By Anne Wallentine, intern, Collections Information and Research, National Portrait Gallery
It is one thing to overthrow a government; it is quite another to keep a new one going. As historian Catherine Allgor writes, “the challenge of the generation after the founders lay in creating [and maintaining] a working republic.” The women of the early republic played a crucial role in this challenge by helping to develop a new social order and customs surrounding power. Their contributions will be the subject of an upcoming talk by Allgor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Allgor, who will speak at the Portrait Gallery tonight (July 10) at 6pm, explores the notion of women in power in her book A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. She argues that while the founding men relied on both physical and verbal violence to obtain their revolutionary goals, the new country required deft compromise and power-sharing to survive.
In this situation, Dolley Madison (1768–1849) and other women of the era were able to shine. Madison saw the value in a political system based on civility and conciliation rather than coercion. She aided the creation of coalitions and initiated drawing-room connections that would play out in the political sphere. Her drawing room was political and domestic; and she operated within her purview as a woman of the era, shaping her surroundings through hospitality.
Madison was also responsible for creating the image of the White House as the “national home.” As she redecorated the building, she remade the idea of power in the new republic, balancing the desire for aristocratic mien with ideal republican values.
Despite having no official position, Madison had a huge impact on Washington politics. This was no small matter in a time when a “public woman” was a term for a prostitute, and ambition was seen as “outside the province of ladies.” Still, a number of women were able to carve their own roles and affect the new nation.
Several other important women are featured in “A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic,” currently on view at the Portrait Gallery through September 2. Like Dolley Madison, these women knew how to navigate politics and politesse, simultaneously challenging and maintaining gender norms.
The portrait of printer Anne Catharine Hoof Green (above, c. 1720–1775) depicts her holding a broadsheet, a symbol of her trade. However, it is a subtle addition and nearly out of view, reminding the viewer that her perception as a virtuous woman was just as important, if not more so, than the inclusion of her trade. She took over the business from her husband after his death, and her prominence was a rarity rather than a rule. Still, like Madison, Green proved that women of the early republic had their say about—and effect on—important events.
Between Allgor and the exhibition, there is plenty of evidence of the importance of women’s roles in the early republic. These women were able to maintain what the founding men started, by creating social and political traditions that would keep the country standing. The democratic experiment of the United States was by no means assured of success, a fact often forgotten in retrospect. Still, its tenuous start was strengthened by the contributions of clever women (and men) who understood the importance of the personal to the political.
July 10, 6:00 p.m. in the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium
Catherine Allgor, historian and author of A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, will speak about the role of women in the early Republic.
Anne Catharine Hoof Green c. 1720–1775 / Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) / Oil on canvas, 1769 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Gallery purchase, with funding from the Smithsonian Collections Acquisitions Program and gift from the Governor’s Mansion Foundation of Maryland
Catherine Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).
Frank H. Goodyear III and Wendy Wick Reaves, “A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic,” National Portrait Gallery, in partnership with the Terra Foundation for American Art, April 20, 2012–September 2, 2013.