Edith Wilson, First Woman President?
The story of Edith Bolling Wilson, the only woman in American history thus far to have been thought of as a de-facto president is a complicated one. A widow herself when she met the widowed President Woodrow Wilson, Edith Bolling laid claim to descent from both Pocahontas (ninth-generation on her father’s side) as well as Thomas Jefferson (her great grandmother was Jefferson’s sister). Edith had been born in 1872 to a once-prominent Virginian family, whose ancestors included John Rolfe, the first Englishman to settle in Virginia and export tobacco. With the Civil War and Reconstruction, Edith’s formerly slave-owning family could no longer maintain their plantation seat, and Edith’s father became a circuit court judge in order to support the family. Edith was the seventh of eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. As a result of her family’s tightened financial situation and of her sex, she received less of a formal education than her brothers. Despite the persona she wove later in life of an aristocratic existence in Virginia, Edith’s upbringing, though not hardscrabble, was lean.
In 1896, 23-year-old Edith Bolling married Norman Galt, a prestigious Washington jeweler. Edith had met Galt on a visit to one of her married sisters in DC, and Galt, a few years her senior, courted Edith for four years before Edith agreed to marry him. Galt’s shop was an establishment that could count amongst its earlier patrons Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as Edith’s distant relation, Thomas Jefferson. Edith quickly grew accustomed to the upscale lifestyle with her first husband, which helped set the stage for her claims of aristocracy and her preparedness to rub shoulders with royals with her next husband. In 1903, Edith gave birth to a baby boy who died a few days later, and whose birth left her unable to have children. The following year, Edith became the first woman in Washington to purchase and drive around in a car. In 1908, she was suddenly widowed when Norman unexpectedly died at the age of 43, with Edith as his sole heir.
In March of 1915, Edith met President Woodrow Wilson, himself a widow of eight months, and nearing the end of his first term in office. The two instantly fell in love and were married by December of that year, following the one-year mourning period for the President’s first wife, Ellen. In 1916, Wilson secured his second term in office.
Though President Wilson did everything in his power to keep the United States out of World War I, by 1917, the US had joined the fray. This was when the President began to subject himself to serious overwork and strain by refusing to delegate most tasks having to do with negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, President Wilson traveled to Paris for the Peace Conference just in time for the second wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic. There, he caught a bad case of the flu, and was never the same. His mental health deteriorated and he had several strokes.
Edith refused to let President Wilson step down and she hid his illness from the American public and from members of Wilson’s own cabinet. She believed that retiring or retreating from the presidency and public life would further degrade her husband’s condition and that the only cure for him would be to stay in office. Instead, Edith ran what she called a “stewardship,” and what others – both in her time and in ours – have called a secret presidency. Edith carefully curated which memos and information would reach the president, and she also decided who would have access to him and when, thus alienating his cabinet and maintaining singular influence on the President and the office of the presidency for approximately a year and a half.
Edith’s memoir, published in 1939, was written with the solitary goal of defending her husband’s legacy from detractors who claimed that Edith had overstepped her bounds and acted as president-de-facto. Edith insisted throughout the memoir that she never assumed any presidential power or made any decisions, rather, she just decided what to put in front of the president.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Though Edith was not interested in assuming any power or making important policy decisions, she did impact political outcomes through her curation of information to the president and her crippling of the cabinet’s ability to function. It is also difficult to parse out how much of Wilson’s mental capacity and strokes were to blame for the dysfunction, and how much of the political paralysis was Edith’s doing. It can be more definitively stated that in some cases, Edith compounded the president’s disability by isolating him from his cabinet.
One such example is the failure of Wilson’s League of Nations proposal to pass in Congress. The organization of peacekeeping nations in the aftermath of World War I was a concept that Wilson championed, though the United States did not join the coalition. Some historians have contended that Edith’s isolation of her husband from his most trusted political advisors meant that Wilson did not compromise on the treaty, and therefore, presented as it was, Congress rejected it.
Wilson finished his second term in March of 1921, and was succeeded by Warren Harding. Wilson died in 1924, and Edith lived until December of 1961. Her last public appearance was at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In 1967, nearly 50 years after Edith “stewarded” the presidency for her husband, the Unites States ratified the 25th amendment to the constitution, which stipulates that if the president is deemed unable to do his or her job, that the vice president assumes the responsibilities of the president.