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Visitors to the new Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society may be thrown off by the gilded-framed portraits of the Founding Fathers and cases of guns and wigs that begin its first show, but these representations of our common conception of the Revolutionary-era United States are installed only to be challenged. The center opened on March 8 — International Women’s Day — with an exhibition on Dolley Madison called Saving Washington. Dolley, the first lady during James Madison’s 1809–17 presidency, was one of many women who made the most of what little political power they had in the young country.
“What does Dolley Madison represent to the average viewer — ice cream?” Valerie Paley, director of the center and curator of Saving Washington, remarked to Hyperallergic. “Some people might also remember her as the brave first lady who saved the portrait of George Washington from destruction during the War of 1812. But we sought to investigate the more complex question of how Dolley gathered and used her political capital — during a time when women legally had few, if any, rights as citizens — to forge unity through social diplomacy in the new capital city of Washington, DC, in the early 19th century, and in the rest of the country in the half century to come.”
The first gallery swiftly leaves behind the cabinet of masculine mementos to focus on other objects. There are cartridges made from a statue of King George III, melted down by the women of Litchfield, Connecticut, and a 1773 book of poems by Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who was one of the first American poets and among the first to describe America as “Lady Columbia.” Each of these artifacts emphasizes the role women played in the American Revolution and how little they were repaid after the war’s end. Due to the practice of “coverture,” which remained from British common law, married women’s rights were controlled by their husbands. A large gallery touchscreen asks, “We had the Revolution. Now what?” Figures like an “elite woman,” “free black washerwoman,” “wife of Jewish merchant,” and “Cherokee ‘War Woman’” confront the question.
“We discovered quite quickly that there is a different and rich way to amplify the story of our nation’s formative years by looking at the women of the early republic,” Paley explained. “They worked both individually and collectively to make the Constitution work ‘on the ground.’”
A bright, white central gallery guides visitors into one of Dolley Madison’s “Wednesday Evening Squeezes,” where political representatives from all parties and people across classes mingled in close proximity at the White House; Madison presided, with her plumed headdress and proffered snuffbox. The title of the exhibition, Saving Washington, refers to both Madison’s rescue of the Landsdowne portrait of George Washington from the White House during the War of 1812 fire (with major help from an enslaved man named Paul Jennings), as well as her “saving” of the capital’s political foundation through informal diplomatic discussion and negotiation in the difficult early years of American democracy. Interactive games embedded in tables allow you to become a dinner guest or experience the letter writing that was essential to this communication.
“What we have done is created a stage set — akin to the stage upon which politics was performed — where our visitors can enter a world and engage in it,” Paley said. “The great advantage of interactive media also is that so much more can be captured in words and images than can be reasonably contained in a set number of words in exhibition labels.”
The exhibition concludes with a frank look at Madison’s complicated legacy — including her ownership of slaves — and profiles other American women of the early 19th century, among them Sojourner Truth and Anna Murray-Douglass, whose vital support of her husband, Frederick Douglass, is often overlooked. As the plans for a National Women’s History Museum remain undeveloped, having a space dedicated to highlighting women’s history in New York is vital for enriching our understanding of the past. As Paley stated, “As with so much of what we do at the New-York Historical Society, the mandate of our exhibitions is to surprise visitors with unexpected approaches to the history they think they know.”
Saving Washington continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through July 30.