Meet the first woman to wield presidential power: Edith Wilson

More than two years after the United States failed to elect its first female chief executive, we are rapidly approaching the centennial of the first woman rising to wield the power of the American presidency. 

That woman was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. She assumed that responsibility akin to how Ernest Hemingway once described the process of going bankrupt: “Gradually and then suddenly.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

A stroke had felled her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, on Sep. 25, 1919, forcing him to cut short a national train tour promoting the League of Nations. Prescribed bed rest — clearly contraindicated by modern medical standards — he suffered another, more debilitating cerebral infarct on Oct. 2. 

From that point forward, under the guise of shielding her husband from strain, Mrs. Wilson largely assumed the duties of the presidency.

For the first month of Wilson’s recovery, the only persons with direct access to the president were his wife, his daughters, the White House staff, his private secretary, Joseph Tumulty and his personal physicians led by Dr. Cary Grayson. 

Thereafter, he would occasionally receive guests — from ally Sen. Gilbert Hitchcock (D-Neb.) to the visiting prince of Wales — but all under the watchful eye of his wife. 

Meanwhile, although she later described her tenure as merely a “stewardship,” the first lady would issue directives in the president’s name that nobody could confirm or deny. By controlling access to her debilitated husband, Edith wielded an iron grip on power. 

Even in the era before women’s suffrage, some first ladies, from Dolley Madison to Edith Carow Roosevelt, exerted considerable political influence. Yet Mrs. Wilson was an unlikely candidate to run the world’s most powerful nation. 

She had dropped out of a girls’ finishing school after one semester; her husband’s biographer, Arthur Link, described her handwriting as “primitive.”  She was herself the widow of an unsatisfying marriage who had operated a lucrative jewelry business in the nation’s capital. 

Her union with Wilson, a widower 16 years her senior, occurred after much soul searching; she professed little interest in the public role that marrying the president would inevitably foist upon her. Nor was flesh-and-blood Woodrow Wilson the upright prig of historical caricature. 

During their courtship, Edith became aware of her husband’s infidelity during his prior marriage. She accepted him anyway and ended up with an entire country to lead.    

Mrs. Wilson was unquestionably a remarkable woman. Yet she was not up to the task of administering the nation singlehandedly, especially in secret while also caring for an ill husband. Nor could anyone else in her shoes have done so. 

Historian William Hazelgrove has documented the discovery of important correspondence from this period that simply went unopened — found decades later in government files. Numerous appointive offices remained vacant indefinitely. 

Yet by deferring to her cabinet officers and tackling a handful of high priority issues, Mrs. Wilson managed to keep the ship of state afloat. What rendered this possible was the institutional momentum of the executive branch: In the absence of direct guidance from the White House, officials filled the void with their own best judgment and muddled through.     

ADVERTISEMENT

A few Republican critics of the president, such as Sen. Albert Fall (R-N.M.) railed against “petticoat government.” But the president’s Democratic allies largely circled the wagons, ignoring his obvious impairment, while adversaries in his own party, including Vice President Thomas Marshall, remained conspicuously silent. 

Unfortunately, in the absence of authoritative White House leadership, institutional forces could only keep the government machine well-oiled for so long. Eventually, Mrs. Wilson’s method of temporizing and triage proved inadequate. 

The Wilson administration slowly drifted toward chaos: unable to address a worsening recession and race riots at home, or to confront crises, including the Russian Civil War, abroad. 

What finally saved the nation from the president’s incapacity was not Mrs. Wilson, although she did her best; it was the inauguration of her husband’s successor, Warren Harding, in 1921.   

Jacob M. Appel, MD JD MPH, is a medical historian, focusing on the nexus of medical and political history. He's an assistant professor of psychiatry and medical education and the director of ethics education in psychiatry Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.