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Ellen & Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies

Flamboyant, confident, and controversial, Edith Bolling Wilson was not your traditional First Lady. After her husband, Woodrow Wilson, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, she took the reins of government and acted on behalf of her ailing spouse.

Thursday on Up to Date, Steve Kraske talks with historian Kristie Miller about President Wilson’s two wives, and their very different roles as First Lady, and asks: Was Edith Wilson, in effect, our first woman president?

HEAR MORE: Kristie Miller speaks Thursday evening at 6:30 at the Kansas City Library Plaza branch, 4801 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo. as part of the Library's "Hail to the Chiefs" series. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the event. Click here for more information.

Kristie Miller is a research associate at the Southwest Center, University of Arizona, and author of Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman and Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880–1944. She is also coeditor of A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway, 1904–1953, and We Have Come to Stay: American Women and Political Parties, 1880–1960.

Excerpt from Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies

By Kristie Miller

Woodrow Wilson is among the most admired presidents in our nation’s history.1 He was an intellectual, author of many well-regarded books on government, and president of Princeton University. In his first term as president of the United States, Wilson promoted a progressive legislative program that ushered in the Federal Reserve, tariff reform, and the income tax. He led the country during World War I and afterward worked for a world body that was the forerunner of the United Nations.

Known as the “schoolmaster in politics,” Woodrow Wilson looked like the minister he might have been—both his father and his grandfather were Presbyterian clergymen. In private life, Wilson showed a very different side. He liked to dance and sing and tell silly jokes. He was, by his own admission, unusually dependent on the affection and admiration of women. He was a man who needed love every day.2

The first great love of his life was Ellen Axson Wilson—the sweetheart of his youth, whose love meant more to him than “wealth or power or opportunity.”3 She gave up a promising career as an artist to rear their three children and provide Woodrow with the emotional support he craved. To advance his career, she made digests of his readings, translated German monographs, critiqued his work, and supplied apt quotations. She advised him on negotiating his college appointments and improving academic standards. Although she had misgivings, she encouraged his political ambition. Her deft intervention helped him build coalitions with a variety of men.

Despite Ellen’s devotion to her husband, Woodrow Wilson had an intense seven-year friendship with another woman. Ellen accepted his relationship with Mary Allen Hulbert Peck, an attractive and vivacious socialite he met in Bermuda. Although their liaison pained Ellen, she tried to protect her husband from political fallout.

With his wife’s help, Woodrow Wilson reached the White House. But Ellen died just seventeen months after her husband’s inauguration. Because her death occurred so early in his presidency, and was almost instantly followed by the outbreak of World War I, her accomplishments as first lady have been largely forgotten.

Wilson’s second wife, the widowed Edith Bolling Galt, was a late life romance. Her vitality revived the grieving president. Her style matched his prominence on the world stage, and her strength supported him during a long illness. She is primarily remembered, however, for usurping executive power after Wilson suffered a catastrophic stroke.

Woodrow Wilson was the only president in the twentieth century who had two wives while in office.4 These two women were strikingly different from each other. Ellen Axson Wilson was quiet, intellectual, dutiful, and frugal. Such qualities are admirable, but not always admired in a first lady. Edith Bolling Wilson was flamboyant, fashionable, and confident. Prior to Wilson’s stroke, she was very popular.

In recent times, Edith Wilson has been portrayed as a manipulative woman who abused the role of first lady. Certainly, she made decisions that had negative consequences for the country. One cannot excuse these decisions. But they can be understood, at least in part, as the actions of a conscientious wife who tried to anticipate and implement her husband’s wishes.

Ellen Wilson is remembered (if she is remembered at all) as someone who had little impact on history. However, during her short stay in the White House, she used the office in such a way as to inspire a young woman who later became very influential, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband was then an assistant secretary in the Wilson administration. The time has come for a closer look at each of these women. Both Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson expanded the role of first lady. Edith became a cautionary tale for what first ladies should not do. Ellen, through her influence on Eleanor Roosevelt, set a pattern that most modern first ladies have attempted to follow.


Excerpted from Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies, by Kristie Miller. ©2010 by the University Press of Kansas. Used by permission of the press.


Stephen Steigman is director of Classical KC. You can email him at <a href="mailto:Stephen.Steigman@classicalkc.org">Stephen.Steigman@classicalkc.org</a>.
When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.