A Stroke of Optimism

In October of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Rather than follow the constitutional protocol that dictated Vice President Thomas Marshall should serve during President Wilson’s incapacity, the First Lady, Edith Wilson, took the reins.

While Woodrow Wilson languished, paralyzed on one side and barely able to get out of bed, Mrs. Wilson drafted official correspondence in her famously childlike handwriting, met with cabinet members, and most importantly, decided who gained audience with the President and who was turned away. The matters which Mrs. Wilson deemed not important enough to bother her ailing husband with were ignored. Mrs. Wilson referred to this in her 1939 memoir as her “stewardship,” although it was in reality a surrogate presidency which continued until President Wilson retired in 1921.

In an age before cell phones and social media, Americans received word of their President via stacks of paper that purportedly contained “news.”  In these papers of news, President Wilson’s doctor, Dr. Grayson, published regular optimistic (and misleading) reports about the President’s health.  Thus, the vast majority of the country remained completely unaware that a woman for whom they had not voted, and who had only two years of formal schooling, was operating as proxy leader of the free world.

It sounds like a disaster, doesn’t it?

On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was ratified.  President Wilson had originally declined to support women’s suffrage as a federal issue (he believed it a matter for the states to decide), but hesitantly began to change his position after political pressure in 1918.  While President Wilson was incapacitated and his wife was running the White House, the 19th Amendment became law.  Mrs. Wilson did not support women’s suffrage, but was too busy caring for her husband and negotiating with members of Congress over the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations to act against the adoption of the 19th Amendment.

The message here? One of the most revolutionary and important laws in our nation’s history was passed during a grave presidential crisis.