Would Hillary Clinton be the USA’s first female president?
Last month Hillary Clinton dropped the first not-so-shocking hint that she might run for president in 2016. Excepting the one woman who recently succumbed to the urge to hurl her shoe at the former Secretary of State, Clinton’s popularity among the electorate is high.
And according to a recent Gallup poll, a significant part of her appeal is gender-based. Eighteen percent think that the most positive feature of a Clinton presidency would be her status as first female President of the United States of America. Such an outcome would begin to balance out the current 44:0 male-to-female ratio.
But statistics don’t tell the whole story. Contrary to popular belief, America has already had a female president, albeit a de facto one. In October 1919, First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson became the first lady ever to act as First Man.
President Woodrow Wilson had just endured a stressful six months trying to resolve European squabbles at the Paris Peace Conferences in the aftermath of World War One. On returning to Washington he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralysed.
In the case of the president’s “inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office,” the constitution states that the vice president can assume responsibilities. Unfit to govern, Woodrow should have been replaced by his VP, Thomas Marshall, who had already filled the President’s vacant shoes while he toured Europe.
But that didn’t happen and a largely overlooked moment in history was made instead. It was Edith Wilson who took effective charge for the 17 months until the end of her husband’s term. During this time she would keep everyone, including Marshall, in the dark about the extent of his illness.
Scott Berg, Woodrow Wilson’s biographer, tells Esquire that “Nobody saw the President of the United States, or was able to pass a document before his eyes without it first passing through the hands of Edith Wilson. She became his ultimate filter.”
And this wasn’t just in some advisory capacity. Berg stresses the decisive role that she played in government. “Day-to-day people reported to Edith Wilson. The executive branch of the government was functioning largely because of her.”
All of which begs the obvious question: why did Marshall take charge? Berg says that Woodrow’s understudy remained largely uninvolved, for fear of appearing ambitious or disloyal, and more pertinently for fear of actually becoming president. “He was enough of a fool to enjoy being vice president,” says Berg. “He had a business card that said: Thomas R. Marshall – Vice President of the United States and toast-master.”
To say that Marshall was effectively redundant in his role would be an understatement. When he retired Marshall remarked, “I don’t want to work but I wouldn’t mind being vice president again”.
Edith, meanwhile, downplayed the extent of her role in her memoirs, saying that she never made any decisions regarding public affairs, only deciding “what was important and what was not.” These actions were enough to cause quite a stir, and she was brandished as a woman of formidable determination who got what she wanted. Some went as far as to suggest that she had murdered Woodrow’s previous wife, Ellen.
Regardless of her critics, Berg insists that Edith was not motivated by a thirst for power. “She was no Lady Macbeth. She was more concerned about her husband’s constitution than the United States’ constitution.” She feared that if Woodrow stepped down altogether he would kick the bucket. And she was probably right – three years after his term finished he did just that.
Woodrow also appeared to consider his wife as best placed to act on his behalf. “He included Edith in everything,” says Berg. “It’s almost as though he feared something might happen to him, so by the time he had the stroke she knew all the players and knew the score.”
Edith lived to see JFK sworn into office, and was guest of honour at his inauguration, dying on Wilson’s birthday, December 28th 1961. Had she publicised her role it would have been hailed as a triumph for the suffragettes – and indeed the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women’s suffrage, was ratified during her period in charge.
By assuming those responsibilities, Edith set a precedent for women across the country and the globe. As it approaches 100 years since that extraordinary episode, Hillary Clinton can go one better for female empowerment by becoming America’s second female ruler, and first to swear the oath of office.