REVIEW: First Ladies of the Republic, Jeanne E. Abrams

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

America's first First Ladies--Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison--had the challenging task of playing a pivotal role in defining the nature of the American presidency to a fledgling nation and to the world. In First Ladies of the Republic, Jeanne Abrams breaks new ground by examining their lives as a group. From their visions for the future of the burgeoning new nation and its political structure, to ideas about family life and matrimony, these three women had a profound influence on one another's views as they created the new role of presidential spouse. Martha, Abigail and Dolley walked the fine line between bringing dignity to their lives as presidential wives, and supporting their husbands' presidential agendas, while at the same time, distancing themselves from the behavior, customs and ceremonies that reflected the courtly styles of European royalty that were inimical to the values of the new republic. In the face of personal challenges, public scrutiny, and sometimes vocal criticism, they worked to project a persona that inspired approval and confidence, and helped burnish their husbands' presidential reputations. The position of First Lady was not officially authorized or defined, and the place of women in society was more restricted than it is today. These capable and path-breaking women not only shaped their own roles as prominent Americans and "First Ladies," but also defined a role for women in public and private life in America.

Jeanne E. Abrams’ First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role is a surprisingly accessible look into the lives of the three women who did much to define the still-yet-to-be-fully-definable role of the President’s spouse in the early years of the United States. I mean, these women weren’t elected, autonomous, or even sometimes willing, but they were placed in a position in which they received just as much criticism and revilement as their husbands and therefore, had to be quick to invent a new role that would stay with the country through the ages.
To be honest, it was a position of government (is it a position of government? Tangibly, I suppose) that I had previously never given much thought to. Alas, having grown up in the British school system, my education has been solely focussed on the UK’s affairs and more importantly, its victory. Maybe, with the defeats in the War of Independence and again, in the War of 1812, the narcissistic British government has rather glossed over that period of history.
And, I honestly hadn’t even heard of these women. Martha Washington, yes, but only as an extension of her Presidential husband. But that does not mean that I was not enraptured by their stories.
That is because, First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role is a fascinating look into how elite, white women were sometimes able to influence and hold sway over their husbands, in order to enact their own political views in a time period in which votes for women were inconceivable.
It is the idea of them turning the domestic and social realms in which they were relegated to, into something that was integral to the successes of their husbands’ Presidencies. It is a small showing of political autonomy but, two hundreds years or thereabouts before women were given any sort of suffrage, it is pretty damn remarkable.
Like, a big screw-you-I’m-taking-this-and-running-with-it to the patriarchal government of the time.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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