Our first woman president

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By Bill Hazelgrove


I was in the bathtub reading Scott Berg's book Wilson when I dropped it in the water. It wasn't a spasm but a reaction to the line I read that basically said Edith Wilson was the virtual president in 1919. After I hauled the book out of the water with blue ink washing down from the cover I read on and then on and on until I reached "The Papers of Woodrow Wilson" in the Elmhurst Library. 

There buried in the tombs was the story of a woman who had only been married to the president of the United States for four years and had only two years of schooling yet was required in the 46th year of her life to take control of the United States government and step in, effectively, as president.

The story is told through the correspondence of the day. No email or fax, of course, so people mailed each other and sent telegrams or letters. In these letters the power flowed from Woodrow Wilson to Edith Wilson as she diverted the presidential river to allow her husband to heal from a massive stroke that had turned him into a semi invalid who could only be wheeled out to the South portico or shown movies in the Red Room or, when he was well enough, taken for drives. 

In these dusty books I discovered that Wilson disappeared for five months and the White House ceased to function and became more like a haunted Victorian hospice than a functioning White House. 

At the center was Edith Wilson, signing legislation, making appointments, orchestrating the cover-up, working on official proclamations while trying to fight the battle over the establishment of the League of Nations. 

By the time I closed the volumes of letters and official correspondence, I had my book and I had my heroine. Her name was Edith Wilson and she was the first woman president. The title emerged from that idea: Madam President - The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. And as I dug deeper I was surprised to discover a love story. 

Edith Wilson was a progressive woman who had buried one husband, a child, been homeschooled by her grandmother, and left a failing jewelry company. By the time she met the grieving widower Woodrow Wilson, she was a woman of means with the first driver's license in the District of Columbia, an electric car, and a penchant for travel and the good life. 

The last thing she had on her mind was marriage but Woodrow Wilson woke from his grief and pursued her like a Victorian suitor half his age. For all his apparent academic frigidity, he was in reality a sensual man and his love letters would make a woman in 1919 blush. The romantic won over Edith, and then he did a very unusual thing. He made his new wife his partner in the White House. 

 By the time they married, Edith had been deciphering top secret codes and had become the President's closest advisor. Effectively she began isolating him from the men around him. She was fierce, loyal, protective, aggressive, and smart. The couple navigated World War I as Wilson's health deteriorated. The final blow came outside of Pueblo, Colorado on a whistle-stop tour to promote the League of Nations. When they returned to Washington, the blood clot in his brain squeezed off circulation and Wilson collapsed, paralyzed on his left side. The Edith Wilson presidency began.

 Now, almost a hundred years later, we are entertaining the real possibility of our first elected woman president. The Edith Wilson presidency has nibbled at the pages of history for a long time and maybe now with Hillary in the final stretch, it is time to shine the light on the dusty pages that reside in books that never checked out. 

Hillary should take note of the woman who ruled before women even had the vote. 

Bill Hazelgrove is a former Oak Park resident and the first writer in residence at the Hemingway Birth Home. He is the author of 10 novels and he writes a political/cultural blog, The View from Hemingway's Attic.

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