One of the reasons that I used to be hesitant to place Woodrow Wilson in the top five worst presidents (coming in at #3) is that he did eventually support the successful attempt to pass the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote nationwide. This amendment was a glorious triumph for women’s equality, the fourth part of what I call the Second Bill of Rights–the constitutional amendments that have addressed issues of freedom for women and racial minorities. (The Second of Bill of Rights, in its current entirety, consists of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the 19th Amendment, and the 24th Amendment.) I eventually concluded, however, that this amendment does little to improve Wilson’s historical standing. Before looking at Wilson’s handling of the 19th Amendment, it is important to look at how his segregation of the federal government unfolded. Wilson needed little pressure to allow his administration to begin this segregation. While there was political incentive to implement segregation, Wilson could have probably survived politically if he had refused, since he had begun making inroads with black voters (inroads that were closed off due to the racist polices of his first term), and the Democratic Party had acquired some socially liberal Northern whites by this time who would have supported Wilson if he had defied the segregationists of his party. Furthermore, Wilson’s policies at Princeton, taken together with his policies as president, indicates that he favored a stringent system of segregation. Wilson’s path to endorsing women’s rights were far more marked by indecision and flip flopping. While writer Charles Dunn states that Wilson did favor women’s suffrage early in his career, the 28th president’s frequent “dipping and dodging” makes this difficult to confirm or debunk. In 1887, Wilson wrote in his diary that lecturing women about politics was pointless. This was not just a folly of youth. When he became Governor of New Jersey, he stated that, “my personal judgment is strongly against” women’s suffrage. In 1911, he told his publicist, Frank Stockbridge, that he was, “definitely and irreconcilably opposed to woman suffrage.” In the 1912 presidential election, it was the Progressive Party that endorsed women’s suffrage. Wilson claimed not to have given the issue much thought. In December of his first year in office, Wilson met with the National Woman Suffrage Convention but once again avoided publicly taking a position on the right of women to vote. It was not until he became publicly engaged to his second wife, Edith, two and-a-half years into his first term, that he publicly announced support for women’s suffrage. Still, until at least 1917, he advocated leaving women’s suffrage to the states. It was only after activists used pickets, marches, and hunger strikes to put pressure on Wilson that he took a firm stance in support of a constitutional amendment that would allow women to vote.
As referenced earlier, Wilson’s decision to support the 19th Amendment under intense pressure after dragging his feet of clay for years stands in stark contrast to his readiness to re-segregate federal departments. In essence, Woodrow Wilson’s reactionary civil rights stances were taken eagerly, while his progressive ones were taken while being dragged kicking and screaming. I hope that my series of posts has made readers reconsider their views on Woodrow Wilson. Far from being one of our greatest presidents, he should be ranked among the worst. Indeed, I would argue that his extreme racial bigotry, irresponsible foreign policy, and flagrant abuse of civil liberties make Wilson the worst president of the 20th century.