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Monday, September 24, 2012


Edith Bolling was born in Virginia in 1872, the seventh child of eleven. Her claim to fame was that she was a direct descendant of Pocahontas; but she was also related to Thomas Jefferson and Martha Washington. Other than that, her early life was not especially noteworthy. At 23 she married Norman Galt, a jewelry merchant in Washington. He died twelve years later leaving his assets to Edith who travelled around Europe for five years.

In 1914, widow Edith Bolling Galt was having tea with her friend Helen Bones who just happened to be the cousin of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was in his second year as the President and was, coincidently, a widower himself. After being introduced, Edith and Woodrow began exchanging letters. At first, the letters discussed politics but soon they turned to romance, then to the passionate love they had for each other. Woodrow proposed marriage to Edith three months later. They were married in 1915.

President Wilson was facing re-election the following year and many of his advisors feared that his remarriage, coming only one year after the death of his first wife, would jeopardize his chances. Fortunately it did not, and Edith Wilson continued her role as First Lady. Woodrow conducted most of his work from the private office in the family quarters of the White House. Edith was almost constantly by his side. He gave her access to his private files and shared confidential information with Edith. Even when the President was receiving political leaders in the Oval Office, Edith would be present, listening quietly.

As the pressures of World War I bore down on the President, Edith began to screen his mail and limit his callers. She was given permission to read classified war communications. Edith also designated that on certain days of the week meat, wheat, and gasoline would be restricted to conserve them for the war effort. Critics began to feel that her influence was growing beyond the duties of a First Lady.

After the conclusion of the war, President Wilson helped to propose the League of Nations. U.S. participation required ratification by the Congress and the President had reached a stalemate with them. He went on a cross country campaign, taking his case directly to the people. While travelling Wilson began to suffer symptoms of exhaustion, asthma attacks, and severe headaches. He had to return to Washington.

On the morning of October 2, 1919, Edith found her husband unconscious on the bathroom floor. He had suffered a massive stroke which left his left side paralyzed. Edith Wilson and the President’s doctor decided to insulate him from the public while he recovered. For the next seventeen months, Woodrow Wilson laid in bed hanging onto life. Almost no one in the government, or the country, was even aware of his condition. They were simply told that he was exhausted and needed extensive rest.

Edith Wilson became the sole conduit between the President and his Cabinet, the Congress, and the public. She held arbitrary veto over communication from the outside. She ordered that all memos, correspondence, questions, and requests be submitted to her. Then Edith would present them to the President and return with, allegedly, his verbal instructions or responses written by her and initialed by him. She decided that her husband should not resign, and that Vice President Thomas Marshall would not assume the Presidency, even on a temporary basis.

“I studied every paper sent from different (people) and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that had to go to the President. I 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.” In spite of her claims of innocence, she really did assume at least partial control over the Executive branch of the government.

When the Secretary of State conducted Cabinet meetings without the President, Edith considered it an act of disloyalty and pushed for his removal from office. She also passed judgment on the acceptance of diplomatic credentials and was blamed for several diplomatic failures as a result. Even as President Wilson began to partially recover, Edith continued to screen White House visitors and manage his activities. But she did stand by her husband until his death five years later in 1924.

Edith Wilson termed her actions as “stewardship” but others called her the first woman President.

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