First lady Edith Wilson, center, and President Woodrow Wilson, left, arrive in New York October 11, 1918 to take part in the Liberty Day Parade. (AP Photo)

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. 

Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson by Rebecca Boggs Roberts Viking, 320 pp.

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.” 

Edith’s actions during the president’s infirmity were of historic import. It was during this period that Congress rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. The president’s unwillingness to compromise, abetted by Edith, doomed both proposals, with global consequences.

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 can be harder to document, and for many Americans—even today—remains deeply uncomfortable. After all, as Roberts notes, “No one elected Edith.” 

Modern history is full of small scandals and awkward revelations of first ladies’ unspoken influence—Nancy Reagan’s consultation with a psychic on foreign policy matters, Bess Truman’s advice on deploying the atom bomb, and, most recently, the revelation that Melania Trump was in the Situation Room during the 2019 raid that killed the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

We should not be surprised that first ladies are so influential—they are, after all, often their husband’s closest confidante, and the isolation within the White House can be profound. And yet, compared to even the most activist first ladies, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, Edith Wilson stands alone.

Only Edith filled the vacuum created by her husband’s infirmity, an unprecedented action that Roberts terms “clearly unconstitutional.” In only one prior administration had there been a similar power vacuum, when James Garfield lingered for more than two months after he was shot by an assassin in 1881. During the period before his death, no one—not Vice President Chester Arthur, nor members of the Cabinet, and certainly not the first lady—stepped in to fill the gap. 

Indeed, as Roberts points out, at the time, the Constitution was “maddeningly vague” about how to determine whether a president was unable to serve, and who was responsible for making that difficult call. It was not until the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, in the wake of President Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, that the Constitution clarified the process of presidential succession and explicitly directed how the president might be removed if deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Edith’s actions during the president’s infirmity were not merely unprecedented, they were also consequential. It was during this period that Congress rejected both the Treaty of Versailles and Woodrow’s pet project, the League of Nations. Roberts suggests that the president’s unwillingness to compromise, abetted by Edith, who shielded him from all political criticism, doomed both proposals, with global consequences. Additionally, the first lady ignored legislation she deemed unworthy of her husband’s time and dozens of bills became law by default, lacking a presidential signature. Letters from trusted advisers remained unread; even decades later, when they were donated to the Library of Congress, some were still sealed.

Roberts makes the compelling argument that while Edith’s actions following her husband’s strokes were unmatched in history, they were not altogether surprising. From the earliest days of their relationship, Edith was deeply—and, perhaps, inappropriately—engaged in the daily affairs of the presidency. Long before Woodrow’s illness, the Wilsons’ marriage was an exceptional partnership.

Woodrow’s first wife, of 30 years, died during his first term as president. Within months of her death, Woodrow began courting Edith, a stylish widow sixteen years his junior. The two met serendipitously through Woodrow’s cousin, who worked as the president’s personal secretary. 

Edith was a somewhat surprising choice for the staid, erudite president. One of nine children, she was raised in rural Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Edith’s father was a judge, well respected in the community, but the family lived in a shabby apartment above a general store. Her grandfather had owned more than a hundred slaves on his tobacco plantation, but the family lost nearly everything in the Civil War. There was little money to waste on the daughters’ education, and Edith was casually homeschooled until age 15, then spent two years at a boarding school.

Despite Edith’s humble background, she possessed an impressive lineage—her family traced their roots to the so-called First Families of Virginia who had settled in Jamestown, and Edith boasted that she was a ninth-generation descendent of Pocahontas. As a teenager, Edith lived with a married sister in Washington, a city with greater social mobility than New York or Boston, where a young woman of modest means but good breeding could find footing. And so she did. After four years of patient courtship, Edith eventually agreed to marry Norman Galt, the owner of a successful jewelry store. (Galt & Bro. is still in business, across the street from the White House.)

When her husband died unexpectedly in 1908, Edith was just 35, childless and financially secure. The heir to her late husband’s business, she continued to run the store from afar, traveled to Europe for months at a time, and enjoyed Washington’s social life. Cosmopolitan, outspoken, and adventurous, she was the first female licensed driver in Washington, and drove an electric car. By all accounts, Woodrow was immediately smitten with the young widow, and proposed just six weeks after they met. Roberts quotes extensively from Woodrow’s swoony, romantic letters from their whirlwind, scandalous courtship. 

Along with love notes and flowers, Woodrow wooed Edith by treating her as his most trusted political adviser. Edith, who had limited formal education and had spent 20 years in the capital with no apparent interest in or knowledge of official Washington, was flattered by the president’s presumption of a partnership. In the months before they were married, Woodrow sent Edith daily packets stuffed with diplomatic correspondence and drafts of speeches, asking for her advice and editorial judgment. He wrote, astonishingly, “Whatever is mine is yours, knowledge of affairs of state not excepted.” 

Woodrow used his love notes to introduce the argument Edith later used to justify her incursion into government affairs—that her role as political partner, confidante, and later steward was her patriotic duty. 

It would be easy to dismiss Edith as an ambitious social climber, drawn to the celebrity of the presidency and to political power. But Roberts demonstrates that Edith was ambivalent at best, first rebuffing the president’s advances, then initially agreeing to wed Woodrow only if he lost the 1916 election, asserting that she had no interest in public life. In fact, Edith, who had thrived as an independent young widow, had a lot to lose by remarrying. 

But once married, she was all in. Publicly, Edith embraced the role of first lady, hosting parties at the White House, entertaining visiting dignitaries, and volunteering with the Red Cross. Privately, the couple was inseparable. Edith spent hours each day side by side with the president, poring over official correspondence and drafts of speeches. Woodrow’s passions, including golf and horseback riding, became hers as well. She joined her husband on the campaign trail, and for seven long months in Europe as he negotiated peace. When Woodrow caught a cold days after his inauguration, he asked Edith to act as his agent in highly classified meetings regarding the American defense against German U-boats. Roberts writes, “This visibility was unprecedented. Many First Ladies had advised their husbands about world affairs in private, but Edith was the first to have a literal seat at the table.”

Strikingly, throughout Wilson’s presidency, even as she amassed political power and ultimately served as the president’s proxy, Edith insisted on describing herself solely as a wife. Roberts summarizes, 

Edith could, with a straight face, maintain she was “not political,” even as she attended congressional sessions and edited diplomatic correspondence. She rationalized she was simply studying up to be the best helpmeet her husband could ask for. She was not the First Lady; she was Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.

This chasm between the way Edith viewed herself and the established factual narrative is one of the most interesting aspects of this biography. Roberts leans on Edith’s own memoir (published in 1939) as a source of information, but recognizes the first lady as an unreliable narrator of her own life, calling out factual inconsistencies, omissions, and deliberate misdirection. 

In a poignant example, Edith talks about an article Woodrow wrote in 1922. In Edith’s telling, an agent begged for a chance to represent the former president and even found a publisher for the article, but Woodrow rejected the offer—and a very generous payment—in favor of the more reputable Atlantic Monthly. In reality, the agent in question said the article was “a shallow attempt from a man who once had been known as a deep thinker” and urged him to abandon it, fearing that Wilson would be mocked if it were published. (Ultimately, it was printed in the Atlantic in a much shorter form.) Roberts notes, “Even in an episode as minor as this one, she would not admit Woodrow’s mental faculties were not what they once were.” 

Before they were married, Woodrow sent Edith daily packets stuffed with diplomatic correspondence and drafts of speeches, asking for her advice and editorial judgment. He wrote, astonishingly, “Whatever is mine is yours, knowledge of affairs of state not excepted.”

Roberts relies heavily on secondary literature and a handful of well-plumbed archives, but does include one significant new primary source. She is the first scholar to access the unpublished chapters of Edith’s memoir, which cover the 15 years after Woodrow’s 1924 death. The anecdotes from these chapters include Edith’s many feisty complaints against those, including President Herbert Hoover, who failed to honor her late husband. Edith’s publishers, however, evidently concluded that this part of her life was not a tale worth telling and removed those chapters from the final manuscript. This publishing decision is itself, alas, a metaphor for the life of a first lady.

Most surprisingly, Edith, who feigned political naïveté during her husband’s own administration, became an important figurehead in the Democratic Party after his passing. She attended the party’s political conventions, supported Democratic candidates, and served as a mentor to later first ladies of both parties. She spent much time writing her own memoir and preserving Woodrow’s memory, even engaging in a protracted campaign to control all of the former president’s correspondence. 

While the political crisis precipitated by Woodrow’s illness forms the climax of the biography, Untold Power gives nearly equal weight to the years preceding and following the presidency. Edith’s pre–White House years, in particular, make good reading. While Edith herself gives these years short shrift in her own memoir—dispatching with the death of her first husband in a single sentence and making no mention at all of the heartbreaking death of her only baby—Roberts does a fine job conjuring up Gilded Age Washington and persuasively argues that Edith’s early years in the capital, both as a newlywed and then, critically, as a young widow, were formative. She writes, “In a deeply patriarchal world, her husband’s death allowed her to become the independent, worldly, woman-about-town that she always imagined, but perhaps never before wholeheartedly believed, she could be.” 

Untold Power is not a perfect biography. Roberts notes Edith Wilson’s many “firsts”—she was the first to establish a ceremonial role in international diplomacy for the first lady, the first to stand by her husband’s side when he took the oath of office, and the first to write a memoir. But Roberts could have done more to place Edith in context with earlier and subsequent first ladies. She also steps too lightly into recent revelations surrounding Woodrow’s support for segregation within the federal government. It seems likely that Edith approved of this policy—Roberts notes her “casual racism and snobbery” and lifelong sympathy with the Confederate cause—but Untold Power provides little evidence of either Edith’s reaction to the policy or her troublesome language, thereby shielding its subject from criticism.

Discomfort with professional women persists—consider conservatives’ mockery of Jill Biden’s title “Dr.” and the presumption that Michelle Obama would stop practicing law. After a century, Edith Wilson’s insistence that she was a wife first, and first lady second, rings true.

Roberts is more successful wrangling with Edith’s seemingly surprising opposition to women’s suffrage and how her position aligned with the president’s. Roberts convincingly concludes that Edith’s opposition to women’s suffrage was most likely grounded in her genuine belief in the cult of True Womanhood, which held that men properly inhabited the public sphere, while women remained in the domestic arena. 

Ironically, this philosophy justified her own political engagement. Only by being the best possible wife could she support Woodrow in his critical work as president. Once he fell ill, it was her duty to do all she could to ensure that he healed, even if that meant taking on some of his responsibilities in his stead. So Edith rationalized her actions by asserting that shielding her husband from stress would aid his recovery, and that his recovery was vital to the nation and possibly world peace. Fifteen years after Woodrow’s death, Edith had no apologies: “Woodrow Wilson was first my beloved husband whose life I was trying to save, fighting with my back to the wall—after that he was the President of the United States.”

What are we to make of Edith Wilson’s legacy? Today, the 25th Amendment makes clear the protocol in the event of the president’s incapacity (though that protocol desperately needs tweaking—see Jean Parvin Bordewich, “The Disorder of Succession“). No one will ever serve as the president’s proxy the way Edith did during her husband’s second term. But what of her larger legacy? In many ways she was a trailblazer, establishing a role for presidents’ spouses on the public stage, both domestically and internationally. She established a precedent for first ladies’ engagement in substantive issues, and modeled patriotic behavior during wartime. And she demonstrated that a stylish, articulate, modern wife could be a political asset during a campaign and in meetings with government officials. 

But a century later, it is troubling that Edith’s instinctive understanding that raw power is best disguised as wifely duty still seems relevant. The public’s discomfort with first ladies with substantive careers persists—consider conservatives’ mockery of Jill Biden’s use of the earned title “Dr.” and the universal presumption that Michelle Obama would abandon her legal career during her husband’s presidency. First ladies’ campaigns are most palatable when they concern apolitical issues like highway beautification and children’s fitness. The soft power that all first ladies exercise remains their most potent (and largely invisible) political tool. Even after a century of progress in women’s rights and social equality, Edith Wilson’s insistence that she was a wife first, and first lady second, still rings true. Her biographer concludes by describing Edith as a woman both feminine and fearless who, defying the odds (not to mention ethical and constitutional prohibitions), “would go on to become the most powerful woman in the nation. She would go on further to pretend she was nothing of the kind.”

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Sara Bhatia

Sara Bhatia is an independent museum consultant who writes about museums, history, and culture.