, 1921, Edith, acting in the role of First Lady and shadow steward, decided who and which matters of state were important enough to bring to the bedridden president.

"I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators," she wrote later of her role, "and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband."


One Republican senator[who?] labeled her "the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man."[24] In My Memoir, published in 1939, Edith Bolling Wilson justified her self-proclaimed role of presidential "steward," arguing that her actions on behalf of Woodrow Wilson's presidency were sanctioned by Wilson's doctors; that they told her to do so for her husband's mental health.[25]

Several historians take issue with Edith Bolling Wilson's claim of a benign "stewardship," arguing that she "was essentially, the nation’s chief executive until her husband’s second term concluded in March of 1921."[26] That same year, Wilson's chief of staff Joe Tumulty wrote, "No public man ever had a more devoted helpmeet, and no wife a husband more dependent upon her sympathetic understanding of his problems... Mrs. Wilson's strong physical constitution, combined with strength of character and purpose, has sustained her under a strain which must have wrecked most women."[27] Yet, in subsequent decades, scholars were far more critical in their assessment of Edith Wilson's tenure as First Lady. Phyllis Lee Levin concludes that the effectiveness of Woodrow Wilson's policies were unnecessarily hampered by his wife, "a woman of narrow views and formidable determination."[28] Judith Weaver opines that Edith Wilson underestimated her own role in Wilson's presidency. While she may not have made critical decisions, she did influence both domestic and international policy given her role as presidential gatekeeper.[29] More recently, it has been argued that Edith Wilson essentially became the acting President of the United States in 1919, months before women officially won the nationwide right to vote. William Hazelgrove titled a 2016 biography Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. While a widow of moderate education for her time, she nevertheless attempted to protect her husband and his legacy, if not the presidency, even if it meant exceeding her role as First Lady.[30]

Later years[edit]

In 1921, Edith Wilson retired with the former president to their home on S Street NW in Washington, D.C., nursing him until his death three years later. In subsequent years, she headed the Woman's National Democratic Club's board of governors when the club opened formally in 1924, and published her memoir in 1939.[31].

On December 8, 1941, one day after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war, taking pains to draw a link with Wilson's April 1917 declaration of war. Edith Bolling Wilson was present during Roosevelt's address to Congress.[32] Twenty years later, in 1961, Edith Bolling Wilson attended the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.[33]

Wilson died of congestive heart failure at age 89, on December 28, 1961. She was to have been the guest of honor that day at the dedication ceremony for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia, on what would have been her husband's 105th birthday.[34] She was buried next to the president at the Washington Cathedral.[35]


  • The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation & Museum in Wytheville, Virginia was established in 2008. The foundation has stabilized the First Lady's birthplace and childhood home; it had been identified in May 2013 by Preservation Virginia as an Endangered Historic Site. The foundation's programs and exhibits aspire to build public awareness "honoring Mrs. Wilson’s name, the contributions she made to this country, the institution of the presidency, and for the example she sets for women." The Foundation shares First Lady Mrs. Wilson's journey "From Wytheville to The White House".

In 2015, a former historic bank building in Wytheville, located on Main Street, was dedicated to the First Lady and bears her name. Adapted as the Bolling Wilson Hotel, it serves Wytheville residents and travelers alike.[37]


  1. ^ William Elliott Hazelgrove, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson (Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016); Brian Lamb, Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb?: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites (New York: Public Affairs, 2010), p. 119; Judith L. Weaver, “Edith Bolling, Wilson as First Lady: A Study in the Power of Personality, 1919-1920,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 15, No. 1 (Winter, 1985), pp. 51-76; and Dwight Young and Margaret Johnson, Dear First Lady: Letters to the White House: From the Collections of the Library of Congress & National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008), p. 91.
  2. ^ Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider, First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Facts On File, 2010), p. 191; and "Person Details for Edith Bolling, "Virginia Births and Christenings, 1853-1917" —". Familysearch.org. Retrieved 2016-09-07. 
  3. ^ Pezzoni, J. Daniel (July 1994). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Wytheville Historic District" (PDF). Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 
  4. ^ Hatch, p. 42; Waldrup, p. 186; For a genealogy of Pocahontas' elite slave-holding settler descendants, see Wyndham Robertson, Pocahontas: Alias Matoaka, and Her Descendants through Her Marriage at Jamestown, Virginia, in April 1614, with John Rolph, Gentleman (J W Randolph & English, Richmond, VA, 1887).
  5. ^ For a critical analysis of Pocahontas in her historical context, see Camilla Townshend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (Hill and Wang, 2004); Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s histories skillfully interrogate the catastrophic dynamics of English settler colonization in Virginia. See Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Indians & English: Facing Off in Early America (Cornell University Press, 2000); Settling with the Indians: the Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640 (Rowman and Littlefield, 1980); The Jamestown Project (Harvard University Press, 2007); and The Atlantic in World History (Oxford University Press, 2012).
  6. ^ Mayo, p. 170; and McCallops, p. 1.
  7. ^ Schneider and Schneider, p. 191
  8. ^ McCallops, p. 1.
  9. ^ Mayo, p. 169.
  10. ^ For a useful analysis of the creation of a nostalgic, pro-slavery Southern tradition see Gaines Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (Oxford University Press, 1988).
  11. ^ Schneider and Schneider, p. 191.
  12. ^ Gould, p. 237.
  13. ^ Gould, p. 237.
  14. ^ McCallops, p. 2.
  15. ^ Schneider and Schneider, p. 191; and Gould, p. 237.
  16. ^ Mayo, p. 170
  17. ^ Schneider and Schneider, p. 191.
  18. ^ Gould, p. 237; McCallops, p. 3.
  19. ^ Mayo, p.170.
  20. ^ "Edith Wilson", Biography.com.
  21. ^ Maynard, p. 309; Nordhult, p. 195.
  22. ^ Hagood, p. 84; Wertheimer, p. 105.
  23. ^ Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  24. ^ Creeden, Sharon (1999). In Full Bloom: Tales of Women in Their Prime. August House. p. 30. 
  25. ^ Wilson, p. 289; and Klapthor and Black, p. 65.
  26. ^ Howard Markel, “When a secret president ran the country,” PBS News Hour (Oct 2, 2015).
  27. ^ Joseph Patrick Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him (New York, NY:, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921), 436.
  28. ^ Levin, p. 518.
  29. ^ Gregg Phifer, Speech Monographs, Vol. 38 Issue 4 (Nov 1971), p. 278; and Weaver, “Edith Bolling Wilson as First Lady,” pp. 51-76.
  30. ^ Hazelgrove, Madam President, 2016.
  31. ^ Judith McArthur, Minnie Fisher Cunningham : A Suffragist's Life in Politics New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, page 124.
  32. ^ Emily S Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory. Duke University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8223-3206-X.
  33. ^ Rowe, Abbie. "Inaugural Parade for President John F. Kennedy". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved 14 December 2013. 
  34. ^ Ginsberg, Steven (July 15, 2006). "From Its Hapless Beginning, Span's Reputation Only Fell". Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-05-11. 
  35. ^ "Presidential Funerals". Washington National Cathedral. 
  36. ^ Library of Congress, The Woodrow Wilson Library
  37. ^ "The Foundation History". Edith Bolling Wilson Foundation and Museum. Archived from the original on 19 August 2015. Retrieved 5 October 2015. 


  • Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Foster, Gaines. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Gould, Lewis L. American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. Florence, Ky.: Taylor and Francis, 2001.
  • Hagood, Wesley O. Presidential Sex: From the Founding Fathers to Bill Clinton. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub., 1998.
  • Hatch, Alden. Edith Bolling Wilson. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961.
  • Hazelgrove, William Elliott. Madam President : The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016.
  • Klapthor, Margaret Brown and Black, Allida M. The First Ladies. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2001.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians & English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • ______. Settling with the Indians: the Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.
  • ______. The Atlantic in World History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • ______. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Markel, Howard. “When a secret president ran the country,” PBS News Hour (Oct 2, 2015)
  • Miller, Kristie. Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
  • Lamb, Brian. Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb?: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites. New York: Public Affairs, 2010.
  • Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001. ISBN 0-7432-1158-8
  • Maynard, W. Barksdale. Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Mayo, Edith. The Smithsonian Book of the First Ladies: Their Lives, Times, and Issues. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994.
  • McCallops, James S. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson: The Unintended President. New York: Nova History Publications, 2003.
  • Nordhult, J.W. Schulte. Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Phifer, Gregg. Speech Monographs, Vol. 38 Issue 4 (Nov 1971).
  • Robertson, Wyndham. Pocahontas: Alias Matoaka, and Her Descendants through Her Marriage at Jamestown, Virginia, in April 1614, with John Rolph, Gentleman. Richmond, VA: J W Randolph & English, 1887.
  • Schneider, Dorothy and Schneider, Carl J. First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Facts On File, 2010.
  • Townshend, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2004.
  • Tribble, Edwin. ed. A President in Love : The Courtship Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
  • Tumulty, Joseph Patrick. Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him. New York, NY:, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921.
  • Waldrup, Carole Chandler. Wives of the American Presidents. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006.
  • Weaver, Judith L. “Edith Bolling, Wilson as First Lady: A Study in the Power of Personality, 1919-1920,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 15, No. 1 (Winter, 1985), pp. 51-76
  • Wertheimer, Molly Meijer. Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
  • Wilson, Edith Bolling Galt. My Memoir. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1939.
  • Young, Dwight and Johnson, Margaret. Dear First Lady: Letters to the White House: From the Collections of the Library of Congress & National Archives. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008.

External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by
Margaret Wilson
De facto
First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by
Florence Harding