News & Politics

Rebecca Boggs Roberts’s New Book Highlights the Other President Wilson

A new look at a complex First Lady.

Photograph of Roberts courtesy of © Viking Adult (HC).

Rebecca Boggs Roberts and I are huddled inside a tiny, century-­old elevator in Woodrow Wilson’s former Kalorama home when I notice a small votes for women pin on her dress. The pin makes sense—Roberts is a leading historian of the suffrage movement and has published two books on the subject—but it also strikes me as a tad funny. After all, we’re here to discuss First Lady Edith Wilson, who was decidedly anti-suffrage.

Roberts’s new book, Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson, is out next month, and in it she argues that Wilson secretly became the nation’s first female acting President (emphasis on acting) at a time when women still couldn’t vote. She took on the role after her husband became incapacitated from a stroke—all while convincing the public that Woodrow was still in charge. Impressive? Yes. Ethical? Of course not.

But Roberts isn’t interested in venerating Wilson as a saint; nor is she looking to magnify the First Lady’s flaws. Rather, she lets Edith be Edith, which is to say messy and complicated, as most humans are. “It’s not only bad history to reduce someone to a good/bad binary, it just isn’t interesting,” says Roberts. Or, as she puts it in the introduction: “Saints are dull.” Yes, it’s true Edith opposed suffrage and appointed herself to a position no one elected her to. It’s also true she was a fiercely independent woman who transformed the role of First Lady.

Book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House.

It’s no surprise Roberts would be drawn to someone like that. She herself comes from a line of powerful, ambitious women: Her mom, the late Cokie Roberts, was one of Washington’s most prominent journalists. And her grandmother, Lindy Boggs, was the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana. “Because I saw them succeed in ways that were not the way men succeeded, it has always made me rethink how history is told and which characters in history get the limelight,” says Roberts, now seated in a ground-floor study at the Wilson House, which today is a museum. Her mother, in particular, inspired her to make her own path. “I still think of her multiple times a day,” Roberts says. “We were each other’s biggest fans. She always showed by example, as well as overtly said, ‘You, Rebecca, can be anything you want.’ ”

Those words certainly got through to Roberts, who went on to be a lot of things. Most recently a curator at Planet Word, she’s now deputy director in the events office at the Library of Congress. In addition to writing three books, she has done stints as a political consultant, a journalist, a producer, a tour guide, a forensic anthropologist, a radio talk-show host, and—because why not?—a jazz singer. “It looks like a very checkered career,” says Roberts, “but there is a weird through line: It’s storytelling.”

And in Edith Wilson, she found a tale that hadn’t yet been fully told. For the most part, Roberts says, previous biographies have focused on the eight years Edith was married to Woodrow. “But if you take a tenth of someone’s life, you’re never going to get a three-dimensional character.” Among other things, Roberts shares details about Wilson’s success as a business owner (she ran a jewelry store) and her independence (she was, remarkably, the very first woman in DC to obtain a driver’s license). “She was a real, full woman in all of her contradictions and complications. And the more I learned about her life before she married the President, it was clear that anyone who was surprised at what she did after his stroke was not paying attention.”

This article appears in the March 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor