Wednesday, September 30, 2015

1918 President Woodrow Wilson finally speaks in favor of female suffrage, has a stroke, & his new wife takes over his duties even though she cannot even vote

On this day in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gives a speech before Congress in support of guaranteeing women the right to vote. Although the House of Representatives had approved a 19th constitutional amendment giving women suffrage, the Senate had yet to vote on the measure.

Wilson had actually maintained a somewhat lukewarm attitude toward women’s suffrage throughout his first term (1913-1917). In 1917, he had been picketed by suffragists outside the White House who berated him for paying mere lip service to their cause. The protests reached a crescendo when several women were arrested, jailed & went on a hunger strike. Wilson was appalled to learn that the jailed suffragists were being force-fed & he finally stepped in to champion their cause. Suffragists & their supporters agreed that Wilson had a debt to pay to the country’s women, who at the time were asked to support their sons & husbands fighting overseas in the First World War & who were contributing to the war effort on the home front. In his September 30 speech to Congress, Wilson acknowledged this debt, saying “we have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering & sacrifice & toil & not to a partnership of privilege & right?” Wilson’s stirring words on that day failed to drum up the necessary votes to pass the amendment. The bill died in the Senate. 

On October 2, 1919, at the White House in Washington, D.C., United States President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke that leaves him partially paralyzed on his left side & effectively ends his presidential career. 

Ironically, his wife of 9 months Edith Wilson took over many routine duties & details of the Executive branch of the government. She decided which matters of state were important enough to bring to the bedridden president. "I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators," she wrote later of her role, "and tried to digest & present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important & what was not, & the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband." 

Woodrow Wilson's 1st posed photograph after his stroke. He was paralyzed on his left side, so his wife Edith holds a document steady, while he apparently signs. June 1920.

One Republican senator labeled her "the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man."

In My Memoir, published in 1939, Edith Wilson called her role a "stewardship" & insisted that her actions had been taken only because the president's doctors told her to do so for her husband's mental health. Historian & journalist Phyllis Lee Levin wrote that Edith Wilson was "a woman of formidable determination."

Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America granted women the right to vote.