Was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson Our First Woman President? Thesis

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Edith Bolling Galt Wilson: An Extraordinary First Lady

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson. She was First Lady of the United States from 1915 through 1921, often called the "secret president" for the role that she played when her husband suffered a long and disabling illness following a stroke (Whitehouse.gov). Mrs. Wilson was well-fitted for the job of First Lady, born into the Virginia aristocracy. When Edith Bolling Galt met President Wilson, she was mourning the loss of her first husband, Norman Galt. President Wilson was mourning the loss of his first wife (Whitehouse.gov). They provided instant companionship for each other.

After their marriage in 1915, President Wilson and his new First Lady were happy in the White House (Whitehouse.gov). Mrs. Wilson accompanied her husband and provided companionship and support throughout the tough war years. In 1919, President Wilson suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. During that time, Mrs. Wilson took over many routine tasks and duties of the government (Whitehouse.gov). She did not initiate any new programs or make major decisions, but in every other respect, she was acting as President (Whitehouse.gov).

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From the time President Wilson became incapacitated, Edith Wilson claims that she was acting only to help give her husband time to recover from his stroke (Ashby, p. 4). However, many at that time and since them questioned her motives. There are those that claim she was power hungry and enjoyed the power that she got from her exploits. The question of whether Edith Wilson was acting as president at the time, or whether she was President Wilson's "steward." As she claims, is a topic of debate. The following will explore several aspects of her position during the time of President Wilson's illness and whether Edith Wilson could be considered the first female U.S. President in history. It will support the position that she was President Wilson's support, and that criticisms and that being called "President" are social artifacts of the time in which she lived.

Thesis on Was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson Our First Woman President? Assignment

Woman "President" before Women's Suffrage

To place this action in social context, one must remember that at the time when Mrs. Wilson took over the oval office, women did not yet have the right to vote, let alone run the office of the Presidency. Women did not gain the right to vote until August 26, 1920 and no one even knew that they had women for President almost a year later. Considering the scandal that womens's suffrage caused at the time, if a majority of the population, particularly the male population, had known what went on behind closed doors in the White House, it would have been considered outrageous.

Mrs. Wilson knew her place and refused to call herself President, instead, she referred to herself simply as "steward" of the white house (Whitehouse.gov). The decision to take on this role was at the urging of Wilson's doctor who felt that the strain of the office would be too much for him. Mrs. Wilson did not try to control the executive branch, but served more as an administrative assistant. She selected the matters that needed her husband's attention and let everything else go the heads of state or remain in abeyance (Whitehouse.gov). She maintained social order by refusing to step too far outside of traditional women's roles.

Edith Bolling Galt drew criticism even before she became the second wife of the President. Certain White House advisors felt that her marriage to Woodrow Wilson came too soon after the death of Wilson's first wife, Ellen (Ashby, p. 25). The American public was endeared by Ellen Wilson and grieved with the President when she died. Many felt that taking a second wife so soon after the death of Ellen would draw criticism from the American public and cause him to lose the support of the people. However, Wilson felt that the American people would rather see him happy, rather than grieving, so he took on Edith Bolling Galt as his second first lady (Ashby, p. 25).

Edith filled the role of First Lady well and was soon endeared to the White House staff. However, regardless of what she did, there were always critics around, simple because President Wilson chose to marry her so soon after Ellen's death. Edith Wilson had a few strike against her from the beginning. Edith was not as demur as Ellen Wilson. She had an independent spirit and was not afraid to find her own voice. After the death of her first husband, Edith did something unheard of at the time. She took over her husband's affairs and was even daring enough to manage her own financial affairs (Thurston). What made matters worse was that she was actually good at it.

In the gender embattled world of WWI, women were not considered capable of managing their own financial affairs, let alone running their husband's business. Edith was not quite about it either, she used to drive herself around Washington unaccompanied (Thurston). This was considered an outward act of social defiance of the time. When President Wilson decided to take Edith Wilson on as his second wife, the main public objection raised was that it was too soon after the death of Edith, but there may have been more behind the scenes. It may have been his choice of spouse in the matter. Edith did not fit the profile of the demur First Lady that Ellen was, and this may have been a key factor in her disfavor as a second First Lady.

Edith was fashionable and showed outward independence that was not considered proper for women of fine upbringing. At the time when Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt met, society was in turmoil over changing gender roles. There was a division in society about what was "proper" behavior for the respectable woman. The First Lady was supposed to set standard. Having the newer, more independent breed as a First Lady may have been seen as a threat to the "proper" status of women at the time.

This may or may not have been true, but one year after Edith served as "steward" to the Presidency, women attained the right to vote through a constitutional change. The winds of change were in the air when Edith became First Lady. It is not known how much influence Edith had in this change. It may be that the stage was set long before Edith stepped in for her husband. One facto to consider is that Edith tried to keep her husband in the spotlight in terms of decision making. She tried to keep her role out of the public eye, and only known to a few, but there were press leaks, despite her best efforts. Her actions as "Steward" and certainly her independent sense of strength were certainly an inspiration to the Women's Suffrage Movement.

Edith as First Lady

Considering Edith's independent nature and experience with business matters, it is not surprising that she took an active role in her husband's Presidency. She did not stay at home, playing the demur little wife, tending to the mending while her husband was away. She often accompanied him during his Presidential campaign, traveling to Europe with him during the War, and helping to manager his affairs (Thurston). She put aside many of the more traditional "hostessing" duties of the First Lady, trading them for a more active role, sometimes acting as his secretary (Thurston). These actions drew further criticism, as she was not acting as a "proper" First Lady.

Edith joined her husband on many of his trips and had an in-dept knowledge of the programs, policies and actions of her husband. This inside knowledge prepared her for her the role that she would take on when her husband had a stroke. She felt that she was the most qualified for the job, as she knew her husband like no one else. Even before this event, many criticized her for taking too much of an active role in the President's decisions, she was seen as a threat to advisors and staff, particularly when she disagreed with them. A strong woman had no place in the White House.

Edith Wilson maintains that she took over many of the duties of the presidency in order to ease the strain from her husband (Ashby, p. 4). However, it was the way in which she did it that was viewed as a power-play by Washington circles. Edith maintained that she was only acting as "Steward" to the Presidency, leaving the more important decisions to her husband. She maintained that the President was still the President and that he was fulfilling his duties. She was simply a secretary, taking on many of the routine tasks of the office.

She knew her traditional place, and knew that proclaiming any sort of power would mean her demise. Performing even the routine tasks that she did was considered overstepping her bounds as First Lady. She had gone well-beyond her traditional role as White House… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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