Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?

Published February 5, 2018

For just over a year, Edith Wilson took on the duties of the president, following her husband's stroke, despite the fact that there was a Vice President ready to take over.

Edith Wilson

Wikimedia CommonsEdith Wilson

On the evening of Sept. 25, 1919, Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady of the United States of America, found her husband on the floor of his bathroom, in the middle of a stroke.

Within a few weeks, he was completely bedridden, unable to take meetings or attend to his daily duties.

Unwilling to hand the presidency over to Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall, for fear that it would crush her fragile Woodrow, Edith Wilson decided she would serve as proxy for the president until he was well enough to resume his duties.

For the next several months, Edith Wilson went from FLOTUS to POTUS, becoming the de-facto president, and essentially running the country in her husband’s absence.

Prior to his stroke, the President had been in the middle of a political tour, traversing the length of his country to preach the importance of ratifying the treaty of Versailles, and joining the League of Nations. Wilson’s tour had threatened to exhaust him, and though he insisted he was in perfect health, eventually, the stress of the long hours and the mounting workload proved to be too much.

Before long, the tour had been canceled, and Wilson was restricted to bed rest. Rumors swirled about the president’s mysterious disappearance from the public eye, and indeed the White House did nothing to quell them. According to recently uncovered doctors’ notes, the president was suffering from extreme side effects.

Edith And Woodrow Wilson

Wikimedia CommonsWoodrow and Edith Wilson on the presidential tour shortly before Woodrow’s stroke.

Almost his entire left side had been paralyzed, and he had become partially blind in his right eye. A few weeks after the stroke, he’d come down with a urinary tract infection. After that, it was an attack of the flu, worsened by his already weakened immune system.

However, at the time, the president’s health was a complete mystery to the people. For all they knew, things in the White House were running smoothly, and according to schedule. And, for the most part, they were.

In the mornings, Edith Wilson would get up and begin her “stewardship,” the word she used to refer to her relative takeover of the West Wing. She would attend meetings in place of her husband, and when information needed to be passed to him, she would insist that she be the one to do it.

In the evenings, she would take all necessary paperwork back to the residence, where Woodrow was presumably waiting, and inform him of what he needed to know. The next morning, she would return the paperwork to its original owner, complete with new notes and suggestions.

If it seemed like an odd arrangement, the people closest to the matter didn’t comment on it. They lined up at Edith’s door day in and day out, waiting for the notes that she passed back and forth between them and their leader.

While Edith maintained that she was simply a vessel for information and that all notes passed back to presidential staff were Woodrow Wilson’s own words, White House officials soon began to doubt the authenticity of the notes. For one, they had never seen the president himself write the words, and for another, they didn’t entirely trust the First Lady.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson’s marriage had been, by all accounts, a hasty and controversial one. It had taken place less than one year after Woodrow’s first wife had died, and the pair hadn’t known each other for long before the union was made official.

Additionally, many of Woodrow’s advisors had advised against the marriage, yet Woodrow had ignored them all. In addition to simply marrying Edith Wilson, Woodrow had allowed her into the fold of his presidency and allowed her to sit in on meetings and tactical sessions. Before long, she knew as much about the country’s inner workings as he did. And, she seemed more opinionated on them than he did, at one point firing his Secretary of State for “insubordination” after he organized a Cabinet meeting without her.

Edith And Woodrow Wilson Signing A Document

Wikimedia Commons Edith Wilson watching over Woodrow as he signs a piece of legislation shortly after his return to office.

There was just one problem with Edith’s stewardship – while the country had elected Woodrow Wilson, they had not elected Edith Wilson, the woman who was now, effectively, in charge. But, at the time, the legislation in place that detailed presidential succession was vague, and only really outlined what to do in the event of a presidential death.

Woodrow wasn’t dead, Edith argued, he was simply minorly incapacitated, and just needed a hand – a hand she was more than capable of giving, so why go through all the fuss to inaugurate the Vice President.

On top of her claims, Vice President Thomas Marshall agreed, as Woodrow wasn’t dead, he didn’t need to take over the office.

Eventually, roughly one year and five months later, Woodrow Wilson recovered enough to take his duties back. The country, thankfully, had not passed through any particularly trying times while he was out, and no major crisis had come up. He was able to finish out his reign without consequence, and hand over a country, still in one piece, to his successor.

However, though he was once again President, and Edith once again First Lady, presidential staff members would continue to claim that though there was one official president, there may have been another one hiding behind the scenes.

After reading about Edith Wilson, check out more presidential fun facts, like the fact that John Tyler still has two living grandchildren, and the fact that James Buchanan may have been the first gay president.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
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Serena, Katie. "Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?." AllThatsInteresting.com, February 5, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/edith-wilson. Accessed May 22, 2024.