The Secret Term of America’s First Woman President

Edith Wilson

On the morning of October 2, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson stood from his bed and suffered a massive stroke. He collapsed to the floor and First Lady Edith Wilson dragged him back to bed, where he lost consciousness. Mrs. Wilson frantically phoned the White House usher, “Please get Dr. Grayson immediately! The president is very ill!

An hour later, the doctor emerged from the bedroom in shock … the President of the United States was paralyzed.

For months to come, the entire affair, including Wilson’s extended illness and disability, was shrouded from the nation in secrecy. The President’s stroke left him severely paralyzed on his left side and partially blind in his right eye, not to mention the psychological trauma that accompanies such a life-altering event. The press was told the president was merely suffering from “a severe case of exhaustion.”

Highly protective of her husband’s authority and standing, the First Lady shielded Woodrow from guests and began a “bedside government” that excluded much of Wilson’s Cabinet and Congress. Anyone who wished to see the President of the United States now had to go through Edith Wilson. She made the decision as to what was brought to the President’s attention and when.  She secretly signed her husband’s name to all manner of correspondence and legislation.  How ironic that while the Women Suffrage movement marched at the White House fence, there was in fact a secret woman president inside.

How had this dilemma come about?

For the prior 6 months, President Wilson had been in Europe negotiating World War I’s Treaty of Versailles AND planning the new League of Nations (precursor to our United Nations). As the summer progressed, he realized a defeat in was brewing in the wary Senate. So an already exhausted president returned to the US and embarked on a 4 week, 8000 mile speaking tour by train to make his case for the League of Nations directly to the public.

Wilson had a dangerous habit of working incessantly, without exercise, entertainment, or relaxation. Combining his professorial skills in history, political science, and oration, he threw himself into defending the League of Nations. But with each whistle stop, the man became paler, thinner, and ever more frail. He lost his appetite and he began complaining of severe daily headaches.

On an evening in September 1919, after speaking in Colorado, Edith discovered Woodrow in their private coach with his facial muscles twitching, along with blurred vision, and crippling nausea. In modern medical terms, the President had suffered a transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke) due to a brief loss of blood flow to the brain.

The speaking tour was abruptly canceled and the couple quickly returned to the White House. Upon their arrival in DC, the president appeared ill, but was able to walk to their car. He tipped his top hat to the crowd, shook a few hands, and was whisked to the White House.  Barely a week later, the President suffered his far more massive stroke.

So who was this bold woman who stepped in and essentially ran the presidency?

Edith Bolling was born in the small hamlet of Wytheville, VA, daughter of a local judge of modest means. She desperately wanted out of her meager existence, sharing small quarters with a large family. She eventually married an older Washington DC silver & jewelry store owner named Norman Galt. They had one child, who died in infancy. Her husband passed shortly thereafter. Though the store was deeply in debt, she took over management and brought it back to solvency.

In 1915, during a tea at the White House, she was spotted by the recently widowed President Wilson. The president’s first wife Ellen had died of kidney disease the year earlier. The lonely President was, as they say, smitten by the 43-year-old black haired beauty, who was 15 years his junior! Edith was certainly no wallflower and was in fact quite progressive in many ways. As a widow, she had purchased an automobile and became the first woman to be issued a DC driver’s license.

Though he’s often portrayed as an aloof academic, Woodrow wrote long love letters to his first wife and was playful romantic with Edith. After a brief 8 month courtship, they were married in the White House. With World War I consuming Europe, any scandal over the quick marriage was ignored. Wilson was easily re-elected to a 2nd term.

By February 1920, news of the President’s stroke finally began to leak in the press.

Nevertheless, the full details of Wilson’s disability, and his wife’s management of presidential affairs, were never realized by the American public. How could the average American not know of this? You must remember at the time there was no internet, TV or even radio.  During a meeting the bedridden president held with two demanding Senators, Edith cleverly hid the extent of his paralysis by keeping his left side covered with a blanket.

In those days, constitutional guidelines didn’t yet exist for transferring presidential power during a severe illness.  Wilson had all his mental faculties, and stubbornly refused to resign. The unambitious VP Thomas Marshall wouldn’t assume the presidency unless Congress passed a resolution, and Dr. Grayson certified the president’s “inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office” as per the constitution.  Due in large part to Edith’s actions, neither of these happened.

Slowly, Wilson partially recovered and (with Edith) managed to complete his second term. He died three years later … with his last word being, of course – ‘Edith.’ Cognizant of her husband’s legacy, for the rest of her life Edith Wilson always insisted Woodrow had performed ALL of his presidential duties after his stroke. She stated in her memoir:

I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, digested and presented the items that, despite my stewardship, warranted the attention of 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 when to present matters to my husband.

Today, historians agree that First Lady Edith Wilson was much, much more than a mere “steward” of the President. She was in fact, essentially the nation’s First Female President until Wilson’s 2nd term ended in 1921. Edith Wilson is buried next to her husband in the crypt of Washington’s National Cathedral.

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