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She hid the severity of Wilson's condition from the public, controlling access to him to everyone except herself and his doctors for a time (Thurston). However, historical evidence suggests that Wilson was incredibly weakened by the stroke. Even controlling what reached him and what did not gave her a considerable amount of power. Her actions were barely within the confines of acceptability at the time. It is not surprising that many saw her as "President" at the time.
Historians debate whether to call her the first woman president, or whether, as she stated, she was only acting as Wilson's help mate at the time. Certainly, in the context of her time period, she was acting as no women had ever dared in the past. Instead of going to the President's advisors and asking them for advice, she took on the role herself, essentially snubbing their authority as males. She did not play the weak and helpless female role that was expected of her.
Some of her actions while in "office" are key factors in the questionability of her role simply as "steward," as she claims. During her six weeks in office, Edith influenced the affairs of the Cabinet and made several appointments. No one knows if she was acting alone, or if she had consulted with her husband on those maters. Regardless, the Cabinet and the public saw those actions as her own. For instance, when Secretary of State Robert Lansing conducted a series of Cabinet meetings without the President, Edith saw it as an act of disloyalty (Thurston). She pushed for his replacement by Bainbridge Colby, a more agreeable character in her book. In February of 1920, Edith Wilson formerly requested his resignation (Thurston). She still guarded access to the President to advisors and other political figures. This led to suspicions that the President was no longer making key decisions. When an investigation was launched, Edith made certain that her husband was presentable and sat through the meeting (Thurston).
Another action that fueled the controversy over Edith's role in office was when She refused to have the U.S. accept the credentials of British Representative Edward Grey, who had been sent as a representative to aid in the push for Wilson's League of Nations (Thurston). Grey dismissed one of his aides who made demeaning jokes at her expense (Thurston). It is not surprising that others failed to take her seriously, considering the traditional position of women at the time.
President Wilson's disability was considered the worst Presidential crisis in history, according to some historians. How it was handled drew even more criticism (PBS). President Wilson's disability came at a time when the nation was in a crisis. Those that were close to the situation maintain that Mrs. Wilson only acted as a conduit to the President and that she had no real power. They maintain that all decisions were still being made by the President and that Edith Wilson's role in decision making was greatly exaggerated (PBS).
Historian and contemporaries of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson claim that regardless of her claims, she stepped outside the boundaries of her duty as First Lady. However, in order to answer this question, one must first ask what the role of the First Lady is, or should be. The role of First Lady developed through comparison, example and in accordance with changing social norms throughout history. The First Lady is considered to be one of the most powerful people in Washington, yet we know little about her functions and responsibilities (Watson, p. 805). Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was not the first to have a considerable influence over her husband's decisions and policies. Scholarship into the role of the First Lady reveals that First Ladies are rarely given a mention by name in writings about the Presidency, but an in-depth study reveals that they are much more than that (Watson, p. 805).
Many First Ladies, such as Julia Dent Grant, Ida Saxton McKinley, and Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt held more traditional roles and did not engage in their husband's politics (Watson, p. 805). However, there is a group of women that stepped outside of the traditional role and served as active Presidential partners. Among these are Helen Herron Taft, Florence Kling Harding, Grace Anna Goddhue Coolidge, Lou Henry Hoover, and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (Watson, p. 805). These women had a different idea of what the role of First lady should be. As one can see, throughout history, there have been many different types of First Lady's and many different roles for them.
In historical context, one can find many examples of strong leadership in First Ladies of the United States. There is no question that Edith Bolling Galt Wilson went father than any other in her breaking of traditional roles. However, those were extraordinary times and considering her personality, one could expect her to do nothing more than the extraordinary. The answer to this question depends on whether one believes Edith's position as to whether she was simply acting as his "steward" or whether one believes popular press at the time.
One must remember that just as the press tends towards sensationalism today; it did back them as well. If she were truly acting as President, it is highly likely that Congress would have taken proper action and installed the Vice President in Wilson's place. They did nothing, which is further evidence that Edith Wilson was acting as a strong and extraordinary First Lady, not as President.
In 1921, President Wilson retired to a comfortable home in Washington, where he died three years later. Mrs. Wilson remained a highly respected figure in Washington Society and rode in President Kennedy's inaugural parade (Whitehouse.gov). However, for six weeks, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson had a key role in administration of the country. It is debatable whether or nor she should be called the first woman President, but there is no doubt that she helped to shape policy and was a major political influence of her time.
Her bold actions demonstrated that women were more than "sock menders." It showed that women were capable of carrying out more than their traditional duties. It is not surprising that Edith Bolling Galt Wilson's actions drew criticism, when one considers the struggle for women's suffrage that was going on at the time. However, based on the evidence found, one has to conclude that though she was extraordinary, she did not serve as First Woman President of the United States.
Ashby, R. Woodrow and Edith Wilson. Canada: Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc. 2005.
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PBS. Wilson -- A Portrait: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. The American Experience. 2001.
Thurston, A. Edith Wilson: The First Women President? March 4, 2008.
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Watson, P. The First Lady Reconsidered: Presidential Partner and Political Institution.
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Whitehouse.gov. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. Whitehouse.gov. 2009.
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