Edith Wilson: America's First Woman President?

And could something like this happen today?

President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith review papers in the Oval Office
President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Wilson. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Has a woman already served as President of the United States? Did first lady Edith Wilson actually function as president after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke?

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson certainly had the right ancestral stuff to be president. Born to U.S. circuit judge William Holcombe Bolling and Sallie White of colonial Virginia in 1872, Edith Bolling truly was a direct descendant of Pocahontas and was related by blood to President Thomas Jefferson and by marriage to first ladies Martha Washington and Letitia Tyler.

At the same time, her upbringing made her relatable to the “common folk.” After her grandfather’s plantation was lost in the Civil War, Edith, along with the rest of the large Bolling family, lived in a tiny boarding house over a Wytheville, Virginia store. Aside from briefly attending Martha Washington College, she received little formal education.

As President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Wilson did not let her lack of higher education prevent her from keeping up with presidential affairs and the workings of the federal government while handing off the largely ceremonial duties of first ladies to her secretary.

In April 1917, just four months after starting his second term, President Wilson led the U.S. into World War I. During the war, Edith worked closely with her husband by screening his mail, attending his meetings, and giving him her opinions of politicians and foreign representatives. Even Wilson’s closest advisors often needed Edith’s approval in order to meet with him. 

As the war drew to an end in 1919, Edith accompanied the president to Paris where she conferred with him as he negotiated the Versailles Peace Treaty. After returning to Washington, Edith supported and assisted the president as he struggled to overcome Republican opposition to his proposal for the League of Nations.

When Mr. Wilson Suffers a Stroke, Edith Steps Up

Despite already being in poor health, and against the advice of his doctors, President Wilson crossed the nation by train in the fall of 1919 in a “whistle stop” campaign to win public support for his League of Nations plan. With the nation in a predictable post-war desire for international isolationism, he enjoyed little success and was rushed back to Washington after collapsing from physical exhaustion.

Wilson never fully recovered and finally suffered a massive stroke on October 2, 1919.

Edith immediately began making decisions. After consulting with the president’s doctors, she refused to make her husband resign and allow the vice president to take over. Instead, Edith began what she would later call her one-year and five-month long “stewardship” of the presidency.

In her 1939 autobiography “My Memoir,” Mrs. Wilson wrote, “So began my stewardship. I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. 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.”

Edith started her presidential “stewardship” by trying to hide the seriousness of her partially-paralyzed husband’s condition from the Cabinet, the Congress, the press, and the people. In public bulletins, either written or approved by her, Edith stated that President Wilson merely needed rest and would be conducting business from his bedroom.

Cabinet members were not allowed to talk to the president without Edith’s approval. She intercepted and screened all material intended for Woodrow’s review or approval. If she deemed them important enough, Edith would take them into her husband’s bedroom. Whether the decisions coming from the bedroom had been made by the president or Edith was not known at the time.

While she admittedly took over many day-to-day presidential duties, Edith contended she never initiated any programs, made major decisions, sign or veto legislation, or otherwise try to control the executive branch through the issuance of executive orders.

Not everybody was happy with the first lady’s “administration.” One Republican Senator bitterly called her “the ‘Presidentress’ who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man.”

In “My Memoir,” Mrs. Wilson strongly contended that she had assumed her pseudo-presidential role at the recommendations of the president’s doctors.

After studying the proceedings of the Wilson administration over the years, historians have concluded that Edith Wilson’s role during her husband’s illness went beyond mere “stewardship.” Instead, she essentially served as President of the United States until Woodrow Wilson’s second term concluded in March of 1921.

Three years later, Woodrow Wilson died in his Washington, D.C., home at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, February 3, 1924.

The next day, the New York Times reported that the former president’s had uttered his last full sentence on Friday, Feb. 1: “I am a broken piece of machinery. When the machinery is broken—I am ready.” And that on Saturday, Feb. 2, he spoke his last word: “Edith.”

Did Edith Wilson Violate the Constitution?

In 1919, Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the U.S. Constitution defined presidential succession as follows:

“In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”

However, President Wilson was neither impeached, dead, or willing to resign, so Vice President Thomas Marshall refused to take over the presidency unless the president’s doctor certified the ailing president’s “inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office” and Congress passed a resolution officially declaring the office of president vacant. Neither ever happened.

Today, however, a first lady trying to do what Edith Wilson did in 1919 might run afoul of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967. The 25th Amendment sets out a far more specific process of for the transfer of power and conditions under which the president may be declared unable to discharge the powers and duties of the presidency.

References:
Wilson, Edith Bolling Galt. My Memoir. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1939.
Gould, Lewis L. – American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. 2001
Miller, Kristie. Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies. Lawrence, Kan. 2010.