A Reference Resource
Edith Bolling Wilson, Woodrow Wilson's second wife, is sometimes described as America's first woman President because of the role she played after the President's massive stroke in October 1919. Choosing to admit or turn away visitors and deciding what papers Wilson did or did not see, she was a controversial figure at the time and has remained so ever since. For her part, Edith Wilson described her role as that of a steward. She wrote in her 1939 memoirs that as First Lady, she "never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs." In fact, she claimed powers over only "what was important and what was not" and "when to present matters to my husband."
Edith was introduced to the President in early 1915, about six months after the death of Ellen Axson Wilson, his first wife. Wilson liked her at once and began sharing state secrets with her in an effort to charm her. After a brief but passionate courtship, the two became secretly engaged. But Wilson's political advisers felt that his remarriage less than a year after the death of Ellen Wilson would offend the American public and damage his reelection prospects; they even concocted a scheme to prevent him from marrying Edith. Despite their machinations, the couple was married in December 1915.
As First Lady, Edith, far more than Ellen Wilson, invested herself in the President's political affairs. She became his confidante and personal assistant, particularly attempting to break off his relations with those she believed had tried to torpedo her marriage to the President. She was familiar with the pressing issues of the administration, including the war
raging in Europe. Not greatly interested in the traditional role of the First Lady, she hired a secretary to meet the demands of her limited social calendar. She then used the American declaration of war in 1917 as an excuse to eliminate official entertaining altogether. Public tours of the White House ended, the annual Easter Egg Roll and New Year's Day reception ceased, and formal dinners were kept to a minimum.
Throughout the war, the First Lady, who preferred to be called "Mrs. Woodrow Wilson," set an example for economy and patriotism. Like other American housewives, she wore thrift clothing, observed rationing, and "Hooverized" the White House, adopting "meatless Mondays" and "wheatless Wednesdays." Instead of paying a gardening crew to maintain the White House lawn, Edith borrowed twenty sheep from a nearby farm and donated the wool to charitable auctions aiding the American cause -- sales of the auctioned wool ultimately netted $50,000. She knitted trench helmets; sewed pajamas, pillowcases, and blankets; promoted war bonds; responded to soldiers' mail; named thousands of vessels; and volunteered with the Red Cross at Union Station. Unlike the typical American homemaker, however, Edith Wilson also helped the war effort by decoding military messages and giving advice to the President on his dealings with Congress.
At the war's end, the First Lady went to Europe with the President. She urged the President to include more Republicans on the commission, but Wilson demurred. In Europe, some of the President's popularity also rubbed off on the First Lady. She enjoyed her status and spent her time in France touring hospitals and visiting American troops. In February 1919, when Wilson presented the plan for the League of Nations to the peace conference, she persuaded the presiding officer, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, to let her attend the session.
When Wilson decided, in the late summer of 1919, to travel across the country speaking in support of the League of Nations, Edith worried that his health was too frail to stand the strain. As she feared, he collapsed on September 25, and she rushed him back to Washington, where he suffered a massive stroke on October 2. Although the President was paralyzed and unable to carry out the duties of his office, Edith insisted that he must not resign because she believed 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 -- her concealment of the severity of his debility from the cabinet and the press, her determination that almost no one be admitted to the sickroom, her screening of the papers and issues that would be brought to his attention, and her assumption of the role of secretary, reporting the President's decisions to government officials. Until January 1920, Wilson had almost no contact with anyone outside his circle of family and doctors; he did not meet with his cabinet until April 1920.
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. In excluding visitors and deciding which issues should be presented to him, she made political decisions without meaning to do so. At bottom, however, the fault was not hers -- she merely loved her husband -- it was a deficiency of the American political system that, until the adoption of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution in 1967, made no provision for the disability of the President.