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Monday, December 09, 2019

Woodrow Wilson And Women: Let Us Eat Wedding Cake


Woody and women in the White House — let’s remember good times and bad. Wedding cake and Champagne shall be served at his residence to raise a glass to that hopeless romantic, President Woodrow Wilson. I’m all in for his Lord Byronic streak. But there’s more to the story. Wilson’s public and private selves were like night and day.

Reconciliation is not easy. But we can try.

The sweet side of Wilson deserves light shone today because his wedding to his second wife, Edith, happened 100 years ago — Dec. 18, 1915. As president, he lost his first wife, Ellen. He soon fell for Edith Galt, a rich widow, and made no secret of it.

The Democratic president proposed to glamorous Edith, who golfed and drove — the first woman in Washington to do so. He adored her, as shown in love letters and his “uxorious” — excessive — attention. Many believe she acted in his stead after Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919.

Wilson’s shameful record on race is now under serious scrutiny at his alma mater, Princeton University. Indeed, he set social progress back for decades by bringing Jim Crow segregation to the federal workforce, scarring the life chances of untold families.

Yet little has been said on Wilson’s fierce opposition to women as equal citizens, even as the suffrage movement’s winds blew outside his Oval Office. His stance on race and gender arose from being born in Virginia before the Civil War. Never forget that Wilson was a cultural Southerner who expected women and blacks to stay in their place.

Lovely, bold, young Alice Paul, leader of the modern mass movement, spent her days for seven straight years making the president the focal point of her scene-stealing, street-theater strategy. Vigils, parades and marches were always there to greet him, from the moment Wilson arrived at the train station as president-elect in 1913. He demanded to know where the crowds were. The answer: “Everybody’s at the suffragette parade, sir.”

Without Twitter, Paul turned out thousands to signal Wilson that he’d never seen political organizing like this before. Some women were harassed and hurt by the police. But the news was Paul’s public pressure on the leader of our democracy. Later scenes included women chaining themselves to the White House gates.

As a Quaker and a Swarthmore College alumna (1905), Paul advanced nonviolent resistance for women’s rights. The key was taking the streets of the nation’s capital so the quest for votes was visible. No more conventions in Cleveland. She crossed the line to victory.

For years, Wilson resisted “Votes for Women.” Truth is, he didn’t stand a chance against Paul’s force and strategic skill. He once ordered the ladies outdoors into his office for a lecture. Worse, he did nothing when Paul and others were arrested and abused in jail, when the cause gained sympathy in the public eye.

The president contended with joining a great world war. Women participated in the mobilization effort — legions like my great aunt Caroline trained as Army nurses — which gave Wilson political cover to relent to the rising tide on suffrage. In 1920, the vote was taken, not given. Did Edith Wilson have a hand in this? Wilson had three daughters, besides.

There’s much to admire about Wilsonian idealism and government. He established the Federal Reserve. A Princeton man, as student, professor and college president, Wilson is the only president ever to earn a Ph.D. He’s the last president to write his own speeches, famed for the lofty line about keeping the world safe for democracy.

A visionary statesman, Wilson had a stubborn, haughty veneer that served him poorly in dealing with Republican leaders on his doomed League of Nations.

Protesters at Princeton deplore Wilson’s name on the walls because of his racism. Ironically, the Ivy female students don’t know he was no friend to us, either. More ironic, I studied history at Swarthmore and never heard about Paul’s revolutionary launch to victory.

Washington has its charms. Where else can you mark a president’s 100th wedding anniversary? Let us eat cake and see that like America itself, Wilson was brilliant yet flawed, a Southerner yet to shed the sins of white male privilege — or supremacy.

The men who built the nation were a lot like him. Their sins are still cargo but getting lighter as we go on, with the current.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit

Photo: Suffragists demonstrating against President Woodrow Wilson in Chicago, Oct. 20, 1916. Via the Library of Congress.


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