America's First (Secret) Female President

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President Woodrow Wilson lay with his mouth drooping, unconscious, having suffered a thrombosis on October 2, 1919, that left him paralyzed on his left side and barely able to speak. The doctors believed the president’s best chance for survival was in the only known remedy for a stroke at the time: a rest cure consisting of total isolation from the world.

His wife of four years, Edith Bolling Wilson, asked how a country could function with no chief executive. Dr. Dercum, the attending physician, leaned over and gave Edith her charge: “Madam, it is a grave situation, but I think you can solve it. Have everything come to you; weigh the importance of each matter, and see if it is possible by consultations with the respective heads of the Departments to solve them without the guidance of your husband.”

From there, Edith Wilson would act as the president’s proxy and run the White House and, by extension, the country, by controlling access to the president, signing documents, pushing bills through Congress, issuing vetoes, isolating advisors, crafting State of the Union addresses, disposing of or censoring correspondence, and filling positions. She would analyze every problem and decide which ones to bring to the president’s attention and which to solve on her own through her own devices. All the while she had to keep the fact that the country was no longer being run by President Woodrow Wilson a guarded secret.

A few guessed at the real situation. A frustrated Senator Albert Fall from New Mexico pounded the senatorial table when he demanded a response from the White House: “We have a petticoat government! Wilson is not acting! Mrs. Wilson is President!”

Some saw it as a power grab when Edith Wilson kept Vice President Thomas R. Marshall from seeing the president and preventing the constitutional transfer of power. But Edith believed the doctor’s warning that any stress would kill her husband. To keep her husband alive, she would have to shield him from the world—and that meant running the country herself.

Even before her husband’s stroke, Edith, as first lady, had participated in the Wilson administration to an extraordinary degree. She and Woodrow resembled a twenty-first-century political power couple. President Wilson kept her close by his side and clearly valued his wife’s input, making her a partner in many political decisions. In this way, he had given her hands-on training for her “stewardship.”

“I tried to arrange my own appointments to correspond with those of the President, so we might be free at the same times,” she would later write. Woodrow gave Edith presidential access to all his work, and she often spent all day with him. As she later wrote, “Breakfast at eight o’clock sharp. Then we both went to the study to look in The Drawer and possibly, if nothing had ‘blown up’ overnight, there was time to put signatures on commissions or other routine papers. These I always placed before my husband, and blotted and removed them as fast as possible ...”

Edith’s participation in the Wilson White House gave her—a woman, who just four years before had been a widow living alone in Washington—the capacity to deal with the demands of running the United States while nursing her husband. The impact of the president’s death was profound and broad-ranging: domestic problems were on the rise; foreign policy initiatives ground to a virtual standstill; and the League of Nations, first proposed by Wilson, failed to get approved. At a point, the White House had begun to cease to function.

Edith Wilson, a woman with only two years of formal education, had to step in. She had to make it up as she went along, approving appointments, making foreign policy and domestic policy decisions, orchestrating the cover-up, and restricting access to her husband, who at times was totally “gone.” When looking through The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, one is struck by how much correspondence from 1919 to 1921 was directed toward Edith. She was on the front lines of issues ranging from the recognition of diplomats to America’s entry into the League of Nations.

The correspondence of the Edith Wilson years was voluminous. As she wrote to Colonel Edward House, the president’s unofficial advisor, “My hands now are so full that I neglect many things. But I feel equal to everything that comes now that I see steady progress going on ... ”

Americans wouldn’t see their president for five months. Appointments remained unfilled and correspondence piled up. Years later, essential communications to the president that had never been opened in the White House were found in the National Archives. Like someone who didn’t have time to get to her bills, Edith had simply thrown them in a pile.

The cover-up has persisted to the present day; in part, because of Edith Wilson herself. In her memoir, written in 1939, she called her presidency a “stewardship,” effectively downplaying the true significance of her role. But historians have been complicit in the cover-up, as well. While many concede that Edith Wilson was almost the president, they also insist that Woodrow Wilson remained in charge. And while some go so far as to claim she acted as president for six weeks, at most, they go no further in acknowledging the extent of her presidency.

Many Americans are still surprised to learn that President Wilson suffered a massive stroke while in office, but what they find totally inconceivable is that his wife, Edith Wilson, was the acting president for almost two years. To acknowledge this would be to diminish Woodrow Wilson’s legacy.

Power is given to those who can wield it, and President Wilson, who remained in bed only to be wheeled out for movies and some fresh air, was virtually powerless. The question then is: who was Edith Bolling Wilson? Was she a woman singularly gifted enough to run the country and nurse her husband back to health? Or was she a woman doing the best she could in a world in which women were seen as little more than second-class citizens? Now, almost a hundred years later, we again ponder the impact of our first woman president.

To do so, we must first go back to a train car outside of Pueblo, Colorado, in the Indian summer of 1919. It is here in the heat and dust on September 25 that Edith Wilson’s presidency began.

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