Edith Wilson: The Woman Who Secretly Ran the United States

I don’t know why but I find this story crazy.  I guess considering today’s politics where we know every bruise on a president’s hand.  With FDR, we had a president in a wheelchair that never was known outside everyone who saw him everyd ay.  But did you know we had a President who had a stroke and was incapacitated for months, and his wife ran the nation for a bit.

Picture this, It’s 1919 Woodrow Wilson, The President of the United States is incapacitated. He is physically unable to govern. His close advisors wonder what they should do.  You would think they’d go public, have Wilson step aside, and let the popular and capable Vice President Thomast Marshall take over.  But in steps Edith Wilson, Woodrow’s wife, with another idea – let me run it in the interim. Sounds suspicious, but it actually happened. Edith Wilson became the most powerful person on earth, all while avoiding the spotlight.  This came a year before women even had the right to vote.

From Socialite to Secret President

Edith Wilson was a socialite, a woman who enjoyed the finer things in life and was known for her elegance and charm – think Jackie Kennedy. When she married Woodrow Wilson in 1915, she probably thought her biggest challenge would be hosting White House dinners and did she ever.

Fun Facts About Edith Wilson:

Woodrow’s better half was the life of the party.  Here are some things I learned about her.

  • First Woman to Drive a Car in Washington, D.C.:  More than a hundred years before AOC got her Tesla Edith was the first woman to drive an electric car in the nation’s capital.
  • Businesswoman and Widowed Young: Before marrying Woodrow Wilson, she managed her first husband’s jewelry business after his untimely death. Newspapers said he succumbed to the Attack of the Grip, otherwise known as the Flu.
  • Passion for Gardening: Edith and George Burnap designed the White House’s first Rose Garden.
  • Avid Horsewoman: An accomplished horsewoman, Edith loved riding and often used it as a form of relaxation.
  • Fluent in French: Her language skills were a valuable asset in diplomatic circles.
  • Philanthropy: Actively involved in charitable causes, she supported the American Red Cross during WWI.
  • Music and Arts Enthusiast: Edith hosted musical performances at the White House and supported the National Symphony Orchestra.
  • Collector of Rare Books: An avid reader, Edith had an extensive collection of rare books.
  • Athletic and Energetic: Known for her athleticism, she often walked several miles a day and enjoyed swimming.
  • Interest in Astrology: Edith consulted astrological charts for personal and political decisions, a hobby quite unusual for a First Lady.

For more check out this lecture about her life given by her biographer Rebecca Robert.  

But destiny had other plans. Woodrow was never the picture of health, he had no off switch.  Those close to him thought the stress would stop him from completing his first term and they were right, technically.

Read this account of the days leading up to his stroke. 

As everyone feared, he collapsed on September 25, and she rushed him back to Washington, where he suffered a massive stroke on October 2, 1919, while in the private bed chambers.  Edith dragged him to bed and called the doctor. The world was in chaos, and the President was out of commission – physically paralyzed.  Edith acted quickly and stepped in.

“Stewardship” or Secret Presidency?

Edith Wilson didn’t just step up; she took over. She called it her “stewardship,” but in actuality, she was running the show. While Woodrow was very much alive his state would not give the nation confidence so while he worked on regaining movement she screened all matters of state, decided what was important enough to bring to her husband’s attention, and essentially became the gatekeeper of the presidency.

When Woodrow was paralyzed and unable to carry out the duties of his office, Edith insisted he must not resign, believing that losing office would kill him. This was the single most important decision she made during Wilson’s illness, and from it followed all the rest—she told no one about the severity of he husband’s frailty, hiding it from the cabinet and the press, she ordered no one be admitted to the sickroom except a select few.

Edith screened all papers and listened to the issues that would be brought to his attention, and publicly she took the role of secretary, reporting the President’s decisions to government officials.  Until January 1920, nearly three months, Wilson had almost no contact with anyone outside his circle of family and doctors; he did not meet with his cabinet until April 1920.

The Lawmakers and the Stroke

So, did other legislators know about the stroke? Not really. Edith—and a small circle of confidants who apparently were extremely loyal—went to extraordinary lengths to hide Woodrow Wilson’s actual condition in absolute secrecy. She quite literally drew the curtains on the seriousness of the illness. The public had no idea, and neither did most of the members of Congress. Officially, the President was “on the mend,” but actually, that was a fib.

Senator Albert Fall, suspicious of the secrecy, famously said, “We have a petticoat government! Mrs. Wilson is President.” He wasn’t entirely wrong. Edith’s control over the executive branch was complete. She even forged her husband’s signature on documents and letters.

A Few Laughs Along the Way

Running a country is no easy task, but Edith had a sense of humor about her situation. One time, a curious journalist asked how the President was faring. With a sly smile, she responded, “The President is much better, thank you. He’s just busy recovering, and so am I.”

Why Edith Deserves Her Own Book

This is not a Game of Thrones. Edith Wilson never intended to usurp her husband’s power nor to become the “first woman President.” As she told Wilson’s doctor, “I am not thinking of the country now, I am thinking of my husband.” But in seeking to protect the man she loved, she did, in fact, assume a major political role for some time.

In excluding visitors and deciding which issues should be presented to him, she made political decisions. The fault was not hers—she merely loved her husband—it was the fault of the American political system. It was not until 1967 and the adoption of the twenty-fifth Amendment that created a backup plan in case the president was removed or in this case became too ill to preside.

Edith managed to keep the country running without ever officially taking office, a feat that’s as impressive as it is controversial. She showed that sometimes, the power behind the throne is just as formidable as the throne itself.

Edith Wilson’s place was wherever she made it, and she certainly made hers in the history books.

If you care for a better telling of the story.  Courtney Cox plays Edith in this episode of Drunk History.

Edith was the more interesting of

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