Throughout the history of the United States of America, the White House was ruled entirely by men. When former Senator Hilary Clinton vied for the 2016 presidential election, the world thought the U.S. might have been ready for a female president. But of course, it did not happen.
However, according to William Hazelgrove, a historian and the author of the book, Madam President: The Secret Presidency, the United States already had a female president in the early twentieth century. She was Edith Wilson, and she led the White House and the country in secret for over a year, which made her the sole female “unelected” president of the United States of America.
From Virginia to Washington
Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville, Virginia, on October 15, 1872. Her family’s line descended from English colonial aristocracy settlers in Virginia. She was the seventh of the eleven children by William Bolling, a lawyer and judge, and Sallie White Bolling. Through her father, she was also a direct descendant of the American Native icon, Pocahontas.
Edith did not grow up in luxury; her paternal grandfather had lost his plantation after the Civil War, and her entire family lived in cramped quarters above a storefront in Wytheville.
Edith was educated primarily at home and spent two years at a preparatory school in Virginia. She briefly attended Martha Washington College but received little formal education.
Marriage to Mr. Galt of Washington, D.C
Edith left college and followed her older sister, who was then living in Washington. There she met Norman Galt, a wealthy old man who owned a jewelry store in the nation’s capital. After a lengthy courtship of more than four years, the couple got married in 1896. Edith had a son with Norman but, unfortunately, their baby boy died within a few days of his birth.
After twelve years of marriage, Norman died unexpectedly, in 1908. Edith suddenly found herself widowed but wealthy. She inherited Norman’s wealth and took over the jewelry shop, although she found out that the business was under massive debt. Nevertheless, instead of giving up, she started overseeing the store’s day-to-day operations. She also hired a manager to handle the business technicalities.
The jewelry business became a success, and Edith earned enough money to take regular trips to Europe. In the District of Columbia, she was the only woman who had a driver’s license and drove a fancy automobile around town.
Despite living a luxurious life, Edith was barred from the upper echelons of the capital, simply because her wealth derived from a retail store, being snobbishly marked as a “trade.” Little did the “noble” circle know that the woman they were undermining was destined to become the United State’s First Lady.
The 28th President: Woodrow Wilson
In 1912, Americans elected Woodrow Wilson as the 28th president of the United States of America. Woodrow is the only Chief Executive of the country to have held a Ph.D. degree, and his expertise was law, history, politics, and government.
In his doctoral dissertation, he did a comparative study juxtaposing the American form of government and the parliamentary way. He suggested that the U.S. should have a better system that is more efficient in answering public opinion. Some of his government analysis papers offered a modern view of what the U.S. presidency should be like.
“[The president is] the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people. When he speaks in his true character, he speaks for no special interest.” — Woodrow Wilson.
Woodrow was a professional academic and, in 1902, he became the president of Princeton University. His remarkable works at Princeton attracted conservative Democrat Party’s kingmakers, who convinced him to run for the gubernatorial seat in New Jersey.
Woodrow left the academic world and pursued politics. Once in office, he implemented his earlier ideas about parliamentary practices to execute reforms that made him famous, becoming a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In the 1912 presidential election, Woodrow entered into an exciting four-way race for the presidency. He competed against former president Theodore Roosevelt of the Progressive Party, William Howard Taft of the Republican Party, and Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party. Wilson had a landslide of 435 votes in the electoral college, which won him the White House’s seat.
Woodrow’s personal life
In 1885 Wilson married Ellen Louise Axson (Ellen Wilson) and they had three daughters, Margaret, Jessie, and Eleanor. The marriage was warm and happy; however, it was darkened by Ellen’s bouts of depression and Woodrow’s brief extramarital affair with Mary Allen Peck.
Woodrow was already in his third year as the U.S. president when Ellen died in August 1914. He was devastated with grief, but he had to move on quickly as the entire nation depended on him. However, his status as a widowed president was short-lived — because he met Mrs. Edith Bolling-Galt.
Woodrow and Edith: love at first sight
In March 1915, Edith was out with her friend Althude Gordon, who was then dating the White House physician, Dr. Cary Grayson. Among Dr. Grayson’s wards was President Woodrow Wilson and his cousin Helen Bones.
One day, Helen joined Althude and Edith on a muddy hike and persuaded them back to the White House for an afternoon tea. There, Edith met Woodrow, and the two were immediately attracted to each other.
The whirlwind romance
A few weeks after their meeting, Woodrow invited Edith for dinner. The president found a confidant in Edith, and records stated that Woodrow’s limousine was frequently seen outside Edith’s door, “ready to slip her over for romantic suppers.”
Woodrow also sent Edith some love notes, where he flatteringly sought her apolitical opinion on issues ranging from “Cabinet members’ trustworthiness to states’ matters.” The president was not merely in love with Edith but also trusted her. Therefore, it did not take long for him to ask for her hand in marriage.
A second First Lady
Their whirlwind romance alarmed the U.S. cabinet members and the Democrat Party since Woodrow’s wife had just died. The president’s allies believed that his affair with Edith would harm his reelection in 1916, as the public should be seeing him mourning instead of dating.
Consequently, Woodrow’s political advisors crafted a plan to kick Edith out of the president’s life. They generated a series of fake love letters as if they had been written by Woodrow destined to Mary Peck (his former mistress), and leaked them to the press. Their strategy was to humiliate Edith so that she would leave.
However, their scheme did not work as the couple tied the knot at Edith’s home in Washington on December 18, 1915. Their marriage also proved that it was not a hindrance to Woodrow’s political career as he won his second term in 1916.
Wilsons: the power couple
The Wilsons led the U.S. amid the First World War, and Edith, as the new First Lady, never left her husband’s side. She also had direct access to highly classified documents, wartime codes, and Woodrow allowed her to scan his mails. Edith was privy to the White House’s ins and outs, even on matters of national security.
Woodrow wanted his wife to be part of every meeting with the cabinet members and presidential advisors. Edith also gave him assessments of political figures and foreign representatives. She had the final say in who were the people her husband could see and meet. She denied appointments if she believed her husband couldn’t be disturbed.
The First Lady in action
During World War I, Edith, together with Woodrow’s daughters, volunteered at a Red Cross canteen. She encouraged American women to economize on food so that the soldiers could eat better.
In a much-publicized gesture, she arranged for a sheep flock to graze on the White House’s lawn. It was an austerity measure by not hiring many human resources to cut the grass, and the sheep did the job. Edith also auctioned the sheep’s wool, and the income was all donated to the Red Cross to support the war effort.
The Wilsons wanted to be a model American family helping the war troops, so they suspended entertainment at the White House and actively participated in public programs. Edith organized war bond rallies held on the Treasury Building’s steps with appearances by some Hollywood stars. She also demonstrated her support by publicizing the White House’s compliance with food and fuel conservation programs.
Edith’s preparation for the presidency
At the war’s end, Edith escorted Woodrow to Europe for the negotiation and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. There he also presented his vision for a League of Nations to prevent future wars. When the couple returned to the U.S., Woodrow toured the country to win American’s support for the League’s vision and mission.
However, he faced enormous resistance among Senate Republicans. Woodrow became ill, and his advisers insisted that he return immediately to the White House. On October 2, he suffered a severe stroke that disabled him for months.
Madam President: Mrs. Edith Bolling-Wilson
Naturally, if something happens to the United States’ president, the vice president will take over the White House’s seat. But Edith ensured no succession happened, as she believed losing the presidency would only depress her husband.
Therefore, Edith decided to step in instead. She took over the Chief Executive’s tasks, while protecting her husband’s image to the public. She kept Woodrow’s real condition in secret, only sharing limited information to the cabinet and the press. Edith described her new role as a “stewardship,” but she ran the show behind closed doors.
Edith started controlling the flow of information inside and outside of the White House. Edith and Woodrow’s physician told the public that the president only needed rest as he was “suffering from nervous exhaustion,” and would be working from his bedroom suite. When individual cabinet members came to confer with the president, they went no further than the First Lady. If they had policy papers or pending decisions for him to review, edit, or approve, she would first look over the material herself. If she deemed the matter pressing enough, she took the paperwork into her husband’s room, where she claimed she would read all the necessary documents to him.
During that time, the officials had to wait in the West Sitting Room hallway until Edith returned to them with Woodrow’s response. Mostly, they received documents riddled with “illegible notes” that Edith said were the president’s transcribed “verbatim responses.” But some officials claimed that it might not have been the president who was writing those notes but Edith herself. They also believed Edith was making decisions on behalf of the disabled president.
However, in her autobiography, Edith stated she never went beyond her role, and all decisions during her seventeen months of stewardship were made by Woodrow:
“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.” — Edith Wilson.
Preserving her husband’s legacy
Edith’s secret reign at the White House lasted until the end of her husband’s term, in March 1921. After, the couple retired to their house in Washington, where Woodrow died on February 3, 1924.
Since then, Edith devoted her remaining years to enhancing Woodrow’s historical reputation. She preserved his papers, working with his official biographer, and converting his birthplace in Virginia and their Washington home into national shrines.
Edith Wilson’s last public appearance was during John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. She was diagnosed with a respiratory infection and passed away on December 28, 1961. Edith was buried beside her husband in Washington National Cathedral.
Many historians contested Edith Wilson’s actions when she took over the presidency while her husband was bedridden. Some even accused her of being too greedy for clinging onto power.
However, for William Hazelgrove, Edith’s decision to protect her husband at his worst showed a lot about her character as a wife. She was dedicated to her husband’s welfare and ambition, putting him first.
Hazelgrove also argued that before Edith became the nation’s First Lady, she was already established. She did everything to make her former husband’s dying business prosper and made her name well-known in Washington by her efforts. Therefore, accusing her that she used Woodrow’s condition for personal ambition was somehow unfair.
Analyzing Edith Wilson’s short presidency proved that a woman could handle an arduous job that many Americans still believe only men can administer. Edith Wilson led the U.S. in secrecy, and even her story was ridiculed in history. It raises a crucial question for a progressive nation: will the U.S. ever be ready for a woman’s leadership?