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Biography of first lady Edith Wilson examines the complexities of women and power

Author Rebecca Roberts has penned a new biography of First Lady Edith Wilson, <em>Untold Power</em>.
Keren Carrion/NPR
Author Rebecca Roberts has penned a new biography of First Lady Edith Wilson, Untold Power.

Updated March 11, 2023 at 10:34 AM ET

Of history's many stories of a power behind the throne, one of the most intriguing is that of Edith Wilson, first lady to President Woodrow Wilson.

She met and married him in 1915, while he was serving in the White House. When Woodrow suffered a stroke and disappeared from public view in 1919, Edith became his gatekeeper and spokesperson. She restricted his visitors for months, and informed other officials what the president had "decided" on vital issues.

"There is no question in my mind that there are times she could not or would not consult him," said Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of the new biography Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson.

Roberts' upbringing gives her insight into powerful women in Washington. Her grandmother Lindy Boggs was the wife of a congressional leader, and after his death, she won election to his seat and became a lawmaker herself. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana. Roberts' mother, Cokie Roberts, was an observer of Congress on NPR. (Cokie was also a power away from the microphone at NPR, remaining in place for decades as CEOs came and went, and sometimes calling them to tell them what they were doing wrong.)

Rebecca Roberts now works for the Library of Congress and writes histories of women in Washington. We discussed her latest in a distinctive place: the Wilson House in Washington, D.C., where the Wilsons retired after his – or their – administration. It stands a few blocks from the home of Barack Obama, the only other president who remained in Washington after stepping down.

Though signs through the house say "Do Not Touch," the keepers of the historic home allow people to play the nine-foot Steinway grand piano – once owned by Woodrow's daughter Margaret. Morning Edition team brought along pianist Bill Edwards, who played some of the music of the Wilsons' time as we spoke.

Left, pianist Bill Edwards performs 20th century ragtime on a grand piano at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington D.C. Right, a portrait of First Lady Edith Wilson hangs at the site.
/ Keren Carrion/NPR
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Keren Carrion/NPR
Left, pianist Bill Edwards performs 20th century ragtime on a grand piano at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington D.C. Right, a portrait of First Lady Edith Wilson hangs at the site.

In the dining room, Edith Wilson gazes out from a portrait on the wall.

"I think she looks very serene and in control. That's actually what she did not like about this painting," said Roberts.

Edith felt she looked more authoritative than a woman should — an especially sensitive subject, since she was accused of usurping her husband's power.

Roberts traces that dichotomy back to Edith's grandmothers. Her paternal Grandmother Bolling, described in the biography as a "bespectacled tyrant... ruling from a rocking chair throne," taught a young Edith how to read, write and speak bad French. She also preached Lost Cause myths to this family whose ancestors colonized Virginia in the seventeenth century. Edith's maternal grandmother Lucy White Logwood, in contrast, preached modesty and "proper" female behavior.

When the Wilsons married, it was a second union for both of them. Edith was a widow whose first husband left her his Washington, D.C. jewelry store. Roberts says by the time she met the president, she was "a small business owner – a prominent small business that's been here since, you know, Washington was a construction site. So she's got means, she's got status and she's a childless widow. So she's beholden to no one. She doesn't need a chaperone."

Edith even became the first woman in Washington on record to have a driver's license.

"She had a level of independence and control over her own money that women just didn't have in the early part of the 20th century. And she loved it," Roberts said.

President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith stand at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The U.S. Senate later rejected the Treaty of Versailles. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith stand at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The U.S. Senate later rejected the Treaty of Versailles. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So when the president met her, fell in love and proposed, she initially said no and didn't not want to be subsumed by the duties of a first lady.

Woodrow won Edith over less by professing his love than talking policy with her and sending her documents to read --"flirting by policy analysis," said Roberts.

She became part of a consequential and controversial presidency; Wilson advocated progressive causes, but also promoted racial segregation and slowed women's drive to establish their right to vote.

Edith's interest in policy proved extremely useful in 1919, when Wilson collapsed from a stroke. Having led the United States to victory in World War I, he had exhausted himself in a failed effort to persuade the U.S. to join the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, which had been designed to keep the peace.

"His left side was paralyzed," says Roberts. But she and a few other aides reassured the public he was getting better.

"She lied to the public, to the press, to the Congress, to the Cabinet, to the vice president, and to the president himself. He never knew how sick he was, and all controversial or upsetting news was kept from him."

Edith was critical of this 1920 portrait, which she thought made her look too young, thin and authoritative.
/ Keren Carrion/NPR
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Keren Carrion/NPR
Edith was critical of this 1920 portrait, which she thought made her look too young, thin and authoritative.

People who had business with the president couldn't see him. Many took to writing letters to the First Lady, who claimed to consult her husband before replying. But Roberts suspects it was Edith who made decisions to fill vacant Cabinet positions, and Edith who vetoed the Volstead Act, a bill to ban most sales of alcohol. (Congress passed the measure over the veto, and Prohibition began in 1920).

"Now, did she decide something different than he would have decided? Probably not. She knew his priorities pretty well."

President Wilson lived only three years after leaving office in 1921. But Edith lived in the house in Washington until 1961, hosting every one of her successors up until Jackie Kennedy.

All along, she promoted her husband's legacy, while obscuring her role as a kind of acting president.

"She was this independent, brainy, interested and interesting person," says Roberts, yet she "masked it in this hyper feminine, 'I'm just standing by my man' stuff because she thought maybe that that was the only way people would excuse what she did."

She tended to her reputation by minimizing herself, Robert says, which was "so uniquely female."

This interview was conducted by Steve Inskeep, produced by Barry Gordemer and edited by Olivia Hampton. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.