Saturday, September 10, 2016

Our First Female President: Edith Wilson

About 25 years ago, Hillary Clinton did something that annoyed a lot of folks. She was First Lady but she didn't want the passive role in the President Clinton's administration. She didn't want to be the hostess of the White House and simply looking pretty and supportive beside her man. She wanted to get involved in policy. She was immediately disliked because of this. At the time I heard a lot of people saying stuff like "she doesn't know her place" or "no one voted for her." Her intelligence, strength and perseverance really challenged people's ideas of what a woman is.  In 1992, I was working in Norwood MA as a software analyst and one of my co-workers would always bring up the fact that when Bill and Hillary were lawyers, she made more money than he did. I used ask him repeatedly, "Why is that a problem?" and I never understood his answer.  The steady drumbeat of allegations against this woman has been a constant in our lives since she came onto the scene. None of them are substantiated. But if you say something long enough, people start believing it. For the Republican party, she represented (like President Obama years later) a demographic that challenges the status quo; a status quo which puts the white male on top. The onslaught of attacks on her smell of misogyny just like the attacks on Obama (from birthers and otherwise) smell of racism. Now that she is the presidential nominee for the Democratic party, as a voter it is difficult to separate what is true about her from the bullshit that the GOP has been feeding us. I hear that people don't trust her and think she is a crook yet I see no substantiation of it. If this presidential election were based on a candidate's abilities alone, she would win by a landslide.

While Clinton is the first woman to get the nomination for a major party in the USA, she is not the first woman to run for president. We have had plenty of them to run on non-major parties. Victoria Woodhull was a suffragette who ran as the candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. This was pretty radical because women couldn't even vote at the time. She even nominated a black man, the awesome Frederick Douglass, as her Vice President.  Twelve years later Belva Ann Lockwock actually appeared on official ballots on election day for the same party. In 1940, the comedian Gracie Allen (the comedic party and wife of George Burns) ran for president as a joke. There are many other like Linda Jenness in 1972 for the Socialist Workers Party and Jill Stein this year for the Green Party. If Hillary Clinton wins this year, she won't even be the first woman to run this country. That has already happened. No, not Eleanor Roosevelt and certainly not any of the Republican First Ladies. Of course, I am talking about Edith Wilson.

When Woodrow Wilson was sworn into office in 1913, he was married to Ellen Axson Wilson. She was a daughter of slave owners. You can call it liberal guilt perhaps but she spent her time as First Lady working on improving the housing in the black districts of Washington DC. She died of Bright's Disease (kidney failure) while Wilson was still in office in August 1914. Her major concern, apparently, as she died was that her husband move on. The president suffered from depression for several months afterwards. He hated his job and it is surprising that he didn't resign. History might have been served well because his V.P., Thomas Marshall, was a real progressive and might have been more of a reformer than Wilson. The Great War had started in Europe, coal minors were striking and the economy suffered due to both of them. It wasn't until February the next year that his mood perked up when he met Edith Bolling Galt.

Wilson's cousin Helen Woodrow Bones was living in the White House acting as a proxy First Lady. She used to go on occasional walks with her friend Edith. One day Wilson was driving by, in his limo, when he first saw Edith. "Who is that beautiful lady?" he asked. She came over for dinner at the White House shortly after and they were married by December 1915 when Wilson had over a year mourning which was traditional at the time. The rumors said that they were having an affair while he was still married but there is nothing to substantiate this. One hundred years later, not much has changed.

Edith was also a widow, her husband died seven years earlier leaving her a jewelry business in D.C. It was deeply in debt and she knew nothing about the business.  She promoted a senior employee to run the business and it succeeded. She was an avid golfer and was the first woman in D.C. to have a driver's license.   She was a very capable person. She took on the usual role of hostess of the White House but during the war, her pet project was rationing. She promoted gasless Sunday, meatless Monday and wheatless Wednesday all to preserve resources for the war effort. She also arrange to have sheep roam the White House lawn to save on manpower. The wool was auctioned off to raise funds for the Red Cross.  She was the first First Lady to receive full time Secret Service protection and the first to accompany the President to an overseas diplomatic mission (to Europe during the war). She was given access to classified information, sat in meetings, was exposed to secret codes and advised the president on occasions.

Her role changed in 1919 after the war, when Wilson collapsed with a stroke. He had just come home from Europe having spent six months there for the Paris Peace Conference which led to the Treaty of Versailles. Exhausted when he got home, instead of resting, he attempted to tour the country to drum up suppose for the Treaty and the League of Nations. The stroke happened shortly into this trip and he returned home. Edith not only took charge of his health, but many historians believe she ran the Executive Branch there after. She let no one in to see the President other than doctors. She would return paperwork to officials that had notes written on them. Were they the notes of the partially paralyzed President or his caretaker trying to write like him?  No one know. She always stated that she was only a "steward" to the President. Cabinet members got no further than her. When Secretary of State John Lansing called for a Cabinet meeting without the President's permission and then suggested that Woodrow step down from the presidency, Edith fired him.

We will never know how many decisions she made, if any, instead of her husband. If there were any, this could very easily be called a coup d'├ętat because no one had voted for her and transition of power went to Vice President, not the spouse. She had no authority to make decisions yet she probably did so for one year and five months. So if anyone is concerned about having a woman president ... guess what ... we've probably already had one.

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