Female Firsts: From Appalachian Virginia to the White House and Beyond

Edith Bolling Wilson was born and reared in Wytheville, Virginia, a tiny Southwest Virginia hamlet that would have had a population of barely 1900 people in her day. One of eleven children in a small-town attorney’s family who lived above the shops they leased out to help make ends meet, she rose from those simple roots to become a jewelry store owner in Washington, D.C., the first female owner and driver of an electric car, and eventually the First Lady of the United States when she married Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President. In that role she was the first Presidential wife to actively assist her husband in affairs of State, the first Presidential wife to take charge of significant domestic wartime activities, the first Presidential wife to travel abroad with her husband to negotiate peace in Europe, and the first Presidential wife to take over for her husband when he was stricken with a stroke – thus earning her the title, sometimes spoken disparagingly, of the “secret President” or “first woman President.”

With today’s trend toward empowerment of women, and especially with the increase of women in political arenas, Edith Bolling Wilson’s role a hundred years ago becomes even more important as an area requiring more study and perhaps emulation. This presentation aims to reassess her role in history and to show the significance of a young girl who grew up in Appalachia but as an adult stretched her region’s borders to the White House and far beyond.

{Note: This will be a joint presentation by two presenters.}