Why you should care
Because she ran a country and never asked for applause, or votes.
It’s 1920, and a stout, round-faced woman wearing a long dark dress paces vigorously around the White House carrying a pile of mail and memos. Meanwhile, journalists huddle by the entrance, notebooks in hand, waiting to catch a glimpse of the person running the country: her.
Sorry, Hillary Clinton, but America has already had its first (acting) female president. Three decades before Clinton was born, Edith Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, ran the Oval Office for 17 months. Nobody voted for her, and she never actually referred to herself as president, but she did take charge of many executive duties after her husband was left incapacitated by a massive stroke.
Records and third-party accounts suggest her role stretched far beyond caretaker and into gatekeeper of Woodrow’s vision.
Back then, the U.S. Constitution didn’t specify what to do if the president was unable to fulfill his duties (it does now). There was no mechanism in place for automatically transferring power to the vice president. To further complicate matters, Wilson’s second-in-command was an unambitious man named Thomas R. Marshall, who, even when Woodrow was paralyzed, bedridden and suffering memory loss, vehemently refused to assume the president’s duties for fear of assassination.
Faced with the prospect of her husband’s legacy falling apart, and following the advice of his physician — who thought Woodrow might lose the will to live if he lost the presidency — the first lady took matters into her own hands. She didn’t do it out of political ambition so much as affection: Edith and Woodrow, both widowed, quickly fell in love, marrying just three months after their first encounter in 1915. Edith Bolling Galt, the daughter of a landowning but broke Virginia family, was 14 years younger than Woodrow and had just two years of formal education, but she was equipped with a bright mind and strong sense of duty. Before the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the first lady was focused on hosting parties, but as the war grew, she dropped the hostess act to help the federal rationing effort, observing gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays. She even traded in the White House gardeners for grazing sheep so as not to steal manpower from the war.
After Woodrow’s stroke, Wilson controlled all communication to and from the president — who, though bedridden and exhausted, was still lucid — and gave orders on his behalf to rally support for the Treaty of Versailles and to lobby the Carnegie Steel Co. to negotiate an end to the steelworkers’ strike that was crippling the country. To be sure, there were limits to what Wilson could do, and she never admitted to making any decisions impacting governance. Betty Van Iersel, a guide at the Woodrow Wilson House and a researcher, says, “In [Edith’s] autobiography, she only mentions taking care of him and coordinating with his physician,” making everything else “pure speculation.”
Yet Wilson’s considerable power over state affairs didn’t go unnoticed. Congressmen complained, labeling Woodrow’s second term a “petticoat presidency,” and newspapers wrote about what they called a “regency presidency.” Praise came from some corners: Dolly Gann, writer for a Republican newspaper, lauded Wilson for working for the good of the country, and London’s Daily Mail even called her a “perfectly capable president.” Official records and third-party accounts suggest that her role stretched far beyond that of a caretaker and into a gatekeeper of Woodrow’s vision at a crucial time when the U.S. Congress was still in the process of approving the Treaty of Versailles to end the war. Andrew Phillips, curator at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, says things could have been much worse for foreign affairs if an open power struggle had ensued between Cabinet members. “Edith provided some stability at a very crucial time,” he adds.
After Woodrow’s term ended in 1921, the couple retired and stayed in Washington, D.C., where he died three years later. But Edith’s commitment to Woodrow’s vision lived on: She continued to reside in their home for decades and made an effort to maintain some of the rooms as they had been when he was alive, allowing no renovations and helping raise money for organizations to preserve Woodrow’s legacy.
Edith Wilson died on December 28, 1961, on the anniversary of the birth of Woodrow, the man she loved so much, and for whom she steadied the helm.