Sorry, Hillary, but in practice, if not in legality, the first woman president took office (although not the oath of office) this week (Oct. 2) in 1919. That is when, after an exhaustive nationwide campaign to rally support for American membership in the newly established League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that incapacitated him both mentally and physically. As a result, his wife Edith entered into what she called her “stewardship” of the presidency, but what many historians have called an unprecedented, unconstitutional and unsupportable assumption of presidential power.
This power stemmed from the fact that she rigidly controlled all information, including state documents, reports and official papers, going to her bed-ridden husband. She also decided which visitors would have access to the stricken Wilson, and she even influenced what they could say to him. That was also true of the information she herself imparted to him. Bad news, of which there was plenty in 1919, was often slanted, softened or put off indefinitely because she feared upsetting him and worsening his condition.
As for instructions and orders coming from Wilson, she controlled them as well, sharing with government officials daily “edicts” that began, “The president says…”, but were often colored by her own thinking. The elected vice president, Thomas Marshall, was shunted aside, even though he was far more qualified to assume the powers of the chief executive. Consequently, as the months passed, Edith Wilson’s political inexperience and aversion to differing opinions had an increasingly deleterious effect on the presidency and the country.
Indeed, it is quite possible that Edith Wilson’s “presidency” undermined the movement toward American membership in the League of Nations, which was her husband’s greatest ambition. The argument over whether America should promote global cooperation and collective security through an international organization such as the League had pitted President Wilson — its most perfervid advocate — against Republicans led by Henry Cabot Lodge, who supported the League in theory but wanted firmer guarantees that America’s sovereignty would not be threatened, nor her economic interests harmed. Senate Democrats had hoped Wilson would allow them to vote for the League “with reservations,” which might have resulted in a compromise that both parties could accept. No such instructions ever came from the White House during Edith Wilson’s “stewardship,” and American participation in the League was defeated.
In her defense against critics, Edith Wilson stated that she never made executive decisions unilaterally, nor did she initiate programs or make appointments. Even so, by carefully controlling the information that went to and from her husband, she controlled him, making her our first de facto woman president. Whoever becomes our first de jure woman president will undoubtedly do better.