Edith Wilson: That Time A Woman Ran The White House

When Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States suffered a stroke during his second term, his wife Edith Wilson took over facilitating the executive branch until March 1921.

For modern historians, it smacks of the assertion that Nancy Reagan made the decisions for Ronald Reagan the last years he was in the White House.

Perhaps; good luck proving that one.

We have plenty of evidence that Edith Wilson took a seat in the Oval Office for 17 months. It wasn’t the president’s seat, but she was right next to it.

Love

For 12-years, Edith enjoyed a life in Washington, D.C., married to a man named Norman Galt. When Galt passed at age 43 in 1908, the widow Edith was childless and alone.

Their only child, born in 1903, didn’t survive more than a few days. After that, Edith was unable to have more children.

When she met Wilson in 1915, she knew who he was. He was already the president. Wilson found Edith intelligent, charming, and attractive.

It was, perhaps, these elements that sparked relations between them or that they shared a common story. Wilson was also a widower, having lost his wife a year before that.

In any event, they hit it off right away. By December of that same year, they married in a private ceremony.  

War

By 1917, the United States entered the Great War. Had that not taken place, Edith’s life as first lady may have been all about hosting White House parties.

Instead, it was all hands on deck for the war effort. She labored to keep Wilson healthy due to the strain of the war.

Edith was so close to Woodrow that she attended presidential affairs that would not normally involve the first lady, such as the peace talks in Europe.

Either that trip, selling the Senate on the peace terms or Wilson’s tireless work ethics finally caught up with him. The last battle for Wilson in the Great War was the stroke he suffered September 26th, of 1919.  

Peace

There were 17-months left on Wilson’s term when he had the stroke. We were trying to end the war. It was a bad time to transfer power to the Vice President. Plus, Thomas R. Marshall, Wilson’s vice president, admitted he didn’t want it.

The official story to the American public was that the president was suffering from a nervous reaction in his digestive organs.

Edith had already taken the lead on his health, so when he went down, she stayed in that role wearing many hats. To Wilson she was the doting nursemaid, consoling him about his condition.

To the administration, she functioned as a liaison to Wilson. She didn’t make any decisions or pass any bills, but she did decide what should warrant Wilson’s approval and what the administration should handle.

Some have criticized the move, lobbying that Edith was not equipped to make those decisions. The doctor had convinced Edith that every piece of bad news was like twisting a knife in Wilson’s proverbial wound.

As a result, during the time Wilson was incapacitated, 28 acts became law because Wilson did not respond in the requisite 10-days. Edith was acting out of preservation for her spouse’s life.

JFK & Edith | hillaryhq.com

At the end of Wilson’s term, Edith and he moved to a townhouse in D.C. By that time he’d regained some of his independence but still kept Edith close.

He passed in February 1924, but Edith stayed active in D.C. When the country elected John F. Kennedy in 1961, she attended his inauguration.

That same year, in December, she passed from congestive heart failure.

Sources: whitehouse.gov, NYPost