First Lady Dolley Madison is often remembered as a hostess who saved the White House portrait of George Washington from British vandalism during the War of 1812. But in fact, she was the most influential woman in America during the nation’s formative years—a national, almost mythic figure. Even more, she was a powerful force during a time when women were excluded from affairs of state.
As the inaugural exhibition in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, Saving Washington recasts the traditional Founding Fathers narrative to consider the less-examined contributions of women whose behind-the-scenes efforts helped implement the Constitution “on the ground.” In spite of laws restricting their broader participation, elite and non-elite women alike sought various avenues for empowerment, activism, and leadership.
Featuring more than 150 objects—such as artworks, books, documents, clothing, jewelry, and housewares—within immersive installations, Saving Washington evokes Dolley Madison’s famous “Wednesday night squeezes,” her popular social gatherings that drew a wide range of people to “squeeze” into the President’s mansion and encouraged informal diplomacy.
Lead support for Saving Washington has been provided by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, with additional support provided by Susan Klein.
Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.