The First Lady of Firsts

Wytheville’s Edith Bolling Wilson forever redefined the role of First Lady.

Here’s a trivia question for you: How many presidents of the United States were born in Virginia? It’s eight, of course. But you could make a convincing argument for nine. Edith Bolling Wilson, second wife of Woodrow Wilson, was, in effect, our country’s ninth president, while her stroke-stricken husband convalesced.

Edith’s upbringing in a second-story downtown Wytheville apartment, crammed with the 11-member Bolling family, prepared her for the role of precedent-setting First Lady. While her mother, Sallie, was a submissive exemplar of the 19th century’s Cult of True Womanhood, Edith’s invalid grandmother, Anne Wigginton Bolling, was by far the greater influence. Confident and opinionated, Grandmother Bolling either liked you or ignored you. Edith was her favorite. And thus chosen to tend her grandmother’s greatest love: the 27 canaries on the apartment’s back porch.

Visits to relatives in the more exciting environs of Washington, D.C., were the catalyst for Edith moving there and meeting her first husband, jewelry store owner John Galt. In 1904, Edith became the first woman in D.C. to receive a driver’s license and could often be seen tooling about the capital in her Columbia Victoria electric car. After Galt’s untimely passing, Edith came into social contact with the lonely president in early 1915 thanks to a mutual friend. Woodrow was mourning his first wife’s passing. Before long, he and Edith were an item, then they were engaged. That December they married.

That Edith would be First Lady on her own terms—she thought the title First Lady was ridiculous—was apparent at her husband’s second inauguration when she did something no previous First Lady had: she stood directly behind the president as he took the oath of office. Henceforth, if some White House protocol struck Edith as nonsensical, that was likely the end of that. Untrained Edith approached each new situation—and being First Lady provided them almost daily—with confidence and a ready sense of humor. It worked. She charmed everybody. Grandmother Bolling, who had died in 1898, was no doubt smiling down from above.

Edith was not just her husband’s wife, she was his chief advisor. When he met with members of his cabinet, she was there—another First Lady first.

As was helping him review legislation and compose correspondence. He made few decisions without her.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Edith found creative ways to help her husband and the country. She renamed over 80 captured German ships, with each new name checked against existing ones in five worldwide ship registries to avoid duplication. In another first, she learned to decode secret war messages for her husband. And it was her idea to free up the executive mansion’s groundskeepers for war work by turning the White House grounds into grazing pasture for sheep, which she had hauled up from her hometown of Wytheville; the flock’s wool became “White House Wool” auctioned off for war funding. 

Edith was the first First Lady to accompany her husband abroad to meet European royalty, stay in Buckingham Palace, and attend a state dinner there. When President Wilson toured the country by train to promote the U.S. adoption of the League of Nations, Edith was by his side.

Then came the stroke in late 1919 that disabled the President for the remainder of his second term. Wilson’s inner circle kept the extent of his infirmity a secret. Meanwhile, Edith became his intermediary on day-to-day matters of the presidency. Six months into these shielding shenanigans, the veil began to drop. Untold Power, Rebecca Boggs Roberts’ recent biography of Edith, cites how London’s Daily Mail and The Baltimore Sun both termed Edith “the acting president,” while the Canton, Ohio, Daily News gushed “one of the foremost statesmen in Washington is a woman—Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.”

After Woodrow Wilson’s passing in 1924, Edith’s precedent-setting First Ladyship lingered in the public’s mind. At the 1928 Democratic convention, there was more than one call for her to be on the ticket as the VP pick.

Edith’s independent streak never wavered. In attendance at John F. Kennedy’s swearing in, the now-89-year-old former First Lady warded off the January cold with a discreetly tucked away flask of bourbon. It was typical Edith—mindful of the occasion but also practical and never shy about making her own decisions. 

Edith Wilson’s Untold Power

For a deeper dive into the life of Edith Bolling Wilson, read Rebecca Boggs Roberts’ recent biography, Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson (Penguin Random House, 2023). Roberts, a D.C.-based author, historian, and daughter of the late, great Cokie Roberts, examines the life of the beautiful, brilliant, charismatic, catty, complicated, and calculating Edith Bolling Wilson, who, having crawled her way out of Appalachian poverty into the highest echelons of Washington, D.C., became a woman obsessed with crafting her own reputation and exercising her own power, while she simultaneously opposed women’s suffrage. And, for a first-hand experience, visit the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, one of only eight historic sites in the nation dedicated to the life of a First Lady. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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