Was Edith Wilson the First Woman President?

Date01 April 2023
AuthorBhatia, Sara

Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson

by Rebecca Boggs Roberts

Viking, 320 pp.

Woodrow Wilson's wife had extraordinary influence. Then he suffered a debilitating stroke.

Rebecca Boggs Roberts opens Untold Power, her delightful new biography of First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, with a gripping scene that seems scripted for Hollywood. To set the stage: In the fall of 1919, after a grueling seven months in Europe negotiating the end of World War I, a bruising battle with the Senate over the treaty's ratification, and a cross-country train tour to promote the League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed, intellectually diminished, and often incoherent. Remarkably, Edith Wilson--the president's second wife, of just four years--along with a tiny coterie of loyal aides successfully conspired to hide the president's illness from the public, government officials, and even from the president himself. For months, Wilson remained bedridden while the White House insisted that he was merely suffering from nervous exhaustion.

As the wheels of government churned and the president convalesced, Edith installed herself as the ultimate gatekeeper, determining which matters of state were worthy of her husband's attention, shielding him from bad news and well-meaning advisers, and meeting personally with Cabinet members and visiting dignitaries. Rumors abounded that Edith was acting as president. On the floor of the Senate, a political rival asserted that the first lady was running a "petticoat government."

Hoping to fan the flames of scandal, Wilson's political foes demanded an audience at the White House. In an astonishing tableau, Wilson's personal secretary, doctor, and wife shaved and dressed the invalid president, propped him up in bed, covered his paralyzed side with a blanket, and adjusted the lighting to ensure that he remained in the shadows. Miraculously, Wilson rose to the occasion, conversing comfortably--albeit briefly--with the visiting senators. Roberts wryly comments,

The resulting news coverage was everything Edith and her confidants could have wished for ... For the moment, everyone believed the president was running the country. Edith just had to make sure everyone kept believing it until it was true or until the 1920 election, whichever came first. Edith, assisted by the president's closest advisers, continued this charade for an astonishing 17 months, right up until the inauguration of Republican Warren G. Harding.

Edith Wilson has been a controversial figure for more than a century, with historians debating whether she fully inhabited the role of the executive (her detractors dubbed Edith the "first woman president") or merely acted as a devoted wife and "steward" (as she insisted in her revealing, self-deprecating memoir).

The facts about the controversial final 17 months of the Wilson presidency are well known. But while there's not much new factual material for presidential scholars, for the armchair historian, this richly embroidered narrative is a pleasure to read. Roberts is a fine storyteller, and she offers a compulsively readable, analytical biography of a complex woman too often depicted as a simple caricature.

Like most scholars of women's history (the author's prior books concern the American suffrage movement), Roberts widens the lens traditionally focused on great white men to consider a broader set of historical actors, and to think about politics and power in a more nuanced way. Edith Wilson's own life is proof, Roberts argues, that "serving as a duly elected executive is not the only history worth making."

And yet, first ladies present a particular challenge for biographers. Unlike say, an Elizabeth Cady Stanton or a Shirley Chisholm, who entered the historical record as political actors in their own right, first ladies exercise a soft power that...

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