America Already Had Its First (Acting) Female President

By Zane D on Friday, March 21, 2014
Edith-Wilson-and-her-electric-car
“The basic discovery about any people is the discovery of the relationship between its men and its women.” —Pearl S. Buck

In A Nutshell

In October 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke leaving him paralyzed and unable to perform his duties. Before 1967, the constitution did not specify how to act in an event where the President was incapacitated, so First Lady Edith Wilson effectively acted as de facto President of the United States for 17 months in order to keep Vice President Thomas R. Marshall from assuming his duties, whom she felt was incapable of being President.

The Whole Bushel

Decades before First Lady Hillary Clinton turned into a presidential candidate (or was even born for that matter), another first lady set her sights on the Oval Office, albeit in a more unofficial sense.

Widowed at the age of 36, Edith White Bolling Galt was introduced to the recently widowed President Woodrow Wilson by a mutual friend well into his first term as President in March 1915. Feeling instantly attracted to each other, the pair was married within nine months, just 16 months after the death of the former First Lady.

As the United States entered World War I in 1917, Mrs. Wilson was shining in her duties as First Lady, but as the war grew, her role as hostess was quickly abandoned. To set an example for the federal rationing effort, she famously observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays while employing sheep to graze the White House lawn instead of stealing manpower from the war effort.

The war ended in November 1918 and the First Family embarked on a National Tour to rally support for the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations). The tour, however, took its toll on the president’s health and on October 2, 1919, he suffered a severe stroke which left him partially paralyzed. Initially, Mrs. Wilson suggested he resign from office, but his doctors advised against such an action, and instead told her not to burden him with “government problems.”

Predating the 25th Amendment (which gives the Vice President the ability to assume the duties of the President in an event where the President is incapacitated) by almost 50 years, Mrs. Wilson, believing only she understood the President and his manner of thinking, took it upon herself to decide which matters were pressing enough to bring to the bedridden President, and which matters to delegate to his cabinet. No one but the first lady was allowed to see the President, and virtually everyone was kept in the dark about his situation, including Vice President Thomas R Marshall, whom Edith disliked very much. Along with President Wilson’s closest advisor, Joseph Tumulty, Edith did not believe Marshall was suitable to be president. Believing that any official communication between the presidential and vice presidential staff about his failing health would give Marshall the right to seek the duties of the president, they refused to give Marshall or cabinet members an update on the president’s failing health.

Afraid that his attempt to seize control of the White House would not only be seen as a ruthless attempt to gain power, but would also set a bad precedent for future Vice Presidents, Marshall allegedly waited six weeks before demanding word on Wilson’s health. Mrs. Wilson and Tumulty obliged by sending word to Marshall through Baltimore Sun reporter J. Fred Essary that the president was on his death bed. Stunned, Marshall still refused to do anything for fear of appearing disloyal to the president. In fact, from October 1919 to February 1920, Secretary of State Robert Lansing presided over cabinet meetings in the absence of the both the president and the vice president, something he was later fired for despite his claims he only did so in order to make the public believe the government was still functioning.

While the president slowly regained the ability to perform some of his duties, the First Lady continued to act as President (claiming she never made a single decision herself) until Wilson left office 17 months later. He died just three years later.

At the end of his term, a bitter Vice President Marshall quickly retired from the public life saying, “I don’t want to work, [but] I wouldn’t mind being Vice President again.”

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via History By Zim
Edith Wilson: The Secret President
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Edith Wilson
President Wilson Suffers a Stroke, 1919
Vice Presidents of the United States: Thomas R. Marshall