About Edith Galt / Wilson (Bolling)
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (October 15, 1872–December 28, 1961), second wife of Woodrow Wilson, was First Lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921. She has been labeled "the Secret President" and "the first woman to run the government" for the role she played when her husband suffered prolonged and disabling illness. Some even refer to her as "the first female president of the United States."
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (October 15, 1872 – December 28, 1961), second wife of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, was First Lady of the United States from 1915 to 1921. She has been labeled "the Secret President" and "the first woman to run the government" for the role she played when her husband suffered prolonged and disabling illness after a stroke in October 1919. Some even refer to her as "the first female president of the United States."
The circumstances of President Wilson's incapacitation, along with earlier situations when Presidents Lincoln and Garfield were each shot (but had not yet died) and both a heart attack and a stroke suffered at separate times by Eisenhower, who was only briefly incapacitated, each led to the adoption of the provision of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1965 which provides for how Presidential disability is to be determined and what actions are to follow.
Born in Wytheville, Virginia, the daughter of William Holcombe Bolling, a circuit court judge, and Sallie White Bolling, Edith was a descendant of the Plantagenets, of colonial Virginia settlers and the famous Native American, Pocahontas, through Pocahontas' granddaughter Jane Rolfe Bolling. Her paternal great-grandmother, Catherine Payne Bolling, was the daughter of Martha Dandridge Payne, whose father Nathaniel West Dandrige was a first cousin of Martha Dandridge Custis, wife of George Washington. She was the seventh of eleven children.
She attended private girls schools in Virginia and Martha Washington College (a precursor of Emory and Henry College) to study music. While visiting her married sister in Washington, D.C., Edith met Norman Galt, a prosperous jeweler; in 1896 they were married. For 12 years, she lived as a contented young matron in the capital, with vacations abroad. However, her personal life was not without tragedy: she gave birth to a son in 1903 who lived only for a few days (the difficult birth also left her unable to bear additional children), and in 1908 her husband died unexpectedly. Edith Bolling Galt then chose a manager who operated the family's jewelry firm with financial success.
Marriage and early First Ladyship
In March 1915, the widow Galt was introduced to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the White House by Helen Bones, the president's cousin and official White House hostess since the death of Ellen Wilson, the president's first wife. A man who depended on female companionship, Wilson took an instant liking to Mrs. Galt, who was charming, intelligent, and plumply pretty. His admiration grew swiftly into love. In proposing to her, he made the poignant statement that "in this place time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences..."
They had been a romantic item for such a short period of time that Washington wags were quick to poke fun at the marriage. As one joke went, when Edith Galt heard the President propose marriage, she nearly fell out of bed. Additionally, a typographical error in a Washington newspaper was much closer to the mark than intended. Prior to their marriage, an item meant to describe the president's social evening at a local theater with Mrs. Galt included the phrase "rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt." What was printed in the first run of the Washington Post was the phrase "rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt." [emphasis added] The first run of the paper was recalled, but a few copies were not recovered and are now highly prized collectibles.
Complicating matters were rumors, apparently groundless,[clarification needed] that Wilson had been cheating on his first wife, or that he and Mrs. Galt had actually murdered the First Lady. Distressed at the effect all this might be having on his fiancée, Wilson offered Mrs. Galt the opportunity to back out of their engagement. She spurned the offer, replying that she would stand by him not for duty, pity or honor, but for love.
President Wilson, aged 58, married Edith Bolling Galt, aged 43, on December 18, 1915, at the home of the bride in Washington, D.C. The wedding, a small affair attended by 40 guests, was performed jointly by the Reverend Dr. James H. Taylor of Central Presbyterian Church and the Reverend Dr. Herbert Scott Smith of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, pastors of the groom and bride respectively. The couple honeymooned two weeks at Hot Springs, Virginia.
In 1916, the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) was commissioned by Colonel Edward M House to paint Mrs Wilson, which he did in the White House. The painting always hung in the President's bedroom, but when Mrs Wilson died she left it to the White House, and a copy was made to hang in the Woodrow Wilson House Museum.
Hostessing and the First World War
As First Lady during World War I, Mrs. Wilson observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays to set an example for the federal rationing effort. Similarly, she set sheep to graze on the White House lawn rather than waste manpower in mowing it and auctioned off their wool for the benefit of the American Red Cross.
Though the new First Lady had sound qualifications for the role of hostess, the social aspect of the administration was overshadowed by war in Europe and abandoned after the United States formally entered the conflict in 1917. Edith Wilson submerged her own life in her husband's, trying to keep him fit under tremendous strain. She accompanied him to Europe when the Allies conferred on terms of peace, the first such trip for a U.S. President while in office, and played a political role, being compared, in some circles, to royalty.
Her most significant contribution as First Lady, however, was her service as steward of the executive branch following the president's stroke in September 1919.
Unofficial acting presidency
Following his attendance at the Paris Peace Conference which began in January 1919, Wilson returned to campaign for Senate approval of the peace treaty and the League of Nations Covenant. However, his health failed in October, when a stroke left him partly paralyzed. The United States never did ratify the Treaty of Versailles nor join the League of Nations, which had initially been Wilson's concept. This is attributed to the facts that isolationist sentiment was strong and some of the articles in the League's charter conflicted with the United States Constitution, rather than any failure of Wilson to promote his position.
His constant attendant, Edith Wilson took over many routine duties and details of government. She carefully screened all matters of state and decided which were important enough to bring to the bedridden president. "I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators," she wrote later of her role, "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 also strongly opposed allowing Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall to assume the powers of the presidency. She selected matters for her husband's attention and let everything else go to the heads of departments or remain in abeyance. In My Memoir, published in 1939, she called her role a "stewardship" and stated emphatically that her husband's doctors had urged that course upon her. Others, however, disagreed with her version of events and called it revisionism. One historian, Phyllis Levin, a former reporter for the New York Times, wrote, Edith Wilson was "a woman of narrow views and formidable determination" and blamed her for numerous diplomatic failures that occurred during her husband's incapacitation. However, she has also been praised for successes during her time as unofficial acting president.
In 1921 Mrs. Wilson retired with the former president to their comfortable home on S Street in Washington, D.C., nursing him until his death three years later. She later served as director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Her memoir appeared in 1938. In 1961, she attended the inaugural of President John F. Kennedy.
She died of congestive heart failure on December 28, 1961, on what would have been Wilson's 105th birthday. She was 89 years old at her death, making her the fourth longest lived First Lady after Bess Wallace Truman, Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford. On the day of her death, she was to have been the guest of honor at the dedication ceremony for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. She was buried next to the president at the Washington Cathedral.
Mrs. Wilson left her home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to be made into a museum honoring her husband. The Woodrow Wilson House opened as a museum in 1964.
The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation’s goal is to share how Edith Bolling’s humbled beginnings in Wytheville, Virginia served her well as First Lady and that her birthplace and childhood home will become the conduit by which public awareness will be built honoring the Bolling name, her contributions to this country, the institution of the presidency, and for the example she set for women then and now.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, First Lady (aka, "the Secret President")'s Timeline
October 15, 1872
December 18, 1915
Washington, DC, USA
December 28, 1961