Sorry, Hillary, America Already Had Its First Female President
Ambitious to her core, First Lady Edith Wilson acted as the U.S.’s first female president when her husband suffered a debilitating stroke.
The New Hampshire primary showed that even many Democrats in this year of anti-establishment politics reject Hillary Clinton’s claim that “being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we've had up until this point.” Historically savvy opponents could add that, even if she wins, Hillary Clinton would not be the first person widely referred to in Washington as “Mrs. President.” Edith Wilson earned that distinction—although it was often said derisively. The First Lady emerged as America’s most powerful person when Woodrow Wilson suffered a series of devastating strokes in 1919.
Edith and Woodrow Wilson were an exceptionally close presidential couple—still enjoying their marriage’s honeymoon phase. Wilson’s beloved first wife, Ellen, had died of kidney trouble in 1914. The stylish, ambitious widow to a jewelry fortune, Edith Bolling Galt, soon met the bereaved president, while visiting Woodrow’s cousin, Helen Woodrow Bones, in the White House.
In her memoirs, Edith Wilson, depicting herself as Woodrow’s savior, recalls Helen describing a sad, lonely president trudging through his work. Edith claims she and Helen bumped into the president on the way to tea. Showing she was ready for that orchestrated “accident,” Edith would write coquettishly: “I would have been less feminine than I must confess to be, had I not been secretly glad that I had worn a smart black tailored suit which [the haute couture] House of Worth had made for me in Paris, and a tricot hat which I thought completed a very good-looking ensemble.”
Edith enjoyed Wilson’s “boylike simplicity” amid “an official life which had to be content with the husks of formal contacts when starving for the bread of human companionship.” Charmed, “thereafter I never thought of him as the President of the United States, but as a real friend.” The two were soon inseparable, participating in the happy pastimes of the 1910s, from roaming around in an open car to attending a baseball game.
When the president proposed, he justified his haste by saying, “in this place time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences.” While dazzled, Wilson also calculated that marrying Edith would quiet rumors of his ardent affection during his first marriage for a flirtatious divorcee, Mary Peck. Some staffers claimed Mrs. Peck was trying to sell letters he had written her, hoping concern about the 1916 campaign would prompt their boss to leave Edith Galt and return to his usual persona as a prig. Instead, the president rushed to the altar.
On Dec. 18, 1915, the 43-year-old Edith Galt married the 69-year-old President Woodrow Wilson at Edith’s home. Washingtonians watching the stiff intellectual cut loose—and as catty then as they are now—joked that when the president proposed to the Widow Galt, she was so surprised, she fell out of their bed.
Woodrow Wilson increasingly relied on his new wife as the debate intensified over whether America should enter the Great War and Wilson fought a blistering re-election campaign. The outcome in 1916 was so close that Wilson’s opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, went to bed on Election Night sure he had won the presidency.
Edith Wilson made history, however, in 1919, when a personal tragedy struck that soon became a national fiasco. In Pueblo, Colorado, during a 40-city speaking tour to sell his controversial League of Nations proposal to a wary, still-isolationist, America, President Wilson collapsed. What the White House called “nervous exhaustion,” wasn’t. Shortly after returning to Washington, the president suffered what one neurologist later characterized as “a massive stroke which paralyzed the left side of his body,” limiting “his vision and sensation.” Wilson, who had long suffered from cerebral vascular disease, enduring strokes intermittently since 1896, became an invalid.
The president should have resigned—and would have been compelled to today. Instead, Edith Wilson stepped in to cover up his limitations and run the country. She set the president’s schedule, limiting his visitors, including cutting out a loyal aide, Joseph Tumulty, whose Catholicism particularly annoyed her, and Tumulty’s longtime rival for Wilson’s ear, Colonel E.M. House. She started opening the president’s correspondence, reading it, and commenting on it—and sometimes not even opening the correspondence, as with important letters Colonel House sent when she tired of him too—archivists found these unopened memos decades later. And she backed the president as he became increasingly obstinate and paranoid—probably reinforced by his condition—rejecting critical concessions that might have softened senatorial opposition to the League of Nations.
The great historian John Morton Blum, a Wilson admirer, would write: “The stroke did not kill Wilson, but it would have been kinder if it had.... For six months he did not meet with the cabinet; for six weeks he could not meet the minimal obligations of his office. His mind was uninjured, but his emotional balance was permanently upset…. What remained was not Woodrow Wilson but a shell and travesty of him.”
Alas, Blum continues, “Edith Wilson made it worse.” The story of Edith Wilson’s seizure of power after the president’s brain seizure became an American cautionary tale warning against presidential secrecy—and designing wives. When Dwight Eisenhower became president, he instructed his press secretary that, in the event of illness, “Don’t you put me in the spot that Mrs. Wilson put President Wilson. Tell the truth.”
Hillary, beware. The first Mrs. President was imperious, manipulative, conspiratorial, untrustworthy. She shielded her husband from criticism and couldn’t take any herself.