After Woodrow Wilson Suffered a Stroke, His Wife Edith Secretly Served As President for a Year

History Unplugged Podcast

Apr 6 2023 • 56 mins

The United States has yet to elect its first female president, but over a century ago, there was a woman acting as the leader of this nation—before women could even vote nationwide. Her name was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson. When Woodrow was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919, this fact was hidden from the public, Congress, and nearly everyone but his closest allies. Edith ran the executive branch, while at the same time downplaying her own role and influence. Portrayals of Edith tended to cast her as either a naïve rube who was manipulated by sophisticated political strategists or a power-hungry climber who seized control for her own gratification. But she was far more complex than these caricatures. Edith was raised by Confederates who mourned their lost plantation lifestyle, then rose to social prominence in the glittering years of Gilded Age Washington, then was elevated of the role of First Lady, just as the U.S. was becoming an international superpower. Today’s guest is Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of “Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson.” We look at her many contradictions – an independent woman of means (who owned her own business and was the first licensed female driver in DC), at once deeply invested in exercising her own power but also opposed to women’s suffrage.

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