Woodrow Wilson was US President from 1913-1921, during World War I and its aftermath. Here, Kate Murphy Schaefer follows her articles on Abigail Adams (here) and Eleanor Roosevelt (here), by looking at both of the first ladies to Woodrow Wilson: Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson, who have contrasting legacies.
Conventional wisdom tells us “the past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” It makes sense there would be some overlap in the experiences of American first ladies: only 46 women have known how it feels to be thrust into that kind of spotlight. Some embraced their new role; others simply tried to make the best of it. Many took on the weight of shaping and maintaining their husband’s legacy: Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy come to mind. Two very different first ladies took on responsibility for the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson, however: Ellen and Edith Wilson.
The First Mrs. Wilson
Ellen Louise Axson was dedicated to her art, even winning a medal at the Paris International Exposition in 1878. This focus did not go unnoticed by the eligible bachelors in Rome, Georgia, earning her the nickname “Ellie the Man Hater.” This changed when she met Woodrow Wilson. She set aside studio art in favor of the art of compromise, supporting her husband and his dream of entering national politics. Ellen was much more adept than her husband at making the connections and cultivating the relationships that would make presidential candidacy a reality. For example, she knew Woodrow would not win the Democratic nomination without the support of Congressional giant William Jennings Bryan, so she invited Bryan to dinner. She seemed to instinctively know how to make people feel at ease and how to portray her bookish college professor husband in the best light. Though she saw herself as the “most unambitious of women,” Ellen Wilson made President Wilson possible.
She admitted “life in the White House has no attractions for me,” but vowed to make the best of her stay. She supported women’s suffrage, increased rights for African-Americans, and championed restrictions on child labor. She also worked for housing reform in Washington, D.C. A woman of her time and product of her Southern upbringing, she was not as progressive as some, but she was considerably more progressive than her husband. Evidence of her work lived on in the Alley bill passed by the House of Representatives after her death. Ultimately chronic kidney disease, not lack of drive or dedication, kept Ellen from achieving all she wanted to achieve. She died on August 6, 1914. Devoted to Woodrow to the last, her final words were “take good care of my husband.”
A New Mrs. Wilson
Woodrow Wilson grieved bitterly for his wife, but a new Mrs. Wilson was on his horizon. Hoping to break the president out of his depression, Ellen’s former secretary, Helen Bones, invited him to tea with her friend Edith Bolling Galt. Edith had lost her first husband six years before and was not inclined towards another romantic relationship. Wilson, on the other hand, was completely besotted. He proposed within three months, pursuing her even after she declined the first proposal. Initial reluctance aside, Edith seemed to know from the beginning that her future led to the White House, describing meeting Wilson as “an accidental meeting which carried out the adage of ‘turn a corner and meet your fate.’” The couple married in December 1915. Edith was not Ellen: she was not as educated or as knowledgeable about social issues and politics. Where Ellen worked for several causes, Edith had only one: Woodrow Wilson. Fate, whether stumbled upon at tea or grasped head on, is a fickle mistress. On September 25, 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke in the residence of the White House. The Mrs. Wilson least prepared to take on politics became the woman in charge of the President and the presidency itself.
Following the stroke, Woodrow Wilson was “paralyzed, unconscious, (and) almost vegetative,” leading Edith to hide the severity of her husband’s condition. Only the most senior White House officials knew the truth, and they were sworn to silence in the name of preserving Wilson’s legacy. Medical records and notes taken by the presidential physicians at the time were buried until 1991. They told a story much different than the one Edith insisted on. The stroke trauma was “so extensive…it would be impossible for him ever to achieve more than a minimal state of recovery.” But the President was not dead, and the Constitution was vague about how to replace a living president that could not serve. (It would take nearly fifty years for the 25th amendment to be ratified.) Edith insisted her husband could still perform his duties as president, albeit with a few changes. She did not allow any visitors and was present in all meetings in his stead. She became the conduit to the President, and “access became tantamount to power.”
The Price of Devotion
“I studied every paper, sent from different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”
What Edith called her “stewardship,” others called her regency. Some referred to her as “Mrs. President.” Title aside, there was little doubt the first lady was making decisions of her own accord. Politicians who spoke ill of her or her husband were soon cut off. She even fired the Secretary of State because he dared to call a Cabinet meeting without her. Congressional and White House officials alike learned not to question Edith even as they quietly doubted the words she scrawled on their correspondence were from the President’s lips. Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall was aware of his precarious position as the lame duck vice president in Edith Wilson’s White House. Explaining his predicament to New York Times reporter Arthur Krock, he said “no politician ever exposes himself to the hatred of a woman, particularly if she’s married to the President of the United States.”
Edith Wilson was more devoted to the President than to the ideals and nation he swore to protect. In hiding the president’s condition, she lied to Congress. In acting in a role for which she was not elected and far from equipped, she showed blatant disregard for the Constitution. Shaping the present to one exclusive purpose, she also shaped the future. The fallout from her prioritization of Wilson’s legacy would impact American and world history for years to come. As she shuffled papers from one side of the White House to another, the fate of the League of Nations, and the fragile peace of the 1918 Armistice, hung in the balance. Prior to his stroke, Wilson struggled with certain articles of the League, but Vice President Marshall was a staunch supporter. Many historians argue a Marshall presidency would have resulted in the United States joining the League of Nations, ensuring its success. With Edith’s decision to take over her husband’s presidency, the world lost an opportunity to head off the conflicts that would spark into another world war. “What was lost was a generation of experience in leadership,” explained John Milton Cooper.
Historians also wonder whether Ellen Wilson would have made the same decision in Edith’s place. Her persistence in winning support for Wilson in Washington demonstrated her dedication, but would the woman for whom the White House held no attraction have been as eager to take control of the West Wing? It is impossible to know for sure, but remains a tantalizing debate. Devotion, like love, is a tricky thing. Both Mrs. Wilsons loved Woodrow Wilson, and both felt some responsibility for guiding and preserving his political career. Still we remember Ellen Wilson as everything a first lady should be, and Edith as everything she should not.
Do you agree with the author? Let us know below.
 Though not verified, this quote is often attributed to Mark Twain.
 John Milton Cooper, “Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 241.
 “Ellen Axson Wilson,” The White House.gov, accessed June 15, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/first-ladies/ellen-axson-wilson/.
 The bill did not become a law until 1933 when it was championed by another progressive first lady: Eleanor Roosevelt.
 “Ellen Wilson,” White House Historical Association, accessed June 5, 2918, https://whitehousehistory.org/bios/ellen-wilson.
 Edith Wilson quoted in Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2015), 38.
 William Hazelgrove, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson, (Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016), e-book.
 Medical records quoted in Phyllis Lee Levin, Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001), 344.
 Levin, 11.
 Edith Wilson quoted in Hazelgrove.
 Katie Serena, “Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?,” All That’s Interesting, accessed June 5, 2018, http://allthatsinteresting.com/edith-wilson.
 Thomas Riley Marshall quoted in Levin, 342.
 John Milton Cooper, “Edith Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 248.
Cooper, John Milton and Kristie Miller, “Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. New York: Public Affairs, 2015.
“Ellen Wilson,” White House Historical Association, accessed June 5, 2918, https://whitehousehistory.org/bios/ellen-wilson.
Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. New York: Crown Publishers, 2015.
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Hazelgrove, William. Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016.
Serena, Katie. “Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?,” All That’s Interesting, accessed June 5, 2018, http://allthatsinteresting.com/edith-wilson.