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Early Life

William Bolling, formerly a prosperous planter, was reduced to poverty following the American Civil War. He took himself and his wife, Sallie White Bolling, to Wytheville, Virginia. It was there, on October 15 1872, that Edith was born. Her father had a reasonable income from his post as a circuit judge. This allowed him to send his sons to school (he had nine children). However Edith was tutored at home. At the age of 12 she was sent to a boarding school where she received two years of formal education. Thus she grew up with the attitude of women being homemakers and housewives rather than breadwinners. Despite this she was to have a vital role in President Woodrow Wilson’s second term.

Adulthood

Norman Galt was Edith’s first husband. He was a wealthy businessman who owned an impressive jewelry store. However, Galt died and left the running of the store to Edith. She ran it quite successfully, thus showing her potential. It was also around this time that she became the guardian of a teenage girl named Altrude Gordon. It was through Ms. Gordon that she met Woodrow Wilson.

Altrude became engaged to a doctor, Cary Grayson, who was the Whitehouse physician at the time. The couple asked Edith to meet and befriend Helen Bone, a young cousin of the president. Thusly she met Woodrow Wilson who himself had been recently widowed. Wilson was enamoured and the two were married shortly afterwards.

Edith’s ‘Accession’

On the evening of September 25, 1919, during his speaking tour for support for the League of Nations, Wilson collapsed. He was immediately rushed back to the White House, however, he suffered a paralytic stroke a week later (October 2). He was totally incapacitated until mid November. It was during this time that his wife embarked upon “Mrs. Wilson’s Stewardship”.

In taking up this ‘stewardship’ she was encouraged by Dr. Dercum. He urged her to take over as the stress would be too much for the ailing president. He also felt that resignation would be equally as bad as he would lose his purpose in life. Added to this the ratification of the peace treaty and the League of Nations would also be endangered. The Vice President, Thomas Riley Marshall, did not want the responsibility of the Presidency, as was with case with the Secretary of State, Robert Lansing. Edith had been Wilson’s confidant on all the matters and knew the President’s mind on issues. For example, when he agonised over accepting the resignation of William Jennings Bryan, his political patron, it was Edith who advised Wilson to accept which he did. Thus, Edith unofficially took over the reins of power.

Edith in ‘Power’

During his illness Edith warded off Cabinet Ministers who just ‘had to see the president’. She personally screened all problems and relayed messages to Wilson which she deemed suitable considering his physical condition. She would disappear into his room, whisper to him and emerge saying, “the President says…”. She openly conferred with officials and gave advice, e.g., when two department secretaries resigned she selected their replacements.

However, Congress took a serious view of Edith’s intervention and were concerned about what actually came from the President’s mouth. The media also took a discerning view and there was considerable criticism of her ’regency’. This said, when Wilson failed to follow Edith’s advice in regard Senator Lodge’s stipulations on U.S. entry into the League of Nations, the vote was lost and the U.S. remained outside the League. That decision was to prove detrimental only twenty years later. The other side of the Atlantic had a different view of Edith’s involvement, the “London Daily Mail” reported that she was proving to be a perfectly capable ‘president’.


Conclusion

In time President Wilson recovered and resumed the duties of his office, however, without Edith this probably would not have been possible. She ensured that he was not removed from the presidency during illness and possibly saved them the calamitous fate of Marshall becoming president. Even after Wilson’s death, in 1924, she maintained her interest in the League of Nations and international cooperation.