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Kamala Harris made history in 2020, as the first woman elected on a Presidential ticket. While Harris is America's first female Vice President, she isn't the first woman to have exercised presidential power. That woman was First Lady Edith Wilson who effectively became America's Commander in Chief for seventeen months in 1919 months when her husband President Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a massive stroke.
Born in Virginia in 1872, Edith Wilson (née Bolling) was descended from the first English families to settle Virginia. Her father was directly related to Pocahontas the 17th-century Native American woman who married into the English settlement at Jamestown. Like most women of her era, Edith received little formal education apart from a brief stint at a Mary Washington College. She was brought up to marry and run a house, not the whole country.
Edith’s first husband, Norman Galt, a prominent jeweller had died in 1908, leaving her both financially secure and independent and free to remarry. Her first marriage had brought her to Washington D.C where she would meet the President, Woodrow Wilson, who would later become her second husband.
Woodrow Wilson had been elected as the Democratic candidate for President in 1912 on his New Freedom platform that espoused tariff, business and banking reform. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson had died from kidney disease in 1914, just two years into his first term.
Wilson first met Edith at a tea party in March 1915 and by May, Wilson had proposed marriage. Such was the speed of the courtship that when the engagement was announced, the Washington rumour mill went into overdrive. Not only were Wilson and Edith accused of having an affair while the former Mrs Wilson was still alive, one lurid rumour, went so far to claim that Wilson had murdered his first wife to remarry. To quell these rumours, Edith insisted that they defer the wedding by a year and the couple married on December 18, 1915, at Edith’s home in Washington, D.C.
Edith Wilson became First Lady in 1915 and like most First Ladies, her role was to set an example to the American people. She established meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays in the White House to support the federal rationing effort. To support the troops, she set up a Red Cross sewing group that made pyjamas and wool hats for soldiers serving overseas (Wilson led America into WW1 in 1917). To free up the White House gardener for war work she let sheep graze on the White House Lawn which according to the White House Historical Assocation 'saved manpower by cutting the grass and earned $52,823 for the Red Cross through an auction of their wool'.
In October 1919, a stroke left Wilson bedridden and partially paralyzed. Convinced that her husband’s recovery depended on him retaining the presidency, she tried to keep his illness secret from the public and limited his access to his doctor and few close associates. ’From there, Edith Wilson would act as the president's proxy and the run the White House, and by extension the country, by controlling access to the president,’ writes William Hazelgrove writes in Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson.
Edith’s view of her self-described 'stewardship' was a lot more modest, stressing, ‘I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.’ Even as a conduit to the President, Edith Wilson would have had a lot of power whether she recognised it or not. Despite her claims about not making any decisions on her own, there are indications that she acted independently. For instance, she successfully pushed for the removal of Secretary of State Robert Lansing after he conducted a series of Cabinet meetings without the President.
While ‘not up to the task of administering the nation singlehandedly,’ writes medical historian Jacob M. Appel, ‘by deferring to her cabinet officers and tackling a handful of high priority issues, Mrs. Wilson managed to keep the ship of state afloat.’ This is a remarkable achievement given she had less than two years of formal education and prior to her life in the White House, had no discernible interest or experience in politics. The greatest irony being that woman only won the right to vote in 1920 in America yet in 1919, a woman was essentially in charge.
Whether Edith Wilson could be called America’s first female President is debatable. She certainly exercised some power but never had the authority of a president in her own right. What we should take from this story is not that a woman may have once acted as a President but why over 100 years later no woman has done since.