INAUGURAL EXHIBITION IN THE NEW CENTER FOR WOMEN’S HISTORY TO EXPLORE THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN EARLY AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, LED BY FIRST LADY DOLLEY MADISON
Saving Washington, On View March 8 – July 28, 2017
New York City, January 19, 2017 – The New-York Historical Society will inaugurate the new Center for Women’s History with a special exhibition showcasing the hidden contributions of women who helped to build and secure the fledgling democracy of early America. On view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery from March 8 through July 28, 2017, Saving Washington will highlight the role of First Lady Dolley Madison. Featuring more than 150 objects and artifacts in an immersive installation, the exhibition will bring visitors back to the period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and beyond. A highlight of the transformed fourth floor of the Museum, this exhibition will illustrate the new Center’s mission to reveal the often-overlooked stories of women who impacted American history.
“Much is known about the Founding Fathers and their contributions to the origins of our nation, but as we approach the opening of the Center for Women’s History, we are keen to emphasize the role of our Founding Mothers,” said Valerie Paley, New-York Historical vice president and chief historian, director of the Center for Women’s History, and the exhibition’s curator. “In Saving Washington, we look at how female influence, namely that of Dolley Madison, but also less-famous as well as completely unknown women of her generation, had a lasting impact on how political goals were achieved in the first half-century of the country.”
Exploring the tenuousness of early American democracy, Saving Washington recasts the traditional Founding Fathers narrative to focus on the less-examined contributions of women whose behind-the-scenes and largely overlooked efforts helped develop the young nation and realize the Constitution “on the ground.” During the dawn of the American Republic, how could a woman be a political agent? In spite of laws restricting their broader participation, elite and non-elite women alike sought various avenues for empowerment and activism.
Among those who expertly navigated the political world of the early republic, Dolley Madison (1768-1849) was more than an example of what a woman could be in America; she was the embodiment of American strength, virtue, and honor. As wife of the fourth U.S. President, she is sometimes remembered merely as the hostess who saved the White House portrait of George Washington from British vandalism during the War of 1812. But in fact, she was one of the most influential women in America during the nation’s formative years—a national, almost mythic figure—and a powerful force during a time when women were excluded from affairs of state.
Lead support for Saving Washington has been provided by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, with additional support provided by Susan Klein.
Saving Washington will feature artworks, books, documents, clothing, jewelry, and housewares within immersive installations evoking 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.
The exhibition opens by setting the scene of the fragile nature of democracy after the Revolutionary War, when the Founding Fathers’ ideals became challenging to protect in reality. Among the items on view will be portraits of early American leaders, including George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and James Madison, alongside the stories of Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Hamilton, Theodosia Burr, and Dolley Madison—some of the “unofficial politicians” who influenced policy behind the scenes. A multi-media interactive screen will allow visitors to reflect on the work of post-revolutionary women’s lives affecting the “constitution on the ground.”
After the nation’s capital was moved to Washington in 1800, Dolley Madison and other women breathed life into the social scene and built informal networks. As President Thomas Jefferson and Vice-President Aaron Burr both were widowers, Secretary of State James Madison’s wife Dolley became the city’s preeminent hostess and her enormous popularity proved a formidable political asset to her husband when he became President in 1809. One of Dolley’s first official duties was to renovate the still-incomplete president’s house with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his wife Mary, creating inviting rooms for entertaining with neoclassical-style furnishings to evoke a democratic vision. Reproductions of Latrobe’s watercolor plans for the White House and its furnishings, as well as correspondence with Dolley, will be on view in the exhibition.
Inviting men and women of all socioeconomic and political backgrounds to her “Wednesday night squeezes” at the executive mansion, Dolley regularly attracted more than 300 attendees for unofficial politicking. The immersive exhibition design, evoking the American neoclassical style of the president’s house, includes life-size costumed figures portraying “squeeze” participants, as well as engaging media pieces representing the Madisons’ dining table and gaming table. Visitors can try their hand at the gaming table, which illustrates the complexities of male-oriented politics and honor culture, or take a seat at the dining table, which evokes the civil dialogue, compromise, and informal politicking that occurred at Dolley’s table. Other media pieces show, in words and audio, the comments and conversations that might have occurred around the room; the work that Dolley Madison accomplished at her desk; and the drama of the War of 1812.
A number of the refined accessories required for Dolley’s hospitality will be on view, including the Madisons’ tea service, tableware, and specialty items such as a marrow scoop and a nutmeg grater. Dolley’s fashion choices toed the precarious balance between social hierarchy and equality in a unique style, such as the low-necked white “empire” dress, signature turban, and her diamond and rose gold engagement ring, which will be on view.
Even as tensions escalated during the War of 1812 and President Madison left Washington with his Cabinet, Dolley remained in the White House until British forces marched on the city in August 1814. Keenly aware of the symbolic power of the President’s house and despite the danger, Dolley saved what she could before she fled: her husband’s papers, some valuable silver, the red draperies from her drawing room, and, most famously, the portrait of George Washington from the state dining room. The British then overtook the presidential mansion, burning it and other government buildings to the ground. Just as Dolley’s celebrity as a symbol of American patriotism grew, another national symbol was born: the Star Spangled Banner. Defiantly raised over Fort McHenry during a battle with the British in September 1814, the flag inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem, soon set to the tune of a popular song to become the national anthem, and distributed widely. An early broadside of the poem will be on view in the exhibition.
After the war, the political landscape shifted and many reform movements arose around the issues of voting rights, evangelical religion and moral reform, Native American rights, temperance, and abolition—often with influential women at the forefront of activism, in spite of being denied an official voice through the ballot box. On July 19, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott called a convention to address “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women,” issuing a Declaration of Sentiments that listed grievances against the federal government and proclaiming that “all men and women are created equal.” Daguerreotypes will be on view in the exhibition of Mott, Stanton, and other leaders of the women’s movement. Dolley Madison died in 1849, after living her final years in financial insecurity, but remaining an enduring symbol of America’s founding generation.
The Center for Women’s History
The Center for Women’s History is the first institution in the nation that is fully open to the public and dedicated to showcasing the central role women have played in American history. When the Center opens on the fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society on April 22, 2017, it will showcase special exhibitions in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, special display cases illuminating particular moments from the broad sweep of women’s history, and bold interactive digital installations. Public funding for the Center for Women’s History was provided by the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs and the State of New York Empire State Development. Major funding for the Center and its programs has been provided by Joyce B. Cowin, Diane and Adam E. Max, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Jean Margo Reid. Corporate support provided by Deutsche Bank and Hogan Lovells.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.
Image credit: Bass Otis, 1784-1861. Mrs. James Madison (Dolley Payne Todd, 1768-1849), ca. 1817. Oil on canvas. Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan, New-York Historical Society