Edith Wilson, the First Lady who Acted as President
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife and from 1915-1921, she was the First Lady of the United States. When her husband suffered a severe stroke at the end of 1919, Edith essentially took over for him, deciding which matters were most important so she could take them to her husband, who was stuck in bed recovering. She was the first first lady to assume the functions of the president.
On October 15, 1872. Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville, Virginia to William Holcombe, a circuit court judge, and Sarah “Sallie” Spears Bolling. Her father, and her, were direct descendants of Pocahontas, and her family went way back to the earliest settlers of Virginia. She was related to Thomas Jefferson as well, as her great-grandmother was his sister, and also Martha Washington and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Edith was her parents’ seventh child, with four more to chome. Though the Bolling family claimed they had been wealthy before the American Civil War broke out in the early 1860s, but they were unable to pay their taxes so they had to give up their plantation. So instead, William Bolling settled into his father’s home in Wytheville. When the war came to an end, that’s when William began studying law.
Unlike her sisters, Edith was not enrolled in local schools. Though she did receive an education, it was not a great one. Anne Wiggington Bolling, her grandmother, had been crippled from a spinal cord injury and had Edith wash her clothing, make her dresses along with crochet, knit, and embroider. Her grandmother taught her an appreciation for music and poetry along with teaching her how to make quick judgements and hold strong opinions. Edith would continue to exhibit these teaching throughout her life. Lastly, her grandmother taught her how to read, write, and speak some form of a language that was a hybrid of French and English. Sometimes, William Bolling would also take Edith with him when he travelled.
At fifteen, Edith was enrolled at Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia, which was a girls’ finishing school. Her father had picked the school for his daughter due to its exceptional music program. However, Edith was miserable at the school and hated it. The food was poor and the rooms extremely cold. The very strict and rigorous routine did not work for her either. After one semester, she left the school. Two years later, her father enrolled her in school again, this time at Powell’s School for Girls, which was located in Richmond, Virginia. At Powell’s, she described it as the happiest time of her life. But at the end of the year, the headmaster suffered a terrible accident and lost his leg from it, so the school closed. William was concerned about how much her education was costing him, so instead sent three of his sons to school in her place.
Edith met Norman Galt on a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit her sister. Galt was a prominent jeweler and eight years her senior. The two got married on April 30,, 1896. For the next twelve years, they lived in D.C. Edith had her first, and only child, a son, in 1903, but the infant died only a few days later. The birth was difficult and afterwards, she was unable to get pregnant again. Her husband unexpectedly died in January of 1908 at forty-three. From there, Edith had to hire a manager to run her late husband’s business and was stuck paying off his debts.
Edith Galt was first introduced to President Woodrow Wilson, a widower, in March of 1915 by his cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones. Initially, Wilson took a liking to the widow. Soon, his admiration for her turned into love and he proposed to her.
Rumours also began spreading that Wilson had been cheating on Ellen Wilson, his first wife who was killed in 1914. There was another rumour that either he or Edith Galt had murdered her. Wilson knew his fiancée could have been distressed by these accusations and asked her if she wanted to back out of the proposal due to it, but in response, Edith promised to stand by him because she loved him. She made him postpone the wedding into the year for Ellen Wilson’s mourning had come to an end.
On December 18, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson married Edith Galt in Washington, D.C. at her home with a joint ceremony performed by his pastor and her reverend. The following year, he commissioned for Adolfo Müller-Ury, a Swiss-American, to paint a portrait of his new wife. The painting hung in his bedroom until he died and Edith left it to the White House. A copy of the portrait was made for the Woodrow Wilson House Museum.
The first lady observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays during the Great War to set an example for the country and the federal rationing effort. To not waste manpower on mowing the White House lawn, she set up sheep to graze on it instead. The wool was auctioned off to benefit the American Red Cross.
Traditionally, the first lady acted as hostess for her husband, but Edith’s role as hostess was overshadowed by the war. When the U.S. entered the war, her efforts were entirely abandoned. This happened in 1917 when she also became the only person beside the President to receive full-time protection from the Secret Service permanently. Wilson made a trip to negotiate the peace terms in Europe when the war ended and Edith accompanied her husband to Europe.
Wilson returned from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and immediately began campaigning for the Senate to approve the peace treaty. That October, he suffered a severe stroke, rendering him paralyzed and unable to do anything. He was stuck in bed for the remainder of his term.
So, Edith took over many of her husband’s duties up until March 4, 1921, when her husband would leave office. She sat in on meetings and would decide which state matters were most important and which ones to bring to her sick husband. She was called “the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changer her title from First Lady to Acting First Man” by one Republican senator. Edith insisted that she had only taken on the role because her husband’s doctors told her it was best for his mental health in her memoir My Memoir.
The Wilson’s retired when his term as president came to an end in 1921. They moved to their home in D.C. where Edith continued to nurse him until he died in 1924.
Edith would go on to serve as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s director and was the head of the Woman’s National Democratic Club’s board of governors. She accompanied President Franklin. D. Roosevelt when he went to Congress on December 8, 1941 asking them to formally declare war after the events of Pearl Harbor the previous day. Edith attended President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
On December 26, 1961, which was also the anniversary of her husband’s death, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson died of congestive heart failure. She was buried beside her husband in D.C. at the Washington Cathedral. She also left her home to be made into a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.