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Was Edith Bolling Wilson Our First Female President?

People | November 9, 2018

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When Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was incapacitated after suffering a stroke in October or 1919, his wife stepped in to protect her husband and his power. In doing so, she effectively became the first female to lead the executive branch of the U.S. government and earned the nickname “the Presidentress.” Although Edith Bolling Wilson’s “term” as president occurred in the midst of the women’s suffrage movement, her role as the de facto leader of the United States was downplayed, even by her, but as we will see, she eloquently balanced and ran the presidency while caring for her convalescing husband. 

Woodrow Wilson was Edith’s Second Husband

The marriage of Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was the second marriage for both of them. Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died in the White House on August 6, 1914, from a kidney disease. Edith was previously married to Norman Galt, a prominent jeweler. After twelve years of marriage, he died suddenly. A few years later, President Wilson’s cousin introduced him to Edith at a White House event and he was immediately attracted to the beautiful widow. The couple married in December of 1915, during Wilson’s first term as President. 

Woodrow Wilson was Stubborn, Hard-Working and Often Neglected His Health

When Wilson was sworn in as President, there were plenty of people who were concerned with his health. Dr. Silas Weir, a noted physician, even predicted that Wilson wouldn’t survive his first term in office. Although his prediction was wrong, he was right to be concerned. Wilson, a type A personality, routinely took on too much work, put in long hours at the neglect of sleep and pushed himself too hard. He was the epitome of a workaholic. Leading up to his stroke, his workload increased. Between December 1918 and June 1919, he made numerous trips to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Back home, he left on a three-week train tour across the country so he could speak directly to the citizen of the United States. His personal physician, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, accompanied him on the tour and expressed his concern over the President’s health. 

Wilson Should Have Listened to His Doctor, His Wife and His Body

Still recovering from the influenza outbreak in the spring, Wilson's tour of the U.S. was taking a toll on his body. He suffered from terrible headaches, lost his appetite and grew pale. He experienced respiratory issues that he chalked up to asthma. In Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919, the President gave a speech and then retired to his room, stating that he had a tremendous headache. Later, Edith went to check on him and found that he was experiencing uncontrollable nausea and the muscles in his face were twitching. In hindsight, we know that Wilson suffered a TIA, or mini-stroke, which is often the prelude to a full, debilitating stroke. The tour was canceled and the President was whisked back to the White House.

When the Full Stroke Hit Wilson, Edith Kept the News Secret

The full stroke did come. On the morning of October 2, 1919, the President awoke to numbness in his left arm and hand. He got out of bed but collapsed on the floor unconscious. Edith quietly telephoned a White House staff member and requested that Dr. Grayson be summoned.” Dr. Grayson was stunned when he saw the President and his immediate reaction was to exclaim, “my God, the president is paralyzed.”

Edith Steps in the Run the Presidency

Although the Constitution puts into place measures that are to be taken when an acting president becomes too ill or incapacitated to do his job, Edith wanted to preserve her husband’s power and position. After his stroke, she did her best to downplay his illness and to shield the President’s condition from the general public. She screened all of Wilson’s communications and only permitted a few people to see him. She claimed to only serve as a go-between for the bedridden President. She once said, “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.” 

The White House staged this photo of President Wilson and Edith Bolling Wilson after the President's stroke to show that he was fully recovered.

Critics and Historians Claim Her Role was Much More Important

Many people firmly believe that Edith Bolling Wilson was, in fact, running the presidency in her husband’s absence. Although she excelled at the role of First Lady, acting as the hostess for White House events, she lacked a formal education and experience in world affairs. By screening the information that was given to President Wilson, Edith did influence domestic and foreign policy. Historians believe that Edith downplayed her role and, perhaps, underestimated the power that she had. It could be that because women didn’t yet even have the right to vote, the idea that a woman was leading the country would have been preposterous to consider. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.