Transcript of the video 'Society ladies and political parties: A study in American women's history'
Dr Catherine Allgor
8 March 2017, National Library of Scotland
Dora Petherbridge: Welcome to the National Library of Scotland, thank you so much for coming this evening. I'm Dora Petherbridge, the National Library's United States and Commonwealth Collections Curator. Here we are to celebrate women's history on International Women's Day, and to launch the online publication of Henrietta Liston's North American journals. We have created a website dedicated to exploring Henrietta's work in the United States, and to give you a taste of this website, and the Liston Papers archive, I will now show you a short extract of our film about her.
So, that was just a little taste, and as of now, you can read Henrietta's manuscript journals online. So, after this event you're welcome to go home and explore our website and our map, which represents their travels. I just wanted to thank a few of the people who have been involved in this lengthy and enjoyable project. I'm quite emotional because it has been such a privilege to be involved in it.
So, thank you to our donor, who has made all of this possible: Walter Grant Scott. Thank you to our collaborators: Mario, our film-maker Mario Cruzado, to Andy Boyd and to Lois Wolffe.
Now to turn to our special speaker this evening, Dr Catherine Allgor, who has travelled from California to be with us tonight, and to share her expertise on Henrietta's sisters: the political women of the early United States. Over a year ago when beginning to work on Henrietta, I took inspiration from Dr Allgor's work on Dolley Madison, Abigail Adams and the other women of Washington. And since then, since that time, I have felt that absolutely the best person, really the only person I wanted to come to launch our Henrietta Liston resource was Dr Allgor. So Catherine, thank you so much for being here, and for so gracefully accepting our request.
Catherine is Director of Education at the Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens — a very special institution in San Marino California that has education at the very heart of its mission. Catherine is also an acclaimed, award-winning historian. Formerly Professor of History at the University of California, Catherine's research has focused on early America, politics, First Ladies and history of women's lives and gender. And recently, on 'Hamilton the Musical', and she has written on that phenomenon in a book called 'Historians on Hamilton'. Catherine has been awarded a prestigious Presidential Chair from the University of California, and was nominated by President Obama to serve on the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation.
Excuse my emotion during that, I am a bit overcome at how special it is to be celebrating Henrietta Liston today, and the other women of her time. So please join me in welcoming our speaker this evening.
Dr Catherine Allgor: Good evening. Wow, between Henrietta and Dora that's quite an act to follow. So I'm going to try. It's such a pleasure to be here and thank you so much for welcoming me so warmly. It is an honour to be here to celebrate the digitisation of the Henrietta Liston papers. And I would like to thank Dr John Scally, the National Librarian, for his kind invitation and for Dora Petherbridge, the Curator of US and Commonwealth Collections, for making it all possible. And special thanks to Kenny Redpath who actually got me here safe and sound, and I trust will return me.
From that very kind introduction, thank you so much — you probably have a good idea of why I am here — my field is the field of women's lives and gender and early American politics. Much of my research is set in the new capital of the United States, Washington City, in the years 1800-1832. That of course is where I first 'met' Henrietta Liston and her husband Robert. I confess a weakness for her — she's an excellent source. We know that in 1796, that there were 100 houses in the District of Columbia because she counted them. Also, at a time when many Europeans were shocked at the primitive conditions of the infant federal seat, Henrietta saw the possibilities. She characterised Washington City's locale as 'noble and beautiful', she said, 'strangely resembling Constantinople,' And I think that's probably the first and last time anyone compared DC to Constantinople.
Though I am sure historians of many fields will find richness in the archive that we now can access from our own living rooms, but above all the story of Henrietta Liston is a story of women's history. So I would like to begin our time together tonight by taking a little moment to talk about the field of women's lives and gender. So I've travelled all this way to meet you, so travel with me in your imagination back to my office to talk about what else? A book. Like most academics, my office overflows with books, on floor-to-ceiling shelves that cover all the walls. One particular set of bookshelves holds my treasures — rare and old books that I have found in shops and at book sales. The jewel of my collection is by Elizabeth Ellet — it's published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1868, so shortly after the American Civil War. And this book by Elizabeth Ellet is entitled 'The Court Circles of the Republic'. Now that's a title that needs a little explaining. 'Court Circles' refers not to law courts, but to the people that travel in the highest circles of power — courtiers, the Lords and Ladies around the English throne, would be an example. 'The Republic' that Elizabeth Ellet is examining is the early Republic of the United States, those years from the end of the American Revolution — say sort of the 1780s — all the way up until before the American Civil War. And let me add that I wanted to bring Elizabeth Ellet today to share her with you, but she is a delicate creature and does not travel well.
Books from this era (1868) rarely had short titles and the rest of the title page gives you a pretty good idea of what this book is about. So it says 'The Court Circles of the Republic, or The Beauties and Celebrities of the Nation: illustrating the life and society Under Eighteen Presidents; describing the Social Features of the Successive Administrations from Washington to Grant.'
In the late 19th century, this topic — ladies and society in the nation's capital — wasn't considered 'real history'. 'Real history' documented a narrative of official power — battles, wars, treaties, legislation, proclamations — and the individuals and institutions that wielded that power. So presidents, kings, generals, statesmen. Women could not vote, did not officially fight in wars, rarely headed states — they were excluded from the public sphere of power. So they were not part of history.
For most people, that is. Some scholars and historians of this time — including Elizabeth Ellet — thought otherwise. If you turn to Ellet's introduction, where she states the purpose of her book, she begins with a ringing declaration: 'Lord Napier remarked to a distinguished lady in Washington that a book descriptive of Society in the National Capital ought to be written, and that it would be a faithful record would give a better idea of the spirit and character of the period than any history.'
So you could interpret this as a radical statement — she is claiming historic importance and significance for her ladies — indeed, this is her point — that although the story they have to tell is not history, it is better than history for telling how it really was in the early American Republic. And in volume, the ladies indubitably take centre stage — in an age of copious illustrations, the only illustrations here are of women, 'splendidly engraved on steel.' But if you read the book, this radical mission blurs and breaks down and eventually disappears, disintegrating into a succession of descriptions.
So here's one. And all the women are identified by their husband's name, so we have, Mrs Levi Woodbury, and Ellet uses adjectives to describe this woman's character, in ways that prove as unrevealing as the gravestone inscriptions of colonial goodwives. Mrs. Woodbury — 'whose influence in the Court circles has ever been so gracious, refining, and beneficent and whose beautiful home life is a blessing to all who know her.' Doesn't really give you a picture of a person, does it? Ellet's women are passive; important for who they were — who they married — rather than for what they did, like men.
So what's the problem? Well, as a woman of her time and place, Ellet had no models, no analytic constructs, no way of discussing her subjects. Ellet certainly wasn't a feminist, and anyway feminism in the mid-19th century wasn't much more evolved than Ellet's praises of famous beauties. Ellet lived in a culture that saw women only in their relationship to men — that trivialised the female and feminised the trivial. As the larger culture could not contain the significance of women and female worlds, so the historical discipline that Ellet wanted to practice did not include women, unless they acted like men, like Joan of Arc. Remember the introduction — even as Ellet boldly declared her mission statement, she needed the stamp of approval of a man — 'Lord Napier remarked'. Ellet and the other chroniclers of women and society knew their women were important, they just lacked the ways of understanding and communicating the how and why.
So I trace my own intellectual ancestry to Elizabeth Ellet and the other women and men who wrote of these issues throughout the 19th and early 20th century. And for the first half of the 20th century, women's history did not progress much beyond the analytic limitations which Elizabeth Ellet faced in 1869. The change began in the 1940s and 1950s which brought the everyday lives of everyday people to the fore — we call that the 'New History'. And then the new field of 'social history' of the 1960s and 1970s studied white, black, and enslaved women in groups as mothers and wives. But it really wasn't until feminism and the women's movement declared all kinds of equality — that the field of women's history could be considered 'real history'. And then, even as this new field produced its first generation of scholars in the 1970s, it still faced challenges to its legitimacy.
And though I should never pass on anything that could be classified as gossip, it's too good a story so I have to tell it. So I went to graduate school at Yale University, and there was a very famous Chair, his name was George Pierson, and he was at Yale before my time, in the 60s and 70s during very tumultuous time on American campuses. And according to the story I heard, some graduate students — women — came up to him in the 1970s and sort of demanded that they be taught this new women's history and he supposedly said 'History of women? History of women? You might as well have the history of children, or dogs'.
So the first task of these new women's historians was to critique existing histories, pointing out the omission of women and the possible consequences of that omission. Then began the real task of uncovering the muted voices of women, enabling us to see them as subjects (rather than objects) of history. And that mission, by the way, still continues and remains crucially important — just finding sources and making them available, as this wonderful project proves, is something that we still need to be doing — and I don't ever see that stopping. The first books of women's history in the 1970s focused on revealing notable women as 'role models,' but by the 80s and 90s, the field of women's history exploded, finding and discussing women's lives from the most ordinary to the most exceptional, in all historical eras and in all places.
And the major discovery of those early days was that uncovering women's lives profoundly changed the narrative of history — indeed, 'finding the women' transformed fields of history such as the history of medicine, history of science, labour history, etc. Women's history brought new topics into the discipline, topics that because they were associated with women, were long considered ahistorical or universal — motherhood, health, rearing, housework. Studying women and women's lives also developed an analytic construct — gender — a way of talking about power, order, and authority in a given society. So, I like to make the differentiation: if women's history is about what actual men and women actually did, gender focuses on the larger classification systems of 'masculine' and 'feminine' that structured the cultures of the past and the present. So gender was more than just a description of what the ideal man or woman could be — it was a vocabulary of power, a way of understanding power relations and naturalising them.
Now there are many answers to the question, 'Why do we do women's history?' But the best answer is the simplest. We look at women's words, lives, and work — we take them seriously — because they tell us something different than if we just looked at men's words and official documents. And the 'something different' we learn changes the history we make.
Now the most traditional field of history, of course, remains the narrative of political history — all those wars and presidential elections that passed for 'real history' in Elizabeth Ellet's day. And breaking into that narrative was my goal. And I started with the very simple research question, which was 'could women be political before they got the vote?' So I started that. And then I thought, well, if my goal is to break into this narrative and answer some political questions, what questions shall I think about answering?
Let's turn to some political questions centring around the issue of federal power in the early American republic. So, let's take a look at the United States and its government between 1800 and the 1830s — that's the presidency of Andrew Jackson — and it seemed to me that the most pressing question was, 'why did it turn out the way it did?'
Several major changes stand out over the time period. In those 30 years, the federal government evolved from a small, weak entity to a powerful, complex bureaucracy — in other words, a modern government. The office of president mirrored that change, growing into a strong executive tool under Jackson. The United States people saw their destiny as moving towards becoming what we now know as the modern nation state. So these political developments, though in very rudimentary stage, are familiar to us, because they are of course the roots of our contemporary views of U.S. politics, including an emphasis on democracy as the ruling idea and that politics plays out within a two-party system.
But it was not inevitable that things were going to turn out this way. The shock and even dismay of those founders — who lived until the 1820s and 1830s — tell us that. All those famous founding men that Henrietta Liston met had not intended the United States to be a democracy; rather, they had envisioned the new nation as an experiment in 'pure republicanism.' Until the end of the Revolution, republicanism, with a small 'r,' of course, had operated as an oppositional theory. It had always pitted itself against the establishment, and its credo consisted mostly of a long list of 'anti's. Republicanism was anti-court, anti-big government, anti-federal power, anti-military. And that kind of negative framing proved sufficient to fuel revolutionary rhetoric. But once the American Revolution was won, a new question emerged: after being against so many institutions, what would a republican government be for? And how would it manifest itself in practical, workable structures?
So that was the problem I call, with a nod to 'Star Trek,' the 'next generation'. That is, the generation after the founders. So the founders put in place the abstract theories of governance — as embodied in the Constitution — for that 'next generation', but for them the Constitution was a blueprint, not an owner's manual. The United States was going to be the first modern nation to be run on a theory.
So let's look at theory, let's see how that might work. In addition to being anti-monarchical, at the heart of republican theory was the idea of virtue. Virtue didn't mean morality but the elevation of the public or the common good over private interest. In republican theory, there was one clear public good that everyone agreed on, and so, in essence, a single party system. And anybody who was opposed to the public good was a traitor and corrupt.
So, a successful republic depended on everyone agreeing to place the common good over their personal interest and everyone could agree on one common good. Hmmmmm. I think you can see where we're going here. The problem in Washington City was two different factions believed this. So the Republicans (with a capital 'R' this time) and the Federalists were fighting to the death, even as they were inadvertently building a two-party system, the very kind of system that fosters democracy.
So as the ruling men are struggling along to maintain a theoretical commitment to virtue while governing a country, unhelpful side effects developed out of this fear of faction and the abhorrence of courtly ways. The ruling men of the era could not work together, lest they appear to be corrupt courtiers. The official pose of the official man was that of a 'lone gunman,' with opposition colleagues as the embodiment of treachery. In the past and then in the future, one would sustain a political career with networks and within an organisation such as a court or a party. Here a man had only his good name and reputation to sustain a political career. So a man's 'honour', his reputation, was worth defending and an attack on another man's honour was a weapon worth deploying. Slander and libel ran unchecked and there was real violence — this was the era where men beat each other with canes and shot each other over politics — and not just in the streets, but on the floors of Congress!
Well, that's no way to run a government. And there was a lot at stake in this government, and I think you may ask why the early national period was so violent. And I think the answer is fear and anxiety, and those levels were so high because no one — European observers and new American citizens alike — was sure that the republican experiment was going to work, that the union would hold. It's interesting, too, in this era when people would refer to 'the United States of America' in the plural — they would say 'the United States of America are' because it was separate.
The dream of an anti-court had fuelled the Revolutionary movement, but the construction of a purely republican government, powered by virtue and free of Old World court corruption, really gained new impetus in 1800. That was the year that the federal government moved from established northern cities to its new capital, Washington City. And shortly after that, the leader of the Republican party, Thomas Jefferson, became president. Jefferson had seen the previous Federalist administrations move inexorably (or so it seemed to him) toward re-establishing a monarchical government and society. So he was determined to reverse that tack, to establish an anti-court, a little government that would govern but little.
So that, you see, is the driving political question — how did this work out? How did we go from Jefferson's dream — a one-party system, a republic, with a weak chief executive — to a Jacksonian age of democracy with a two-party system and a strong president?
So that brings us to Washington City, a place that had been founded on, and built for, nothing but politics. So eventually, Washington City does develop the kind of social and urban structures of her older sisters, but everything remained secondary to the task of amassing political power and implementing social change. So it's a great place to start research. I think of Washington City a little bit in 1800 like a petri dish, where small samples of men and women and power were introduced until a political structure and a capital city grew.
And that brings us to Washington's women. And as we are here to celebrate a wonderful historical source, let's talk about sources. The sources for the study — the subjects — were white, of the elite or the rising middle class, and literate. The sources include correspondence, journals, diaries, reminiscences, and memoirs from folks in Washington. Especially valuable were any letters from women in Washington to the kinfolk back home, male or female. More plentiful were letters between men in Washington, serving as congressmen and senators, to their wives back home, in the home district. And the best of those were ones where the wives had at least spent some time in Washington in the previous seasons, so they knew the milieu and the characters. One can also examine letters from men in the capital to male friends and relatives — I sort of did that to see if men wrote differently, and there were differences, in ways that won't surprise you. Men were more emotional and sentimental in letters to the women, but interestingly, they discussed what we would consider 'feminine' topics — social events and personal relationships — in letters to both men and women. And that's an important clue as to where the business of the capital lay, the centre of the action, if you will.
It is important, as we look as these papers, to understand we have to 'read' women's papers differently. So if you read these papers, and you pored over them looking for expressed political opinions or discussions, or evidence of female political actions, consciousness, and identity, you wouldn't really find it. Instead you'd find disclaimers, such as 'I have no interest in politics,' 'It ill-befits my sex to interest themselves in public affairs,' and other similar disavowals. Looking beyond the disclaimers, however, one realises, as they say in the 12-step programs, 'denial ain't just a river in Egypt'. If it was not natural or right for respectable women to concern themselves with politics, and all these women were rigidly respectable, why did they constantly assert how unpolitical they were? Clearly, these women, who inhabited a culture paranoid about the presence of women in the public spheres, were in denial, mouthing cultural platitudes as a cover for political participation.
In fact, the denial of political interest or activity allowed these women the scope for their political actions, thus, once again, challenging notions of how people could be political. The disclaimers preceded and followed obliquely expressed political concerns and questions. And actually sometimes these expressed concerns were not oblique at all, though they seemed to have slipped by historical notice.
Here's an example of evidence hidden in plain sight. In the early 2000s, in preparation for my biography of Dolley Madison, I looked at the literature on the Madisons of which there was quite a lot. Dolley's chroniclers, or even James's, mentioning her, asserted, over and over again, that the secret of her success as the most popular woman in the US, maybe the most popular person in the US, the secret of her success lay in her complete lack of interest in politics. In their treatments, she appears as the perfect apolitical woman, moved only by concerns of heart and family and ice cream. But here's one example of the contradictory stubbornness of the sources and perhaps our own preconceived notions.
So to prove exactly this point, many editors and scholars cite a famous letter to James, written in 1805, from Philadelphia to DC — Washington, the quote begins: 'You know I am not much of a politician [now here comes a little ellipses] . . .. I believe you would not desire your wife to be the active partisan that our neighbour is, Mrs. L., nor will there be the slightest danger while she is conscious of her want of talents and the diffidence in expressing those opinions, always imperfectly understood by her sex.' Alright, so I did mention the ellipses, but, it seems pretty clear, right? However, these self-deprecating disclaimers appear in a different light when the whole text is examined and the ellipses filled in.
So first, Dolley prefaces the lines selected by the editors with a request for 'some information respecting the war with Spain and the disagreement with England which is so generally expected.' Then the sentence that follows, complete and unedited is a contradictory mix of the self-deprecatory and the assertive, in a form that appears repeatedly in the words of political women. So this is the whole thing: 'You know I am not much of a politician, but I am extremely anxious to hear (as far as you think proper) what is going forward in the cabinet.' And nobody seems to have noticed this, even as they edited and cited this letter!
Reading women's letters, you become expert at reading negativity, in words and actions. One of my favourites was Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams — a diplomatic wife like Henrietta Liston, the wife and political partner of John Quincy Adams. She's so good, I call her 'Queen of Denial' — such an old joke — there we go. But really, she did an autobiography, and it was called 'Adventures of a Nobody,' and then she went on for hundreds of pages proving herself an indisputable somebody in the Russian Court and in Washington City.
But once you really do learn to read these letters, you discover a plethora of political activity, masked in all kinds of ways. Generally, women's letters do not contain long political discussions of the kind indulged in by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. So in that very famous late-in-life correspondence, the two men expounded on political 'topics,' they would pander issues, well aware that they were positioning themselves in the historical pantheon. In the letters of political women there was political information, instruction, and business — but it was in bits, lauded among family news, gossip about love affairs, travel schedules, and shopping lists. So their political talk tended to be practical rather than theoretical.
So what did they talk about? Oh, a lot of their talk fell into the category of 'intelligence' information, which in the years before 1812, concerned shipping. Knowing when ships were in and out of harbours and what was going to be embargoed was very valuable political and commercial advice. Interestingly, my Washington women even developed a feminine vernacular to disguise their political work, an argot that regularly hearth and home, family and love, health and personal happiness in order to perform political tasks — from giving and receiving information to horse-trading of all kinds. Most intriguingly, for me, were the overwhelming numbers of incidents of patronage and influence peddling disguised by the language of charity and benevolence. In their letters we can see ladies acting as whips — garnering votes for a particular piece of legislation — by exploiting the role of the helpmate wife. Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams got her husband the presidency of the United States under the guise of a friendly and social lady.
Now, I do need to say at this point, it's not that these women were consciously functioning political players, whose accomplishments have been quashed by sexist historians. Well, not all of the way anyway, right? Because they themselves denied their aspirations and actions, because, they really sort of did believe that women had no place in politics. These were not feminists or radicals, but the conservative white mothers, wives, and other female members of families for whom politics was the family business and they just treated it as part of their everyday.
So, knowing that this was a culture of denial, and even though you can't find these things in letters, I feel it's also important not just to look at the written record, but 'action records' as well — what they did rather than what they say. This discovery of 'action records' opened up byways not usually taken for the purpose of political analysis — for instance, material culture. Again, I'll take one of my favourite examples from my favourite First Lady, Dolley Madison. And, read any book on Dolley and she's famous for 'redecorating' the White House — redecorating — an accomplishment noted and regarded approvingly by historians as a private, naturally female act. But the European and North American gentry had long used displays of material goods and consumption to establish on the landscape, literally, their right to rule. Their imposing houses and their acquisition of objects like silverware or tea sets (and the techniques for using them) stood as symbols of the ruling class. And that's why decorating or building a house was a process men took very seriously, it was not a private act, but an act of public power. We might call them 'power houses,' along the lines of our 'power suits' or 'power lunches'.
Now wait you may say — the Americans fought a war and established a new nation in direct contrast to everything monarchy stood for. True, but having won that war, the elite classes of the new United States found themselves having to justify the nation-status to themselves and to outsiders, and the only vocabulary of power and status they knew lay in the old systems. So, even the revolutionary anti-monarchist John Adams advocated aristocratic titles for government officials, in order to garner respect. The members of the Founding Generation were really between a rock and a hard place — having repudiated the old system, they desperately needed its trappings to justify their existence and their power.
Throughout the history of the United States, signifiers of aristocracy and nobility have held great attraction for those trying to assert themselves as the social, cultural, or ruling elite. And when you know that, seen in that light, then, putting Dolley in charge of re-doing the presidential mansion, the fact that James turned it over to her, is neither natural nor self-evident. And she did not really redecorate, as much as restructure the executive mansion.
Dolley did not create cosy private rooms, a haven in a heartless world. She and architect Henry Latrobe created large, sumptuous public rooms, which would reassure Europeans and Federalists who, in the old tradition, associated political legitimacy with material display. But Dolley had to walk a fine line — her choices of furniture and draperies also had to be informed by republican simplicity.
Dolley's choices of patriotic themes in objects and furniture reveal that she set out to create a national house, a symbol for Washington City and the rest of the nation. But the presidential mansion was more than a symbol. It was also a practical space — a power centre — where the political and local communities of the area could meet, and where members of all branches of government and their families could establish the networks and cooperation that would create the federal government needed by the new nation. And it seems kind of amazing to talk about this capital city that until Dolley debuted her White House — as it came to be known under her tenure — in around 1809, there was not one space in Washington City where everybody from the government could gather, let alone their families, outsiders, European visitors. So, kind of amazing.
Also as the wife of the president, Dolley developed the role of the 'ceremonial' in American politics. The ceremonial function was deliberately neglected by the Constitution, as the founders feared anything that smacked of courts, kings and pomp. In fact, the only ceremony that is officially mentioned in our founding documents is the inauguration and that only briefly. But, as it turns out, politics, especially national politics, needs the ceremonial and baby republics and budding democracies need the ritual of ceremony more than any other kind of government. With her lavish outfits, and her famous weekly drawing rooms, Dolley Madison answered that need for ceremony at a crucial time, setting a prototype that lasts until now.
Understanding the role of ceremony also puts her efforts to build the White House in a new light. Her creation of the White House as a power centre and her development of the capital city demonstrate the enormous importance of architecture and space for symbolic value. So, in a political culture that's short on ritual — processions, inaugurations, coronations — architecture can fulfil that function. Architecture can supply the same sense of communality, the connectedness to the past, the stability, structure, and breath-taking drama that ritual imparts. Like good ritual, a place like the White House can be embellished, renewed, and changed. If the idea evoked by the building is strong enough, it can outlast the physical structure. And, though she couldn't have known it, the significance of Dolley's work in this area became apparent when the British invaded the capital and burned the White House in 1814. So the house itself was destroyed, but the idea goes on, right? The executive mansion had become such a focus for the American people that its destruction rallied them around an unpopular war. And Washington City itself had so developed into a power nexus as well as a national symbol that Congress chose to stay in the destroyed city rather than moving the capital.
Along those lines, Dolley also invented a role for all future First Ladies as the 'charismatic figure' — the term I stole from political scientists — for her husband's administration. So in the early republic, the lack of bureaucracy and established structure meant that the new Americans focused on personalities for affirmation and reassurance. Right after the Revolution, they used George Washington; during the contentious early republic, Dolley took his place. Having such figures allowed Americans all through the far-flung former colonies to imagine themselves to be a community.
Because she was a woman, and therefore above politics (in theory), Dolley could appear to the American public and European observers as a larger-than-life embodiment of patriotism and nation. And again, she's doing this work long before the declaration of war, but it becomes very important during the War of 1812. So this is in a very divided political culture — no one man can be the symbol of patriotism because he's only of a party, but she could. And this role of the charismatic figure, it's not something that all First Ladies chose to exploit, but the ones who have done successfully in the United States — Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy — remain some of the U.S.'s best-loved First Ladies.
So, taking a look at these action records reveals much about how politics works and leads to what I hope is a useful model for fields of history and political science. What women did, rather than said, show us that to be effective, politics needs two spheres of action. These spheres are gendered — that is, one is regarded as masculine, one is feminine. The most obvious, the most visible, is the male official sphere — the sphere of offices, documents, official meetings, and their minutes. The official sphere concerns — for the most part — the product of politics. We know that one, that's the one that makes it into the history books. The unofficial sphere takes place in female space — in homes and at social events. In these places, at these events, people can propose, negotiate, and compromise, with little risk. If one goes too far, the music, the wine, or the dancing can deflect attention. The unofficial space is about process. It is also bipartisan, a place where people can build consensus and learn to work together. Dolley Madison's famous weekly Wednesday drawing rooms demonstrate that the official sphere is necessary but not sufficient. Politics needs both spheres to operate. Now I have to admit, especially if there are any Europeanist historians in the room, that I am not discovering women doing any particularly new activity — it really is a question of emphasis. In Western Europe and in colonial America, gentry men and women both had long played politics, dispensed patronage, and displayed material superiority. In republican Washington, however, the public men could not participate in these activities, but their wives could. For a brief window of time, from 1800 to 1830, husband and wife political teams divvied up the work of nation- and government-building. Elite white women in Washington City did the dirty business of politics in order to preserve the pure, male, republican virtue of their husbands. Their task was to translate the republican theories of good government that fuelled the American Revolution into a living, breathing reality. Their efforts on the ground made republican ideology real and palpable, but of course, in the process, changed it. The story of Washington women is not merely one of individual personalities. Rather, chronicling their activities uncovers a system, a political machine if you will, one that depended on the work of women. Not a system that women contributed to, but rather, one that they, along with their menfolk, constituted.
Okay, so let's stop for a moment and see where we are. One of the points of this research was to answer the question, 'could women be political before they had the vote?' Well, when you see women lobbying congressmen for a constituent's legislation or visiting department heads seeking a job for a worthy young man — I think the answer to that is 'YES!' Right? We see that. And it's not just that answer, 'yes' — these actions also expand our notion of what it means to be 'political.'
But what about the big question — knowing what we know about the women in Washington — does that change the narrative? Again, not contribute to the mainstream political narrative but transform it. And I think the answer is, yes, it does. So here's the new narrative.
When the fires of revolution died down, the founding fathers were determined to build a government system that was completely new. Their papers make it clear that this new system would be anti-monarchical and based on what Thomas Jefferson called 'pure republicanism.' But republicanism, though a fine political theory, was never going to work, in a practical way. In my research on the government of Washington City, I uncovered a 30-year 'official' effort - process, really - to construct the unworkable, a government of republican virtue, an anti-political, anti-power political power. The obsession with public virtue and fear of corrupt power that characterized republicanism meant that public men abhorred the connections, the acting of interests that makes politics work, whether to effect political change or preserve and defend the status quo. The political culture they created interpreted collaboration and working together as cabal and plot, so any interplay of personal interest — you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours — had to be judged as being against the public good.
Fortunately, the women of Washington constructed an extra-official bureaucratic structure, based in social events, where the political work could be done. The building of networks and connections among ruling men in the capital and with their constituents back home happened not in the official sphere of Congress but at balls and tea parties, salons and drawing rooms. In the official sphere, men duelled and quarrelled over politics. In the unofficial sphere, where everyone had to behave, the two parties learned to work together, to build a ruling class. The men of that day could not imagine that there was a role for an informed dissent, for bipartisanship. There wasn't even a word for it. The women of Washington understood that working together was the way forward and even though they would be horrified by this characterisation, they were functioning more like modern politicians than their menfolk.
American revolutionaries had had a vocabulary for revolution, one with a long history, full of well-grounded concepts that all the participants more or less understood — so conflicts like tyranny, and republicanism, and liberty. The 'next generation' had no such shared vocabulary for the political task of governing the nation and for the political system that they were developing — which was going to be, as it turned out, a democracy with two political parties. In their words and deeds — the white ruling women of Washington brought a new language to the table of American politics, a feminine vernacular of sentiment and feeling, with an insistence on civility, cooperation, and power-sharing. Such a vernacular allowed for an alternative to the male politicking model —which was that all-or-nothing, zero sum activity, where men regularly fought and murdered each other over ideologies. Their bipartisan process — one that emphasised cooperation over coercion, that built bridges instead of bunkers, with an emphasis on empathy — proved necessary for building a modern, democratic nation-state.
Because, as we know, politics can only work through networks of interests and deal-making and in early Washington, that happened under the watchful eye of women. And ironies abound really — Washington City discovered, in the first decades of the 19th century, that consensus-building activities were even more important in a democracy than a monarchy. In an absolute state, after all, the Emperor or the Queen, can just get things done — they can just order things without seeking consensus or even advice. But a democratic system depends on agreement, on coalitions of people who can be persuaded to see that their interests lie together. Ironically, the kind of face-to-face, personal relations that had seemed the hallmark and stigma of court life, proved even more necessary when building an anti-monarchical system from the ground up.
Also among many things, the elite white women of Washington City tell us that much of the construction of the early Federal government was based on court forms. Right, so we know the official men want something new, and the official record, even the Constitution itself, describes a government with little bureaucracy or ceremony. Because the Constitution and founders deliberately discouraged the growth of an official bureaucracy, the unofficial sphere became even more important. And, a new state needs legitimacy; it must claim, actively assert its right to rule. It needs to stake that claim, both to outsiders (foreigners) and to its own people. The ladies of Washington connected important men, played patronage, and used material display to secure the stability of infant government and the new capital city. The general co-optation of European forms, including architecture and public ceremonies, goes a long way to accomplishing that, even in an American democracy.
Now, what I'm not claiming is that these women single-handedly brought a democracy, a strong presidency, and the two-party system to the U.S. government. What they did do in their political work was to stabilise the systems and create the kind of political structures that the country needed when, in the 1820s, white men began to clamour for more political voice than ever before, when it became clear that one party was not going to do it – it was not going to prevail, and when presidents like Andrew Jackson needed stronger presidential power. So those structures were in place, thanks to them. And over time, interestingly, those structures that women built became institutions — the party machines, the Civil Service, the profession of lobbyist — that men co-opted and from which women were excluded until the 20th century.
As we close, I'd like to reflect a little on the question I introduced at the start: 'Why do we study women's history?' I hope I made my case that looking at the words and work of Washington women show the contingency of the past, how fragile the early national government was, how dependent the denizens of the new world were on the 'vocabulary of power' of the old. Perhaps in the idea of the unofficial sphere we have a model that we can use in other historical contexts.
But we can go deeper, not just to the 'what's and 'why's of women's history, but of the study of history itself. History is the study of power. I think this is why so many people enjoy it — we are fascinated because the desire for power and control is a fundamental human drive. And if you doubt that — do spend some time with a two-year old. The earliest histories in our culture are from the Greeks, and they were about the crudest manifestations of power — battles. They started out as battle plans. And for most of history's history, the chief concerns have been about rulers, legislations, and war. What happened when we began to study people excluded from official power? In my era that would include the poor, the enslaved, women of all races and classes. What we find that they nonetheless found ways to exert control, at least over their own lives. And how they did reveals important truths about politics. Ultimately, Dolley Madison and the women of Washington tell us about power, and they tell us that it is configured in more ways than the conventional history reveals.
As I end, I would like to go back to the jewel of my book collection and Elizabeth Ellet. Her culture told Ellet that women's lives and concerns were not important, that they were not history. Ellet knew this was not true, she knew that these women were important, but she had few tools to develop or express her conviction and to tie women and their work to a narrative of state power. So she chose an original tack, if you recall. She said alright, these women weren't history, but what they offered was better than history.
I am much luckier than Ellet. Generations of women's historians and scholars have provided me with the information and analytic tools to turn Ellet's hunch into an intellectual reality. Because of the work of historians before me, of archivists and librarians and curators, I don't have to relegate Dolley Madison and the women of Washington to a realm 'better than history.' They are history, and by being so, they change the way we think about history itself. I hope my work in some small way demonstrates to Elizabeth Ellet (and her fellow and sister chroniclers of society), wherever they may be, that they were right all along.