Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the controversial first lady of 28th president Woodrow Wilson, had some impressive predecessors. There was women’s rights advocate Abigail Adams, wife of second president John Adams and mother of sixth president John Quincy Adams. During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison, wife of fourth president James Madison, rescued the nation’s treasured artwork from a burning White House. Edith was also followed by trailblazers, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, whose looming legacies have sometimes left Edith in history’s shadow. With Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson, historian Rebecca Boggs Roberts gives Edith her due, demonstrating that, as the first unelected woman to govern the country, Edith has no match.
Like several other first ladies, Edith had little formal education. She came from a Virginia family who had been dispossessed after the Civil War and grew up in a crowded apartment above a general store, which she eventually left for Washington, D.C., where a tall, striking beauty like herself could better shine. When she married Norman Galt, a jewelry business owner, she became his helpmate; when he died, she became a working widow.
Woodrow lost his first wife, Ellen, soon after taking office in 1913. When he was introduced to Edith, he promptly fell in love. He shared with her every aspect of his work, soon darkened by the looming threat of a world war that many Americans wanted no part of. During those early years of her marriage, Edith knew her place—and how to get around it. When women were not allowed at important White House meetings, she hid in drapes to watch. When a stroke left Woodrow incapacitated shortly into his second term, Edith quietly took over, deciding which pieces of news wouldn’t be too stressful for him, who could visit and how to keep everyone, especially his political enemies and the press, from seeing the truth of the president’s condition.
Untold Power brims with details, from the colors of the signature orchids Edith wore to the troubled corners of Woodrow’s mind after his stroke. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge is there, bent on destroying the president’s obsessive quest for a League of Nations, and sheep populate the White House lawn (one of Edith’s successful—and profitable—wartime ideas). This well-told history, based on sources that are often at odds with Edith’s own memoir, also begs the question: How could so much in the White House have gone unseen and unknown for so long? And, chillingly, could it happen again?