On this date in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side and blinded his left eye. Had the 25th Amendment to the Constitution been in effect, this would likely have led to Vice President Thomas Marshall assuming the powers of chief executive and, essentially, the end of Wilson’s presidency. As it happened, no one had thought of the 25th Amendment yet, it wouldn’t be proposed for another 47 years — shit, there wasn’t even a 19th Amendment. So when that stroke floored President Wilson in the middle of his campaign to ratify the Covenant of the League of Nations, his doctors and personal staff did the only reasonable thing they could think to do: they let his wife take over.
Ellen Axson, Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, died in 1914 of chronic nephritis, and was thus judged unfit to assume the presidency following her husband’s stroke. Wilson met his second wife, Edith Galt, shortly after the death of Ellen. Wilson wasn’t picky when it came to women, and Edith fit his type to a T: female, breathing, wealthy — and white, naturally. The two enjoyed a whirlwind courtship, which included sex in a public theater (at least according to a famous typo in the Washington Post where the phrase “the President spent the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt” was misprinted as “the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt”), and were married at Edith’s Washington, D.C. home in December of 1915. After the stroke, it was Edith who secretly discharged the powers of the presidency for the remaining 16 months of her husband’s term.
To keep the severity of Wilson’s condition under wraps, Edith saw to it that no one, not even Vice President Marshall, members of Wilson’s cabinet, or members of Congress, were able to see her husband. Edith let the cabinet and the department heads of the executive branch handle most of the major decisions, and everything else was either put off until the end of Wilson’s term or dealt with by Edith herself through letters, which were thought by those who received them to have come from the president. Her most famous executive decision came on April 23, 1920, when Edith issued an order in the president’s name to stay the execution of convicted murderer Robert Stroud, who would eventually become known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Like I said, this was prior to the ratification and enactment of the 19th Amendment, meaning that Edith Wilson was acting as president in a time when women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote.
After Wilson’s term expired, he and Edith retired to their home in Embassy Row in D.C. No one but Wilson’s doctors and closest aides — not the public, not the newspapers, not the members of Congress — knew that Edith Wilson had essentially been acting president after the stroke. Woodrow Wilson died three years after the official end of his presidency, in February 1924. In 1939, Edith published her autobiography, My Memoir, wherein she admitted for the first time publicly that she had acted as the president in place of her disabled husband. She described her role after the stroke as a “stewardship,” and insisted, in case the idea of an unelected person secretly assuming presidential powers was offensive to some, that Wilson’s doctors had put her up to it.
Despite not being elected, and despite not appearing to be qualified for the office in any way, Edith Wilson didn’t do such a bad job as secret president. So why is it such a big deal to elect a woman president for real? And why haven’t more female candidates been given a serious shot? It breaks my heart to think that the first female president might wind up being someone as loathsome and phony as Hillary Clinton, when there must be millions of American women far better suited to lead the country.
And for you Republicans out there offended by the story of Edith Wilson, let me remind you that Nancy Reagan did pretty much the exact same thing for all eight years of her husband’s presidency, and you guys thought he was motherfucking Jesus.