Who was the first female Native American female president of the United States?

(a) Pocahantas
(b) Hiawatha
(c) this is a trick question, isn’t it?

If you answered (c) you’d be right. Because no, there has never been a female American president, never mind one with Native American heritage. 

Well, sort of. Historians are divided.

President, Woodorw Wilson, US historyThe woman that divides opinion was the wife of President Woodrow Wilson – Edith Bolling Galt Wilson.

Wilson’s family were descendant of Pocahantas on her father’s side.

Pocahontas married John Rolfe, an early British settler. Her family had a plantation before the Civil War, and were staunch southerners and confederates.

Edith was frankly racist; to her death she adhered to the view that the family’s “darkies”, as she called them, liked being slaves before the Yankees came and ruined everything.

She had little formal education, and was home schooled by her grandmother.

Edith read only a few books in her life and her handwriting was so bad it was illegible.

President, Woodorw Wilson, US historyVivacious and pretty, she met and married a prosperous jeweler, Norman Galt, in 1896 and lived for 12 years in the capital. Her husband died suddenly in 1908.

The still young widow met President Wilson through a friend of hers, Helen Bones, the president’s cousin.
She was glamorous and tall and had no interest in politics or government.

She later admitted that at the time of the election of 1912, which sent Woodrow Wilson to the White House, she could not have named the candidates.

Wilson had only recently been widowed but fell in love with her with scandalous haste.

According to a Washington insider joke at the time, when she heard him propose marriage she was so surprised she nearly fell out of bed.

President, Woodorw Wilson, US historyThe Washington Post didn’t make thing easier for the President’s press officer.

Writing about the his theatre outings in its social pages they were meant to report:

“… rather than paying attention to the play, the President spent the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt.”

What was printed was:

” … rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt.”

The Washington Post has never been kind to Presidents.

President, Woodorw Wilson, US historyDespite the scandal, Wilson, then 58, married the 43-year-old Galt  in 1915 at her Washington home in a small affair attended by 40 guests.

She became his political confidante as well as his wife, sitting beside him during Oval Office meetings. He even trusted her with a secret code to a drawer holding classified information.

But the very active woman suffrage movement won no support from Edith Wilson.

She referred to them as “those devils in the workhouse.”

But as First Lady she introduced ‘gasless Sundays’ and ‘meatless Mondays’ at the White House to set an example for the federal rationing effort.

She had sheep graze the White House lawn to save money on mowing it.

President, Woodorw Wilson, US history

Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall

After the war she became the first First Lady to make international visits with European royalty.

But it was in September 1919, when Wilson suffered a stroke, that she left her mark.

At the time there was no Constitutional provision for replacing an incapacitated President – and she didn’t want the Vice President, Thomas Riley Marshall, to take over.

So she misled the public and the Congress as to how gravely ill as he was.

She said he just needed bed rest. In fact he was totally incapacitated on his left side.

President, Woodorw Wilson, US history

“It’s nothing dear, just a declaration of war on Canada.”

She and Wilson’s physician kept his true condition hidden from the nation for six weeks; you could do that in those days, before investigative reporters and Wikileaks.

She couldn’t vote but she could run the country.

She took over his routine duties and decided which matters of state should be brought to the bedridden president.

She stayed up late reading briefing papers and hand wrote Presidential orders that she said came from her bed-ridden husband.

Considering her handwriting was ineligible her Cabinet relied on her interpretation of them.

She claimed she only decided which matters to bring to his attention and what could be resolved without him. Depending on how you read this statement, it sounds like running the country without him.

In her memoirs she called her role ‘stewardship.’ Many historians disagree.

Although the nation faced many serious problems while Woodrow was incapacitated—including strikes by miners and steelworkers—the White House dithered. To many it seemed that no one at all was making decisions, and one journalist wrote that “our government has gone out of business.”

One senator charged that the nation was under a “petticoat government,” and rumors spread about an “Assistant President.”

A frail Wilson muddled through the last year of his Presidency.

In 1921, she and the president retired to their Washington home. He died in 1924.

She accompanied Franklin D. Roosevelt when he went to Congress on December 8, 1941 to declare war on Japan; she attended JFK’s inauguration in1961.

She died later that year at the age of 89 on what would have been her husband’s 105th birthday – the first female president of the United States.

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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. lynettemburrows says:

    I had heard about Mrs. Wilson’s secret before, fascinating. To many the President / Presidency is a representation of the country of the United States and it _must not_ appear to be weak. I think between Mrs. Wilson and the doctor there may have been a lot of ‘protect the image of the President’ going on. It may also have been that she took her wedding vows to heart and considered herself her husband’s helpmate. Either way, she stepped up to the plate for her husband and I admire that. I do _not_ admire her clinging to the old school thoughts about slaves. Was she President for a time? Probably, but everyone went along with it even while they were gritching about the “petticoat government.”

    • I came across for the first time the other day Lynette. I agree with what you say – her actions can only be judged in the context of the times. And she certainly did consider herself her husband’s helpmate in ways that might not be considered quite appropriate in today’s political context. In the same way that the ‘petticoat government’ dig might never be repeated today. (I say ‘might’ because Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, has had to endure a lot of snide criticism that has had everything to do with her gender and nothing to do with her ability.) It’s a fascinating story – and Mrs Wilson was a very remarkable woman.

  2. Wow! I learn so much from your blog posts. I had never heard this about her before. Sounds like she was a real charmer. 😉

    • A formidable woman. FDR asked her to accompany him to Congress when he went there to declare war on Japan; she was also on the podium for JFK’s inauguration in 1961!!

  3. Phil says:

    Love these types of historical posts. Such a woman as her would be ridiculed and torn apart in today’s media. Back then it sure was easier to get away with a lot! How did she even earn the trust of FDR and JFK is beyond me considering how racist she sounded.

    • It is sobering to think how far we’ve come in terms of transparency – I can’t imagine Michelle getting away with something like this today. Or am I being naive?

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