Edith Wilson (1872-1961) was an American first lady (1915–21) and the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States. The couple married just a year after the 1914 death of Wilson’s first wife, Ellen. Though Edith admitted she had no prior knowledge of–or interest in–politics, she soon became deeply involved in presidential affairs. As first lady during World War I, she volunteered with the Red Cross and encouraged rationing efforts by American women. Edith Wilson’s role as self-appointed “steward” for her husband following his debilitating stroke in 1919 has left her with a complicated and controversial legacy as first lady.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson traced her ancestry to Virginia colonial aristocracy. The daughter of Sallie White and Judge William Holcombe Bolling, she was a direct descendant of Pocahontas on her father’s side, and was related by blood or through marriage to Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington and Letitia Tyler. However, Edith did not grow up in luxury; her paternal grandfather had lost his plantation after the Civil War, and the large Bolling family lived in cramped quarters above a storefront in Wytheville, Virginia. Edith briefly attended Martha Washington College and Powell’s School as a teenager, but otherwise received little formal education.
Edith met Norman Galt, a partner in a prominent Washington, D.C., silver and jewelry store, through her sister’s marriage into the Galt family. After a lengthy courtship of more than four years, the two were married from 1896 until Galt died unexpectedly in 1908. Edith then took over ownership of the store, overseeing its day-to-day operation while hiring a manager to handle the business minutiae. The arrangement proved successful, as Edith earned enough income to make regular trips to Europe and motor around town in a fancy new electric car.
Her courtship with Woodrow Wilson lasted just a few months. Having made the acquaintance of Woodrow Wilson’s cousin, Helen Bones, Edith met the recently widowed president during tea at the White House in March 1915. He invited her to dinner a few weeks later, and soon began discussing matters of state with his new companion, such as whether or not to declare war on Germany after the attack on the Lusitania in May. The smitten president typed up a press release in October announcing their engagement, which was followed by their wedding on Dec. 18, 1915. Although aides worried that Wilson’s speedy return to the altar would rub the public the wrong way, it proved an insignificant obstacle in his bid to seek a second term in 1916.
As first lady, Edith delegated traditional ceremonial duties to a secretary and retained a close interest in presidential affairs. Her prominent role snowballed, however, after Wilson’s stroke in October 1919. Aiming to keep Wilson’s fragile state hidden from the public, she became the sole conduit between the president and his cabinet, determining which matters were important enough to require his attention. The situation killed Wilson’s hopes of drumming up Senate support for the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations, as Ellen was unwilling and unable to broker any sort of compromise. Despite her best efforts, word of the president’s condition leaked and became a matter of public concern by early 1920.
After Wilson’s death in 1924, Edith took to carefully guarding her husband’s legacy. Owning the literary rights to his personal papers, she denied access to anyone she felt would damage his reputation, and maintained control over the script for the 1944 biopic “Wilson.” The former first lady also addressed her controversial stint as the presidential steward in her 1939 autobiography, although historians have since questioned her account of historical events. A staunch supporter of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Edith last appeared in public at his 1961 inauguration. She was stricken with a respiratory infection later that year and passed away on December 28.
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Edith Wilson: America's First Woman President?
Has a woman already served as President of the United States? Did first lady Edith Wilson actually function as president after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke?
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson certainly had the right ancestral stuff to be president. Born to U.S. circuit judge William Holcombe Bolling and Sallie White of colonial Virginia in 1872, Edith Bolling truly was a direct descendant of Pocahontas and was related by blood to President Thomas Jefferson and by marriage to first ladies Martha Washington and Letitia Tyler.
At the same time, her upbringing made her relatable to the “common folk.” After her grandfather’s plantation was lost in the Civil War, Edith, along with the rest of the large Bolling family, lived in a tiny boarding house over a Wytheville, Virginia store.
Aside from briefly attending Martha Washington College, she received little formal education. While at Martha Washington from 1887 to 1888, she took classes in history, mathematics, physics, chemistry, Latin, Greek, French, German, civil government, political geography, spelling, grammar, bookkeeping and typewriting. However, she disliked college and left after only two semesters to attend the Richmond Female Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, from 1889 to 1890.
As President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Wilson did not let her lack of higher education prevent her from keeping up with presidential affairs and the workings of the federal government while handing off the largely ceremonial duties of first ladies to her secretary.
In April 1917, just four months after starting his second term, President Wilson led the U.S. into World War I. During the war, Edith worked closely with her husband by screening his mail, attending his meetings, and giving him her opinions of politicians and foreign representatives. Even Wilson’s closest advisors often needed Edith’s approval in order to meet with him.
As the war drew to an end in 1919, Edith accompanied the president to Paris where she conferred with him as he negotiated the Versailles Peace Treaty. After returning to Washington, Edith supported and assisted the president as he struggled to overcome Republican opposition to his proposal for the League of Nations.
No other former first lady has come closer to the office of the presidency than the 42nd first lady, Hillary Clinton. While still in the position, Clinton became the first wife of the president to run and be elected to public office when she won a seat in the U.S. Senate representing New York in 2001, according to Biography.
CNN reports that when then-candidate Bill Clinton was campaigning in 1992 for office, one of the slogans he used during the presidential race was "buy one, get one free," indicating that if elected, Hillary would have a hand in forming the administration's policy. He even compared himself and his wife to another famous Democrat power couple. "If I get elected president, it will be an unprecedented partnership, far more than Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor."
Once in the office though, Hillary became a favorite target for the opposition, from her work in attempting to overhaul the healthcare system, something that according to White House.gov, her husband asked her to do, to her decision to form her own office in the West Wing. Despite this, Hillary's voice and presence in Washington and worldwide could not be ignored. Her speech at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Bejing was a high point as first lady. After serving as a New York senator throughout the George W. Bush administration, she served as the secretary of state during the first term of the Obama Administration.
Edith didn't get much of a formal education
Though she eventually gained a reputation as an intelligent and energetic woman, young Edith didn't receive much in the way of a formal education. As First Ladies reports, this was a bit odd. Her sisters attended school like any other children of the time, so we can't properly blame prevailing cultural attitudes or even necessarily the individual quirks of the Bolling family. Instead, it appears that Edith, along with her family, decided that she wasn't necessarily suited to more formalized education.
Edith, however, was not left to run wild. Her paternal grandmother was bedridden after a spinal injury and Edith was tasked with taking care of her. In turn, her grandmother educated the younger girl in the basics of math, literacy, and traditional homemaking skills like sewing. Edith also learned a kind of pidgin French from her grandmother that was mixed with English. And, while it wasn't a formal skill, Edith soon grew to make strong and quick judgments like her grandmother, a personality trait that arguably helped her catch the eye of a president and eventually led to her historic, if obscured, role within the White House.
Eventually, Biography says, Edith did enroll in school, though it wasn't a wild success. She reportedly dropped out of Martha Washington College because it was too cold, though it's easy enough to wonder if she simply wasn't inclined to the structured environment of higher education and finishing schools.
Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:
Eleven months after his wedding to Edith Galt, President Wilson faced a re-election campaign. The fears of some of his Cabinet and advisors that the remarriage (coming barely a year after the first Mrs. Wilson's death) would harm his campaign never materialized. The inaugural was subdued U.S. entry into the world war was imminent and March 4 fell on a Sunday in 1917, which traditionally did not call for large ceremony. Edith Wilson rode to and from the Capitol beside her husband in an open carriage.
First Lady Feature: Edith Wilson
Over the course of Women’s History Month, we’ve featured several remarkable first ladies who had the wits and wisdom to be president themselves. Edith Wilson, who hid the depth of her husband’s illness from the country, is the only one who actually got close to assuming the presidency.
Edith met Woodrow Wilson during a chance encounter at the White House. His first wife, Ellen, had died of Bright’s disease only seven months earlier. They had a quick and passionate courtship which alarmed many of Wilson’s advisors. Not only would the president soon run for reelection (his advisors fretted that his pursuit of a woman so soon after the death of his wife would hurt his chances), but Edith was known in town for being one of the first women to ever drive a car, and was shunned by Washington’s elite because her money came from her (deceased) first husband’s jewelry store.
Three months after they met, the Wilsons wed.
Then in 1919, two years into Wilson’s second term, and four years into their marriage, Wilson suffered a devastating stroke that left him paralyzed. The president had been barnstorming around the country in the aftermath of WWI, trying to whip up support for his inspired but doomed plan for a League of Nations.
As the 25th amendment wouldn’t be ratified for almost fifty years, there wasn’t really an answer to what the government should do if the president became unable to perform his duties. Wilson wasn’t dead, so there didn’t seem to be a reason for the vice president to step into his role. Without the 25th amendment, Congress and the Cabinet had no real power to act (and the extent of Wilson’s condition was kept top secret). To Edith, protective of her husband and his presidency, the answer was clear.
Anything that came to the president first had to go through the first lady. This included Cabinet members, policy papers, and any other pressing issues. As such, Edith Wilson decided what was important enough for the president to see–and what he could live without knowing.
Although Edith Wilson denied ever becoming president herself, she did acknowledge her “stewardship” during the Wilsons’ waning White House years:
“So began my stewardship, I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, 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.”
President Wilson slowly recovered from his stroke, but remained paralyzed on one side. He died five years later, having remarked, “I am a broken piece of machinery–when the machinery is broken–I am ready.” When he died on February 2nd, 1924, his last word was the name of his wife, who’d guided him through his illness and the final years of his presidency. Edith.
Edith Wilson would live for almost forty years after her husband’s death. She was active in political life, speaking at the 1928 Democratic Convention and attending the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Although Americans have never elected a female president, Edith Wilson got close. During her husband’s illness, she arguably ran the country in his stead.
History’s Forgotten: Episode 2 – Edith Wilson
Maddie Moats, Christi Norris and Caroline Wilburn record episode two of the Best of SNO winning podcast, “History’s Forgotten.” On this episode, they will discuss First Lady Edith Wilson and her contributions in the White House.
In this Episode:
Second wife and First Lady to President Woodrow Wilson, Edith Wilson was an impressive woman that played a critical role in America during and after WWI. After President Wilson suffered from a stroke, she took on numerous responsibilities, and lead major executive decisions throughout her time in the White House. Hosts Maddie Moats and Christi Norris talk with guest Caroline Wilburn about the contributions and criticisms of Edith Wilson.
Caroline Wilburn, a senior, has lived in Prosper, Texas, since 2010. This is her second year on staff, and she holds the position of sports editor this year. In addition, she serves on the editorial board for Eagle Nation Online. Outside of school, she enjoys spending time with friends, family and her dogs. She also plays for the varsity tennis team and looks forward to combining her love for sports and journalism together.
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Edith Wilson, the First Lady who Acted as President
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife and from 1915-1921, she was the First Lady of the United States. When her husband suffered a severe stroke at the end of 1919, Edith essentially took over for him, deciding which matters were most important so she could take them to her husband, who was stuck in bed recovering. She was the first first lady to assume the functions of the president.
On October 15, 1872. Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville, Virginia to William Holcombe, a circuit court judge, and Sarah “Sallie” Spears Bolling. Her father, and her, were direct descendants of Pocahontas, and her family went way back to the earliest settlers of Virginia. She was related to Thomas Jefferson as well, as her great-grandmother was his sister, and also Martha Washington and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Edith was her parents’ seventh child, with four more to chome. Though the Bolling family claimed they had been wealthy before the American Civil War broke out in the early 1860s, but they were unable to pay their taxes so they had to give up their plantation. So instead, William Bolling settled into his father’s home in Wytheville. When the war came to an end, that’s when William began studying law.
Unlike her sisters, Edith was not enrolled in local schools. Though she did receive an education, it was not a great one. Anne Wiggington Bolling, her grandmother, had been crippled from a spinal cord injury and had Edith wash her clothing, make her dresses along with crochet, knit, and embroider. Her grandmother taught her an appreciation for music and poetry along with teaching her how to make quick judgements and hold strong opinions. Edith would continue to exhibit these teaching throughout her life. Lastly, her grandmother taught her how to read, write, and speak some form of a language that was a hybrid of French and English. Sometimes, William Bolling would also take Edith with him when he travelled.
At fifteen, Edith was enrolled at Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia, which was a girls’ finishing school. Her father had picked the school for his daughter due to its exceptional music program. However, Edith was miserable at the school and hated it. The food was poor and the rooms extremely cold. The very strict and rigorous routine did not work for her either. After one semester, she left the school. Two years later, her father enrolled her in school again, this time at Powell’s School for Girls, which was located in Richmond, Virginia. At Powell’s, she described it as the happiest time of her life. But at the end of the year, the headmaster suffered a terrible accident and lost his leg from it, so the school closed. William was concerned about how much her education was costing him, so instead sent three of his sons to school in her place.
Edith met Norman Galt on a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit her sister. Galt was a prominent jeweler and eight years her senior. The two got married on April 30,, 1896. For the next twelve years, they lived in D.C. Edith had her first, and only child, a son, in 1903, but the infant died only a few days later. The birth was difficult and afterwards, she was unable to get pregnant again. Her husband unexpectedly died in January of 1908 at forty-three. From there, Edith had to hire a manager to run her late husband’s business and was stuck paying off his debts.
Edith Galt was first introduced to President Woodrow Wilson, a widower, in March of 1915 by his cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones. Initially, Wilson took a liking to the widow. Soon, his admiration for her turned into love and he proposed to her.
Rumours also began spreading that Wilson had been cheating on Ellen Wilson, his first wife who was killed in 1914. There was another rumour that either he or Edith Galt had murdered her. Wilson knew his fiancée could have been distressed by these accusations and asked her if she wanted to back out of the proposal due to it, but in response, Edith promised to stand by him because she loved him. She made him postpone the wedding into the year for Ellen Wilson’s mourning had come to an end.
On December 18, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson married Edith Galt in Washington, D.C. at her home with a joint ceremony performed by his pastor and her reverend. The following year, he commissioned for Adolfo Müller-Ury, a Swiss-American, to paint a portrait of his new wife. The painting hung in his bedroom until he died and Edith left it to the White House. A copy of the portrait was made for the Woodrow Wilson House Museum.
The first lady observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays during the Great War to set an example for the country and the federal rationing effort. To not waste manpower on mowing the White House lawn, she set up sheep to graze on it instead. The wool was auctioned off to benefit the American Red Cross.
Traditionally, the first lady acted as hostess for her husband, but Edith’s role as hostess was overshadowed by the war. When the U.S. entered the war, her efforts were entirely abandoned. This happened in 1917 when she also became the only person beside the President to receive full-time protection from the Secret Service permanently. Wilson made a trip to negotiate the peace terms in Europe when the war ended and Edith accompanied her husband to Europe.
Wilson returned from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and immediately began campaigning for the Senate to approve the peace treaty. That October, he suffered a severe stroke, rendering him paralyzed and unable to do anything. He was stuck in bed for the remainder of his term.
So, Edith took over many of her husband’s duties up until March 4, 1921, when her husband would leave office. She sat in on meetings and would decide which state matters were most important and which ones to bring to her sick husband. She was called “the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changer her title from First Lady to Acting First Man” by one Republican senator. Edith insisted that she had only taken on the role because her husband’s doctors told her it was best for his mental health in her memoir My Memoir.
The Wilson’s retired when his term as president came to an end in 1921. They moved to their home in D.C. where Edith continued to nurse him until he died in 1924.
Edith would go on to serve as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s director and was the head of the Woman’s National Democratic Club’s board of governors. She accompanied President Franklin. D. Roosevelt when he went to Congress on December 8, 1941 asking them to formally declare war after the events of Pearl Harbor the previous day. Edith attended President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
Edith Wilson belongs to that first group of African-American women referred to as vaudeville or cabaret blues singers that in the early '20s followed Mamie Smith into the recording studios. Wilson's recording…
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Artist Biography by Frank Powers
Edith Wilson belongs to that first group of African-American women referred to as vaudeville or cabaret blues singers that in the early '20s followed Mamie Smith into the recording studios. Wilson's recording career started with Columbia in 1921 with accompaniment provided by trumpeter Johnny Dunn's Jazz Hounds.
She was born Edith Goodall to a middle-class Black family in Louisville, Kentucky on September 2, 1896. Her birthdate is often given as ten years later, due to vanity. Her ancestors included an American Vice-President, John C. Breckenridge, and a woman who was the model for the Liza character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Edith Wilson entered show business in 1919 at the Park Theater in Louisville. Shortly afterwards she joined blues singer Lena Wilson and her pianist brother Danny when they performed in town. Edith and Danny Wilson were married and the three formed an act. They opened in Baltimore to success and played locations on the East Coast. When they encountered talent scout Perry Bradford in New York (who had brought Mamie Smith to OKeh Records), Edith Wilson was taken to Columbia Records, where joined Johnny Dunn's Jazz Hounds for a series of 17 recordings made in 1921 and 1922. Wilson would make few recordings in subsequent years until she made her comeback in the 1970s.
While working at The Club Alabam in New York in 1924, Wilson was caught up in a dispute between the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and the club managers. They wanted tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins to appear on-stage with Wilson. Hawkins was perfectly willing to oblige but asked for extra compensation, which was refused. Wilson once recalled, "I was to come out on-stage carrying Hawk's saxophone and sing a song called "Nobody's Used It Since You've Been Gone" and then I'd give him back his horn and he'd play." It's not certain if this incident led to the Henderson band's departure from The Club Alabam right away, but soon his orchestra was hired by The Roseland Ballroom.
Wilson never really was a blues singer in the sense of Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey. Her career would be spent performing on theater stages and in nightclubs. She became a major star in the New York Black entertainment world. She was a member, with the famous Florence Mills, of "Lew Leslie's Plantation Review" at The Lafayette Theater in Harlem. In the mid- to late '20s, Wilson was in England, where she established herself as an international star. She would return to England many times over the course of following decades. Later, in New York, Wilson appeared in the famous revue Hot Chocolates, where she introduced the Fats Waller/Andy Razaf tune "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue." Louis Armstrong also appeared on the show with Fats Waller and Wilson the three were billed as "The Thousand Pounds of Harmony." Wilson would appear with all the greatest names in Black show business of the day, including Bill Robinson, Duke Ellington, Alberta Hunter, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, and many others.
She was also a recognized actress, appearing in non-singing roles on radio shows like Amos and Andy and in the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall classic film To Have and Have Not. She was also active in early network television. Around 1950, Wilson assumed the character of Aunt Jemima, promoting the pancake mix for the Quaker Oats Company. Some criticized her for playing a Black Mammy stereotype, but she refused to be intimidated and was proud of what she considered the aura of dignity she brought to the character.
Wilson retired from show business in 1963 to work as an executive secretary with Negro Actors Guild and to involve herself with other charitable, religious, and literary activities. She returned from retirement in 1973, performing and recording with various artists such as Eubie Blake, Little Brother Montgomery, and Terry Waldo's Gutbucket Syncopators. Her last appearance was at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980.