The First Lady Who Secretly Ran The U.S. Government

A Brief History

From October 2, 1919 and for some weeks afterwards, First Lady Edith Wilson (October 15, 1872 — December 28, 1961) unofficially ran the U.S. government following her husband’s (then President Woodrow Wilson’s) life-changing stroke.

Digging Deeper

In the aftermath of America’s participation in what was then the world’s worst war (World War I) and his diplomatic wrangling at the Paris Peace Conference that followed the war’s conclusion in 1919, a worn-out President Wilson returned to America only to experience a series of medical crises.  First, he endured a bout of influenza early in the year.  Second, on September 25th, he actually collapsed on a public speaking tour while trying to garner support for his proposed League of Nations.  The worst incident, however, occurred on October 2, 1919.

On that date, Wilson suffered a stroke of such intensity that it incapacitated him, having permanently paralyzed the left side of his body and even blinding his left eye.  While he was bedridden for the next two months, only his wife, physicians, and a few other close associates saw him.

In the meantime, the First Lady in effect took over many of the president’s responsibilities, including reviewing various important matters of state.  Even after the president was released from his sick bed, he still spent the remainder of the year in a wheelchair.  As 1920 came about, his mental health had clearly deteriorated as his mind wandered and he exhibited a diminished memory.  Thus, the First Lady continued to play a pivotal role as a sort of unofficial “acting president”.  As the First Lady put it, she had taken on a “stewardship” to care for the largely incapacitated president and keep the American government running as smoothly as possible.  The situation was so unique in American history and the president’s condition so tragic, that the extent of what the ailing president endured was kept secret from the American public until his death a couple of years after his term ended.

Historical Evidence

For a concise and easy to read book that deals specifically with this aspect of the First Lady’s life, see James Gibin, Edith Wilson: The Woman Who Ran The United States (Viking, 1992).  For a more in-depth account of this unprecedented event in American politics, see also James S. McCallops, Edith Wilson: The Woman Who Ran the United States (Women of Our Time) (Nova Publishers, 2003).

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history at multiple universities.

  • Nancy

    I’ve always wondered if Nancy Reagan might have also run the country toward the end of Ronnie’s term. He had to have been showing signs of Alzheimers by then.

    • Shell Harris

      I would imagine during America’s history that more than few First Ladies made their mark on our country, even if it was only providing counsel to their husbands.

    • merl1

      I always just assumed that GW Bush was in charge from day one and that Ronnie was just a figurehead.

      • Logan Rieck

        You mean G. H. W. Bush?

  • Lia Hart

    Yes, I believe it would be better if all of the first ladies played more of a political role, because they could help put a better impact on decicions and help create ideas.

  • DaVante Dotson

    Yes, i feel like women should play a more political role because they could have ideas that could play a vital part in our government.

  • A Byers

    I dont think the first lady should have a large political role. I don’t see anything wrong with them giving counsel to the president though. I think its unfair that someone would make decisions for our nation who no one voted for and agreed to allow them that privilege. If Candidates and their spouses ran together as a team and both were voted into office on the basis of their politics then I would agree to them having a larger role. I’m not saying this on the basis that women shouldn’t be in politics either, if it were a female president then I wouldn’t want the first man to have a large political role.

  • M Oue

    I personally don’t believe anybody who is not part of Presidential line of succession should have that much power. If the president is incapable of making the decisions than the vice president should take his place until he is capable. The American public should know who is behind many of the important decisions. I agree with A Byers that this is not an issue based on sex. I too would not want the first male leading the nation if it came to that scenario.

  • Breann G.

    I disagree. I think it is amazing that the First Lady was able to accomplish this. I understand the President was not in good condition, however, he was still able to make decisions and his wife was the one that carried those decisions out. It would be different if the President was incoherent or had something else wrong with him. In that case, the Vice President could take over. I admire the fact that the First Lady took on the challenge and helped out her husband when she was needed the most.

  • Kathryn R.

    I think it’s great that the first lady felt she was capable of taking on such a challenge at the same time she was facing the emotional issue of having an ill husband. In her case nothing bad came about as she took on the role but I think that some first ladies are not quite as knowledgeable about the overall picture that their husband is striving for. Nowadays, the first lady would get no where close to the presidency because the vice president ran, and was voted in with the president. The first lady, however, was not on the ballot.

  • Brooke K.

    I don’t believe that the first ladies should have a large role in running the government. The American people did not elect the first lady, they elected the president and vice-president. I think it’s great if they want to advise the president and give advice, but I think that is where their power should end. If they want to make a larger impact then they can run for president themselves.

  • Nicole W

    Being the first lady, one would assume that she would have some sort of influence on her husband in regards to his politics regardless of an illness or other condition. Yes, he was the president and the one elected, but don’t most married couples work as a team anyways? If she was just carrying out his wishes as president, I see no harm in Edith Wilson doing what most wouldn’t in this situation. Although I do not believe it is fair to have the first lady running the country, they should take a larger political role.

  • Jillian S.

    I think that in this situation that we read about, it was an amazing thing that the first lady thought she was capable to take over for her husband during his hardship, but I do not believe now-a-days the United States would favor that. I do not think that the first-lady(or someday first-man) should be able to have political power or have a say in something if it is not their intended job. I believe that the first-lady and President I’m sure would have similar beliefs and whatever she thought the President most-likely would agree with to an extent.

  • A. Dunn

    I think that it was wonderful for Mrs.Wilson to have ran the government for her husband, however I do not believe the first ladies should have a major role in the government. I do think it is important for them to support their husband and want to help America succeed, but they should not have a say in the major actions/roles of the government. My main reason for this is that the American people elected the president, not the wife. The person elected president should be the only one having the final say and being the main person running the government.

  • k^2

    I believe it’s amazing what the first lady was able to do, but i don’t believe they should have a huge role in making decisions for our country. there will be a woman for president someday, and her husband shouldn’t have a say in making decisions for our country either.

  • Lynnette B.

    I think that it was very brave of Edith Wilson to step up like she did in her husband’s time of need, but I believe that first ladies should only step up in emergency situations such as these. The people of America elect the president because of his politics, but they do not get to elect a first lady. It would not be right if the first lady had more of a say, because she is not included next to the president’s name on the ballot. She gets title because her husband won an election. The first lady having more say in the country would be like any other wife showing up at her husband’s job and taking over. Therefore, while I do believe that in extreme cases, such as Edith Wilson’s case, the first lady may need to step up, this should not be a regular occurrence in the White House.

  • Ethan R.

    I understand how hard it must have been for Edith Wilson to watch how her husband suffer through his medical issues. I don’t necessarily agree with the fact the President’s Wilson’s condition was kept from the public, but I can see why the government would want to keep something that emotionally devastating under wraps. In that situation I don’t believe the first lady should put the responsibility of the government on her shoulders because she is not an elected official. However, from what I understand from this article she did so with good intentions and I commend her for that. From reading the other comments I feel that most people would agree. I’m surprised there weren’t any policies that would mandate a situation like this at the time.

  • Noelle C

    What a neat article. I think it was extremely brave of the first lady to step up for the president and take over his stressful position while he had time to recover. Although, I am sure there was help given to the first lady, I am sure she tried her hardest to keep things in order as the president would do himself. I believe that if there were serious decision making to be made, that she would not be permitted to do so because she may not have the adequate knowledge for it and her life was under enough stress as it was.

  • S. Kessinger

    I find Edith Wilson a true hero. She kept her composure while taking care of her sick and dying husband along with running the United States of America! I cannot imagine the stress she must have been under. Edith is extremely brave and I commend her for her efforts in running the country in such sad times.

  • N Craig

    I think what Edith Wilson did was very brave and courageous. I was wondering why the Vice President at the time did not step up and take a bigger role. Either way she is a great lady who did the right thing and accepted no praise for it until much later.

  • CB

    I do not agree with Mrs. Wilson in running the government while the commander and chief is out of commission. If she was found out, that could have been disastrous and the voters would loose faith (big time) in their leaders. On the flip side, what she did was bold and I think it was more about the role of woman in public service than just making sure the white-house is running smoothly.

  • Michelle tuck

    I think it makes perfect sense for the First Lady to take over and help keep the United States afloat in the midst of a terrible crisis (WWI). She watched her husband do it and I am sure as his wife she was well informed on topics that she would need to be in order to make decisions. I believe women have had a hand in many things that would be controversial if known, but the secrecy helps keep manic Americans calm and it is probably best that people did not know she was such a powerful force behind her husbands term.

  • Danielle

    It’s admirable that she had the strength to step in and get the job done after what had happened to her husband.

  • Meghan R

    I find this woman’s courage and strength amazing. He husband suffered a major stroke and she continued in his footsteps to run a country.

  • Madeline Bowen

    I believe that Edith’s courageous actions should be a role model to all of us. She remained strong and independent and didn’t let anything get in her way.

  • Emmaline K

    Interesting how Mrs. Wilson was able to take these responsibilities without receiving backlash from the Vice President. Also interesting how they kept his ailing health out of the public’s view even after his left side was permanently paralyzed and his left eye became blind.

  • KC

    It is interesting that the government allowed her to be the “President”. I like her courage of doing this and hiding her husbands condition from the public during this time.

  • Raquel F

    I think it is interesting that she took on his responsibilities and wonder if something like this could happen today if the situation arouse.

  • Amber Moore

    Is this why that rule exists now that the President must show he is capable of his duties now? They have to appear before Congress or something like that? Although, I think it’s awesome that the first lady got to take charge of things for a while.

  • Ahmed Alnassar

    this is very different from today because now I believe that the vice president would have been the one to take over not the first lady.

  • Austin Miko

    I found this very surprising that the First lady took over and ran the everyday operations instead of the vice president.

  • Y A

    I would call her the undercover president. This process is what we have to avoid these days because families intervene may affect the country so bad.

  • Amber Pope

    This would never happen in current society. We are too engrossed in the gossip of the presidency. We know everything there is to know as soon as it happens. If this were to happen now, there wouldn’t be any secrecy about it. The vice-president would definitely be made to step in, not the president’s wife.

  • Diana N

    It’s surprising that the First Lady was able to run the US without anyone knowing anything. Why didn’t she let the Vice President do everything instead?

  • Sarah G

    What the First Lady did was bold and courageous, but I believe that the vice president should have stepped up more.

  • Andrew R

    I love to see the courageous acts of her. I’m all about equality and love to see stuff like this. We need more of this,

  • Brett Nagy

    Its good to see that some first ladies take initiative and help out. She did good things for the country. This also shows that women do have the same capabilities as men.

  • Erika grumbach

    I never knew that Wilson had a stroke before taking this class. It’s awesome how the first lady stepped up to help her husband and her country.

  • Sabrina Peelman

    This is one of my favorite stories from history. I find First Lady Wilson to be extremely courageous.

  • Nicole Z

    I find it interesting that the First lady took over instead of the Vice President. I don’t think today they would let that happen.

  • Colton M

    Women are very important figures of society and are not treated as they should.

  • JW

    I guess you could call her the unofficial first female president.

  • fleetwoodray .

    Some people that posted on here, need to dig deeper in their academics. She did not just assist her husband, she ran the government for almost the last 2 years of her husband’s presidency. This was one of the greatest conspiracies in U.S. history. Wilson’s stroke made him incapable of making decisions and signing documents. She did these and at the end of his term, tried to convince those who knew what was going on, that they could continue this into a 2nd election. But, they were threatened to be exposed of the truth. VP Thomas Marshall, knowing Wilson’s incapacity, steadfastly would not assume the power of the presidency. He didn’t want it that way. Only he, Wilson’s doctor, Edith and a couple others knew what was truly taking place. Do your research and don’t just rely on what your professor’s lecture you. Semper Fi

    • CM

      Edith Wilson was basically the first female President. She was a very strong woman.

  • AM

    I think it was very brave of her to step up for him and this shows the true dedication that she had for her husband and her country.

  • PS

    I do not understand why the vice president did not step up and help the president make his decisions.

  • pw

    Wow I did not know she was running the government. You do not hear this is a normal history class.

  • Tim Burris

    she was basicly the first female president this is something we never learn about

  • Kayla Fox

    I agree with JW: “I guess you could call her the unofficial first female president.” I wonder what other people would have thought if they she was running the government for the last 2 years of her husband’s presidency, especially considering she was a woman. Kudos to her!

  • lm

    I can’t believe that we never learned about this. I agree that she may be the first “unofficial president” and I feel as though maybe she is not getting the credit she deserves. From reading this, I see how much work she really did.

  • TC

    I think that she definitely deserved a lot more credit than she got, from what I gather from this article. Which kind of sucks from her position bak then but it is nice to see her getting somewhat of recognition now with people talking about it.

  • LF

    what an achievement, and what bravery it took to help her husband.

  • b_kinsinger

    I can’t believe we’ve never learned about in any of my history classes. I’ve heard some people today, talking about how threatened they feel that Hilary Clinton (a women) could possible be our next president. Not because of what she’s running for but solely because she is a women, and we’ve “never” had a women president before but in reality, unofficially, we have.

  • SR

    I can’t believe ive ever heard of thi

  • Allison Lester

    I had no idea First Lady Edith Wilson was basically running the U.S. government. It’s no doubt that it was both kept secret or people refused to believe it even happened considering men were (and still seem to be seen as) more powerful. -ACL

  • David Birkbeck

    This is yet another thing I had never heard of till now.

  • AA

    I wonder what might have happened if President Wilson was married to someone other than Edith Wilson.

  • EK

    I’m surprised the word about this did not leak out as soon as Wilson had his stroke

  • MT

    It’s amazing that she basically was president.

  • BS

    It is incredible that she took on such a great responsibility. Many people in her position would not have been able to take care of her ailing husband while basically running the government.

  • ES

    It’s amazing that we have a female running for president now and back then she was basically president in a way.

  • Samantha Didion

    I think she is a great wife and women in general for doing this. Being president is defiantly a lot of hard work and she did it all for her husband and country.

  • Lori Caudill

    I believe her intentions were to uphold and maintain her husbands honor and integrity. To many his decline in health may have been viewed as weakness. This makes me wonder how big of role she played in her husbands presidency before his illness.

  • Diana Minich

    Unbelievable that this was kept secret from the American people. No wonder no one trusts politicians. The Vice President should have manned up and assumed the presidential duties, not the President’s wife. President Wilson should have stepped down. I don’t consider his wife strong, maybe a liar who liked power.

  • Kristin Fellure

    I can see this both ways. I think it was an amazing thing that she continued for her husband when he could not. I also think that the American people should have been told. She should not have been in the loop of private things that were meant for the presidents eyes only. While i respect her for helping her husband, I also think she stepped too far over the line.

  • Jennifer Maurer

    This is one instance where the lack of television and immediate communications worked in the Wilson’s favor. I’m not saying it was wrong or underhanded, but the general public more than likely wouldn’t have allowed for things to run as if they were “status quo”.

  • Lessie Parish

    If the public would have known about this at the time they probably wouldn’t have supported her running the country. It is sad that they had to carry around this secret for so long and that something like this had to be a secret. She proved that a woman can run the country in my eyes.

  • Lydia Ott

    I knew that he had a very serious stroke, but I was not aware that the First Lady took over. I would think that the Vice President would have taken over. It is also shocking that they allowed a woman to make decisions for how to run the country.

  • Dakota Zimmerman

    The first woman to run government? i wonder how true this would be because wouldnt the vice president take over, even if it was off the books?

  • Jordin Vidmar

    I am actually very happy that Edith took over in office. It goes to show that a woman could just as easily run the country as a man. If more people knew about this issue back then, it would have been a huge problem. I do believe though that it would have vastly changed gender equality during that era.

  • Kala Strong

    I appreciate this article and I believe Edith should get more recognition. To take charge like she did during these times helps to show that women can be president.

  • Audrey Manahan

    This was an incredible feat to pull off, but I believe that it was a really good idea. If anyone was going to take over to make choices I would think that the president’s wife would be a great option. Now, in this case she was very well informed and smart, but she knows (probably better than anyone else) the way her husband thinks, feels, and would make choices that he would promote as well.

  • Taylor Young

    I never knew that Edith Wilson took over our government when her husband was undergoing his medical conditions. To take over such an important and vial role is amazing. She has to be so strong to not only take over her husband’s role as president but to take care of her husband.

  • Ben McClay

    In my opinion, Edith Wilson showed a lot of courage and resilience in helping out her husband, Woodrow. This really speaks for her character considering she was practically taking over the role as president. I am not sure how many current first ladies have came close to doing this.

  • Elizabeth Bon

    I guess I wonder why his Vice President didn’t fill in at this time. It took great courage for his wife to fill in but could have been disastrous as well. It has been over 35 yrs since I had a history class so I really can’t remember reading about this, very interesting I think.

  • Alyssa Hanes

    I did not know this either! It is amazing what you can learn from reading all of these articles. Edith Wilson was such a strong and brave woman. She is so powerful and deserves much more recognition as becoming a part of history.

  • Jingshan Jiang

    In the bad age, president Wilson and his wife, the First Lady Edith Wilson, supported their lives to the country. We should remember them and respect them.

  • Brandon Wagner

    I do not think that something like this could happen today. It would be very hard to keep medical problems such as President Wilson’s a secret with the press and social media we have today.

  • Shannon Read

    I had never heard of this part in history before. I find it interesting that once again the public did not know the full extent of the president’s health until after his passing. Most history classes not talk about Wilson. Interesting article.

  • Rose Jepson

    What a great woman and a great wife. I feel like some of the first ladies in our country’s history would not have been able to take on that powerful role.

  • Daina Thomas

    It’s shocking to learn of Presidents having illnesses and being able to cover it up. It really shows that even the person with highest power is still a human like everyone else.

  • Katelyn Sowers

    It’s very respectable how she helped her husband in his time of her need, and took responsibility in helping the country. I think she’s not nearly as recognized as she should be.

  • Breanna Beckley

    I find it amazing that she helped her husband run this country.

  • Michaela Ping

    I wish she got more recognition at the time for her accomplishments.

  • Travis Tarnowski

    It is awesome to see how much power and command Edith Wilson had. To me however, it is hard to stop myself from thinking that she was doing a lot while Woodrow Wilson was still alive.

  • Azia

    She’s so inspirational and such and great woman. She really was an unofficial president if you ask me.

  • Keagan Frey

    There will always be things that happen within politics specifically with the president that the public may never find out.