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Edith Wilson: first lady and acting president

Oct 1, 2015

First lady Edith Wilson acted as de facto president of the United States for over a year after her husband's stroke.
Credit Library of Congress / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

One of the big questions of the 2016 presidential race is whether we’ll finally see a woman in the White House.

But there’s a little-known secret that’s finally coming to light: It wouldn’t be the first time a woman has run the country.

From late 1919 until March 1921, first lady Edith Galt Wilson was the de facto president of the United States.

University of Michigan physician and medical historian Howard Markel tells us that President Woodrow Wilson was never the picture of health.

“One physician thought that Woodrow Wilson would never finish out his first term, that he would die before his first term was out,” Markel says.

While that prediction wasn’t exactly accurate, things did take a turn for the worse in 1919.

During an 8,000-mile train barnstorming trip to drum up support in the states for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, Markel tells us Wilson complained of splitting headaches and at one point experienced blurred vision.

Markel says he was likely suffering from a transient ischemic attack, colloquially referred to as a “mini-stroke.”

Wilson’s health declined as the trip continued, and on October 2, 1919, four days after rushing back to the White House, he suffered a major stroke.

“[Dr. Cary] Grayson came up in a few minutes, and he came out after about maybe 10 minutes after his exam, and he said, ‘My God, the president is paralyzed,’” Markel says.

President Wilson's first posed photograph after the stroke that paralyzed his left side. First lady Edith Wilson holds a paper steady as he signs.
Credit Wikimedia user Durova / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

And until the end of his term, the extent of his stroke and long-term disability was kept a secret.

“Nobody really had access to the president. They said he was ill, and he couldn’t see people, and Mrs. Wilson was sort of his go-between,” Markel says.

Cabinet members, senators, congressman – nobody got past Edith Wilson, according to Markel.

The 25th Amendment outlines how succession to the presidency works today, but that wasn’t adopted until 1967. In Wilson’s day, the law regarding succession was just a little more vague.

“The problem with the Constitution as it was written then, was that there’s a plan for succession of the vice president in case of death, but not of disability,” Markel says.

The first lady wrote later in her memoir that she simply acted as a steward for her husband, that she would decide when and how to bring things before him. She may have dictated the flow of the president’s business, but was very clear that all the decisions were made by her husband.

According to Markel, Wilson historians have found “time and time again” that that wasn’t exactly the case.

“Mrs. Wilson said she was simply a steward, but in reality she was the de facto president of the United States,” he says.

–Ryan Grimes, Stateside