By: Jordan Martin
On November 19, 2021 Kamala Harris briefly served as America’s first female acting president while Joe Biden was under anesthesia for a routine colonoscopy. The election of Harris as the first female Vice President was a huge step forward in equal gender representation in political leadership, and on Friday we experienced yet another milestone. While Harris is the first woman to officially act as the executive while the President was unable, another woman has also taken over this role without any credit: Edith Wilson.
Edith Bolling Wilson is sometimes recounted as the United States’ first female president because of the way she picked up her husband’s presidential responsibilities after his massive stroke in 1919. As first lady, Edith heavily involved herself in her husband, Woodrow Wilson’s political affairs. She became his personal assistant and knew just about as much about government secrets as he did. She also set an example for a good war-time housewife by volunteering at the Red Cross, donating wool to those in need, rationing food, wearing thrifted clothing and more. However, unlike the typical housewife, she worked in decoding military messages and advising the president in his meetings with Congress.
She had a massive influence as just first lady, but her largest contribution came after Woodrow Wilson’s paralyzing stroke. Edith insisted that he keep his spot in office and worked to conceal the severity of his debility from other members of government and the press. During this time, she effectively became America’s Commander in Chief. She never intended to take her husband’s power, only to protect him. She would often undermine her own importance to the american people claiming that she was hardly doing anything, and it was her husband and other government officials keeping the country running. However, in reality, Edith Wilson did contribute heavily and essentially acted as president. Historian Jacob M. Appel writes, “by deferring to her cabinet officers and tackling a handful of high priority issues, Mrs. Wilson managed to maintain the nation.” If you are wondering why the vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, didn’t take over as acting president (like Harris did last month), it is because America did not yet have the presidential succession line that we do now. The 25th amendment lays out who takes over the president’s office when they are unable, but this amendment was not ratified until 1967.
The ironic part of this is that women didn’t even have the right to vote in America until 1920, yet in 1919 a woman was essentially the acting president of the United States. In 2021, women are legally capable of political participation, and don’t have to downplay their involvement in government. Kamala Harris has put her name in the history books for being the first female vice president and acting president of America, so lets use this event to shed light on the contributions of Edith Wilson.