The question of a woman president is not so much whether we will have one as it is when we will have one. The Democratic Party has already nominated a female for vice-president. As early as 1964, a woman (Margaret Chase Smith) was taken seriously as a presidential contender. Minor parties have run women for president and/or vice-president since the last years of the 19th century. But we may have already had a woman president. Often called the “first woman president” or the “other 28th president,” Edith Galt Wilson virtually ran the nation for over 6 months.
Woodrow Wilson was elected president on the Democratic ticket in 1912, defeating a split Republican Party. His wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, died in 1914. Wilson was a man “who depended on feminine companionship” and was very lonely without it. He met Edith in March of 1915, and they married on December 8, 1915 at her home.
A descendant of Virginia aristocracy, Edith Bolling was born in Wytheville in 1872. She was the seventh of eleven children of Sallie White and Judge William Holcombe Bolling. She studied music at Martha Washington College and continued her studies at a small school in Richmond. In 1896, she married a businessman named Norman Galt. Norman died suddenly in 1908, leaving Edith a very wealthy widow.
Through common friends, she met Woodrow Wilson, who was still deeply grieving for his wife. He took an immediate liking to the intelligent, charming, and pretty widow. He proposed to her saying that “in this place time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences…” When they returned from their brief Virginia honeymoon, their happiness made a vivid impression on their friends and the White House staff.
Edith Wilson had excellent qualifications for her new duties. She was a very experienced hostess, and had business experience gained supervising the family jewelry firm after her husband’s death. The social aspect of the administration was overshadowed by the war in Europe, and abandoned altogether once the United States entered the war in 1917.
Edith Wilson devoted her life to helping her husband. She worked very hard to keep him healthy under the strains of war, and became one of his closest advisors. She even accompanied Wilson to Paris when he went to attend the 1918 peace conference at the end of the war. Upon his return, he campaigned for acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles with the provision for a League of Nations.
When the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson went on a speaking tour. At one point, he collapsed. Later, in September 1919, he suffered a stroke. Edith felt he would recover faster if he stayed in office than he would if he resigned. She was determined to help him stay in office, and to regain his health.
Edith used her position as Wilson’s wife to control access to the president. She read all papers and documents, and decided which would go to the president and which people would see the president. In this way, she decided which issues would be dealt with, and which issues would not. Since she controlled which papers would or would not be signed, and was almost the only advisor seeing the president, she exerted an unusually strong influence on government policy.
During this period, the cabinet was forbidden to meet, although they met unofficially to conduct some business. Later, Wilson fired his Secretary of State when he found out the cabinet had a meeting without his authorization. Vice President Marshall declined to take any initiative to fill in for the president. This meant that the only business done was whatever Edith Wilson allowed.
Critics called her “the first woman president.” In her memoirs, My Memoir, Edith Wilson called this her “stewardship” and insisted emphatically that her husband’s doctor had urged this course upon her.
After his term as president was over in 1921, Woodrow and Edith Wilson retired to a comfortable home in Washington, where he died three years later. Edith Wilson continued to live in Washington, a respected figure in capital society. She rode in the inaugural parade of John F. Kennedy in 1961. She died later that year, on December 28, her husband’s birthday. Edith Wilson held our government together in a time of crisis. She did this with no authority or official standing, and with no public credit or reward. If she was our first woman president, we were fortunate to have her.
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