Bookworm: ‘Untold Power’ – Women’s history with spirit
“Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson”
- By Rebecca Boggs Roberts
- c. 2023, Viking
- $30, 320 pages
Behind every great man, they say, is an even greater woman. You might not see her but she’s there, cajoling and nudging to keep things on track. She’s part helpmate, partner, co-conspirator, and ally, making him shine but not always expecting her own glitter. Sometimes, she leads. Sometimes, she pulls. And in the new book “Untold Power” by Rebecca Boggs Roberts, sometimes, she runs the country.
Born after the Civil War was over, Edith Bolling decided early in life that she didn’t “have the childhood she thought she deserved.” Though her parents had once been well-to-do, the War “upended her family’s wealth and social status” and Edith never forgot that.
Growing up, she was fiercely independent but she could be snobbish. She “always claimed she didn’t want to marry,” so she surprised everyone when, in 1896, she wed jeweler Norman Galt who, Roberts says, was a “fusspot” and not at all Edith’s type. Still, theirs was a good marriage, until Galt died of the flu in 1908.
For a number of years then, Edith traveled back and forth to Europe and had many beaux but none was as persistent as then-President Woodrow Wilson, himself a widower. Wilson overcame Edith’s reluctance to wed again with passionate letters and, moreover, by encouraging her to be his helpmate in policy-making and paperwork.
That was something Edith could understand.
By the time they were married in late 1915, “Woodrow,” says Roberts, “had come to rely on Edith as much as, if not more, than any man in the administration.”
This was essential to him as America headed for war with Germany, despite his wish to avoid entanglement. Even after World War I ended, the pressure on Wilson was enormous and he fell ill. In the fall of 1919, after wars’ end, he suffered a debilitating stroke and Edith swung into action. She conspired to issue a statement that Wilson would be back on his feet soon.
In the meantime, she decided, she’d do his work and “pretend everything was fine.”
So, you say it’s about time we had a woman in the Oval Office? Give a woman a chance, right? In “Untold Power,” you’ll see how that’s more-or-less already in the bag.
Oh, my, but a book like this is fun to read, and here’s why: readers will scarcely be able to imagine anything like what happened more than a century ago, happening now. We’re too savvy, too 24/7, too demanding for a First Lady to pull off such a thing, which just leaves us to marvel at and appreciate Edith Wilson’s determination, guts, and her audacity.
Author Rebecca Boggs Roberts does a perfect job showing readers how Wilson came by these qualities, and why her tale’s been a hidden-in-plain-sight story for so long. That might make you wonder what other silent stories lurk in the corners of history.
There are lots of them, and this is one you shouldn’t miss – especially if you love women’s history with spirit. If that’s you, then you’ll find “Untold Power” to be pretty great.
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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.