Women’s History and a Woman’s Subtle Power

On the heels of Black History Month, Women’s History Month began March 1. With the civil rights movement still fresh in our collective memories, and with a black president at the nation’s helm, even the most glib commentators can justify focusing on black history.

But putting aside a whole month to honor women seems harder to explain. When pressed, most Americans would assume that Women’s History Month arose from a kind of historical politeness or political correctness. They would be surprised to learn that we study women to better to understand power.
The study of history is the study of power. For thousands of years, history has used the crudest measure of power, physical force. History books have been filled with wars, battles, campaigns, successions and elections, as well as their personnel — generals, soldiers, kings and candidates.
No one tells us more about all the ways that power works than people excluded from its official halls: people of color, and women of all classes and races, among others. For them, power has different faces. We study women as we study other marginalized people because they tell us fresh stories of power — power wielded in more subtle but deeply transforming ways.
Dolley Madison, the wife and political partner of our fourth president, James Madison, first revealed the power of a first lady. She was the first wife of a president to command the unofficial sphere of power. During her tenure, Dolley cemented Washington, D.C., as the capital city and during the War of 1812 she became a symbol of unity by embodying disinterested patriotism.
Dolley Madison constructed a social sphere of parties and dinners that operated parallel to the official sphere of congressional sessions and cabinet meetings. This was vital to the early federal government as it lacked the kind of bureaucracy it would need to develop an infant republic into a budding democracy and powerful nation-state.
In contrast, the political machine built by the ladies of Washington supplied the young government and capital city with ways to lobby for legislation, create bipartisan coalitions, and give out government jobs. In later decades, the official male establishment would adapt these functions and formalize them into institutions such as lobbyist groups, party machines and the civil service — which turned around and excluded women until the 20th century.
Tracing the path of power in early Washington, then, means not merely examining the official records. For historians, watching what women do, uncovering the networks of kin and friendship that they built, as well as the men they brought into government, gives a fuller picture of why the early government and capital city amassed so much power in an era that so feared excessive governmental authority.
As first lady from 1809 to 1817, Dolley Madison was famous for her generous spirit, which seemingly rose above politics and welcomed everyone. This was crucial in an era of heated politics, which was characterized, like today’s, by “all or nothing” rhetoric, but, unlike today’s, also by actual violence. Duels with pistols were as frequent in the nation’s early days as cable news tirades are in ours.
The official men of the government did not know that working together would be the salvation of the bipartisan system. They did not have the word “bipartisan” in their lexicon, even as they were building a two-party system. But Dolley Madison instinctively knew that, for all their “lone gunman” stances, the government men had to learn to see each other as full human beings if they were going to create a ruling class.
Dolley knew that socializing with families was the way to do it. By her gently gracious interest in everyone, her toleration and civility, she modeled for her contemporaries a feminine vocabulary of politics, one that stressed empathy for others and cooperation as the ruling style.
The problem with evaluating Dolley Madison’s legacy is that she lost. Her efforts did not forestall war with Great Britain, and though her work contributed to the creation of the two-party system, Dolley’s example of cool leadership did nothing to calm the overheated, hyper-masculinity of American politics. Because she had no official power, Dolley’s individual efforts could only go so far.
This is another power lesson we learn from studying women. Winners might write history, but the experiences of those who lose are often more instructive.
Dolley’s time may have come. With Women’s History Month, we can newly evaluate a model of governance rooted in shared humanity, one that stresses bridges over bunkers, and finally see it as her lasting gift to the nation. By making politics a party to which everyone is invited, Dolley Madison was the most modern politician of her time.
The Obama presidency has given rise to much soul-searching about who we are as a nation and how we should behave toward each other, within our borders and around the world. Perhaps this is the time we should consider the alternatives Dolley offered us at the dawn of the national experiment. In the early days of the nation, few of Dolley’s contemporaries could resist her invitations. At this particular turning point in our modern nationhood, neither should we.

Catherine Allgor, a writer for the History News Service, is a professor of history and a Presidential Chair at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of "A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation" (2006).