tv Mary Sarah Bilder Female Genius CSPAN May 26, 2022 10:01am-11:01am EDT
greetings from the national archives flagship building in washington dc which sits on the ancestral lands of the nekuchi tank peoples. i'm david fer greetings from the national archives in washington d.c.. on the unsuccessful lands of the -- i'm david furrier of the united states and it's my pleasure to welcome here today's conversation with mary sarah
builder. about her new book female genius. which looks at the pass breaking it -- elizabeth harriet barons o'connor. joining the author in conversation is martha jones, professor of history of johns hopkins university. today's guest speaker, mary sarah builder will introduce us to e.l.i.s.a. harriet barons o'connor. and her work to advance women's education and political rights. mary sarah builder is found a professor of law at boston college law school and the author of the bancroft prize -winning book madison's hand. revising the constitutional convention. she's also the author of the transatlantic constitution and co-offer of appeals to the privy council from the american colonies. martha estes jones as the society of black alumni presidential professors, professor of history and a professor at the s and f igor is the toots of johns hopkins university. she is a legal and cultural historian and the author of
vanguard, how black women broke barriers in insistent on equality for all. let's hear from mary sarah builder and martha s jones, thank you for joining us today. >> greetings. and welcome to this conversation with mary sarah builder. about her brand new book, female genius. i'm martha jones and i'm honored to be here under the auspices of the national archives. and really eager to dive into this conversation with you. mary. so thanks very much for doing this with us. >> martha thank so much and thanks to the national archives for having me and giving us this great opportunity to talk about my book and obviously hopefully we'll get to talk about your book, vanguard, also. >> i want to dive in because i know your work and admire it for a long time. it's no surprise to me that
once again with female genius, you are shutting a new light on the constitution. and we'll talk more about the capital c, small sea constitution that's part of the story. but it's no surprise, i don't think anyone who knows your work that you are gonna show us something new about this constitution. in at the same time, i think i didn't expect that this next book would be so important illuminating, actually the place of women in the place of gender in the development of the constitution. in its early decades. i thought i just might start by asking where this book began for you. now i know and we've heard the archivists in the united states allude to george washington and i know that that's one place
where you early on encountered e.l.i.s.a. harriet. but i want to ask you when you knew this was a book. when you knew that you had a really landed on something that would sustain you and sustain us in a book like this. >> it's a nursing question about at one moment i knew i was working on my medicines handbook i read the diary of george washington a lot of times. i kept being sort of haunted by this moment where he goes to hear this lady lecturer and he calls for a tolerable. which is of course fans of pride and prejudice know what mr. garcia calls e.l.i.s.a. bennett. so that was this wonderful moment. and i kept wondering which he was doing there. and also how come she didn't fit into the story i knew about the convention. which was in a lot of ways is a
very internal story. about men. and i think that particularly trying to think about my own interests which was how did i fit, how did other people fit into the story of the convention. i started to read a pretty widely in a lot of wonderful work that people have done on gender and constitutionalism and women. and i started to be like, i'll just write a little article about her. and then at some moment i realized this isn't just a little article. i think we all have this. this is a book. and this is a book that is really written out of an enormous amount of work done over the last 30 years in this topic. and that allows us to see her. but i have to say, it's a book that i was like really is going to turn into a book? in that way. but it's a wonderful book and i think one of the first really significant moments for me was
when i had noticed this phrase, female genius, floating around. and then i saw it actually apply to phyllis wheatley in this 18th century account about female geniuses. in england. and it was at the moment i started thinking, this isn't just a casual term, this is a war that has really a concept and meaning. and at that point, the sort of arc of the book began to form. >> so let me ask you about the phrase female genius. because i think to a 21st century year. i don't know, when we think of genius, would we think of mcarthur grants? i don't know, we think of, i don't, know mensa and iq tests. that's a very 20th century way of thinking about this. but you tell us the phrase female genius indeed is a term of art of sorts but it doesn't
mean what we might assume it to mean in the 24 century. >> it's a word that's changing meaning and it, geniuses a worth a change of meaning and genius is in this moment going to mean more about capacity. so we would think of capacity, ability to do, we might think of intellectual capacity. we don't have a term that quite captures this. but it was the idea that people were capable. and intended to be applied to men. and so to put female in front of it is to try and drag that category towards people who are being presumed to not qualify for that category. and in some, ways that term is the beginning of the very beginning of the romantic period. so it also is beginning to carry that protein romantic notion of particularly amazing when we think of with a mcarthur. but that, it's on that sort of
luminous space. and so what we see in this period as we see increasingly the term being used to describe that people who are not men, which is a category woman. we tend to think of it. but sort of a contested category. have the same capacity, have equal capacity. and a female genius is that concept. and i use it because for i think a lot of women who are interested in this moment. it's that double-ness of the term. both meaning capacity and equal capacity. and then also some ways looking back and recognizing that a number of the women who we hold up as exemplary in this period, really are in some ways exemplify in tunis in the sort of later 19th century sense. because they really sort of stand out for other people. >> i hear that and at the same time you make a choice to land
on one character. and to let her, the arc of her life really shape the story that you tell. so i wanted could you talk a bit about this intersection between what i see a sort of the history of law, the history of ideas, the history of women. but really all framed in biography. my sense is, elijah harriott is not an easy person to build out into a biography. the archives are slim. so maybe you could say something both about sort of that choice and how you grapple ultimately with the archives, to build out a story from what are some really powerful but really small cash of documents at the beginning. >> she was, there's only five letters known about her. now she is very ordinary name so i think perhaps moving
forward will no more about her. for those letters survive because she wrote them to george washington and so they're in the library of congress. and one of them survives because she wrote it to benjamin franklin's daughter. sally franklin bates. and otherwise, there is no papers left of her that anybody knows of our right now. so the book is a biography and it's also a sort of history of this concept of how women and gender relate to the constitution. and in part, that's because, there is a lot of wonderful women's histories that have used different groups of women to try and make that argument. but she really allows us the opportunity to see that argument overtime, through her own life. and so for me, that was just a nice thing, she's one 70 49, she doesn't 1811. her lifespan almost perfectly maps on to this space of
expanding ideas about political representation and then the abrupt construction and exclusion that happens in the 19th century. so her lifespan, even if she was famous, she has a good lifespan for the story. she's, i argue she's a significant player in creating the story in the united states. but also she gives an opportunity, i think for me, and i think about your book, vanguard, to revisit this aspect of the history of women that was so important for the history of women. which was the power of the example. and that was a whole type of historiography. sort of type of writing history. where you have used women's example to establish women's capacity. to hold women up as being equal and having the ability to do things because you told the history of remarkable women overtime. and this is a long tradition, it goes way back in women's
writing. and she herself was very conscious of this tradition. it's something she herself writes about, about the power of being an example. it's why she was very committed to speaking in public. and she talked about this wonderful quote where she, that is the epigraph of the book. that the power of a woman's example is not just to be emulated but to be improved on. and so she has a notion of the female example that is, you use the female example to tell that story but to also understand how you could improve on that story. that an essence, that you are always pushing that story forward. and so it some ways by doing a biography and a history of gender, i really wanted to be in that tradition of the power of the example. and that's why your book, vanguard, we have it here. everybody should read it. which is, i don't know if you knew it but it's a remarkable version of this really
important history of writing about women by writing about the power of the female example. >> i didn't know that but i know this is on tape and so, now i know another folks will not to. i appreciate that very much. it's a remarkable life story but you want to teach us something more. i think you're really aiming to, as i read, it expand our understandings of not only the constitution but the constitutional choices, constitutional contingencies. especially for students who pick up the text. and expect that sort of an area engaging with the tax is enough. your here to say, despite the fact that you won't find it in
the text. ideas about women, ideas about gender, are really present. tell us a little more about sort of what you hope will take away as readers of the constitution, as thinkers about early america. as folks who are, many of us from various quarters thinking about sort of founding moments. what is it you want to take away from this example, this model of e.l.i.s.a. harriet? about the constitution itself >> so i think for me this is the book subtitles called the dawn of the constitution. and i write about that this is an age of the constitution. this is a moment when i and other people have argue the constitution is developing as a new genre. as a
linda calling out a wonderful book about this in the global space. the constitution, we think of it as a specific document. in this moment, it still carries the meaning of a system of government. in this instance, a system of government that people are trying to write. a lot of the ideas that we carry with constitution are yet to be discovered and understood. it is all being invented. invented not just in one year, over a much larger period of time. this is important for me, one of the things that happens when we talk about the constitution, as we bring our modern 200 years of getting used to a disservice skated idea about constitution's back. we think the space about the constitution is very small i believe the space around the constitution as a system of government is very large. it is very contingent. it is very contested.
in this framing period, there are many more battles and uncertainties and tensions than we tend to think. instead of seeing this moment as it has answered questions for us, it's a moment that opens up all sorts of debate. one really significant debate in this period of which the american resolution is a part is a question of who gets represented and how in government. you can understand the american revolution is part of this, you can understand the french revolution coming out of this, efforts in ireland to achieve independence. it's a transatlantic phenomenal. but that does, it opens up the understanding, with the way we think about who participated and politics isn't a little line that keeps going up overtime. that sometimes we. thank man get the vote, and then so-and-so gets the vote, then so-and-so gets to vote. we see in this moment, that's
not it at all. this period begins with a most people not being able to participate in politics. with exclusions being based on owning landed property, religious exclusions. as we move into this period, we realize, lots of different people think they should be able to participate in politics in different ways. one of the things i really cared about opening up is us seeing the space as flexible still. as lots of people thinking they might have ideas. i talk about this being a framing generation, not framers, a framing generation. and there's lots of people in that generation. a few of them are inside those conventions. a lot of them are outside of that space. lots of people have ideas about who should be included and who should not be included. if we skip ahead, 20, 30 years, we can see the written constitutions become ways of creating exclusions, writing
free white, white male and constitutions. those create rigid power barriers. in this period, that is not yet figured. out that is one of the larger points of the book. to really get us back to the space where this is all open for consideration. we don't have polls. maybe her view is not the view that the majority of people would feel. her view is a view that other people feel, we can find a newspapers, we can find a correspondent. >> as one example out of your work. i really, you turn on a label for me. that's the example of new jersey. could i ask you to for a couple of minutes drill into the example of new jersey? i, like many folks, glancingly understood that women had voted early in new jersey.
early in the 18th century. there is this moment than when they're closes down. it seems to me a strong way of illustrating the point you are just making. >> new jersey, this is the fact that women and people of color vote in new jersey in this period. it has been a fact that people know about. the american revolution did it great exhibit on it. i know that new jersey state are guys have done a lot of work. there's a number of women historians who worked on. it it floated over here. it is a strange fact. let's push it out. this book tries to center it as an example of a central fact. new jersey had a constitution that, a state constitution, that describe people who can participate based on the word inhabitants. it did not say male. in fact, the massachusetts constitution is pretty unique. in putting mail in. under that constitution, people,
vote women vote, when people of color vote. it's a little bit, people are a little bit uncertain at what moment people actually go to the polls. you only know that if you can find a newspaper accounts or the poll records. new jersey has that for later periods around 1800. we know from newspaper reports and statute that will use the word she that women and people of color vote. they vote consistently three to about 1811, when they are actually excluded through a change in the constitution that says basically only men can vote. white male voters, white male citizens. that is pushed by claims of voter fraud, people claim you don't know about married women looks like from an unmarried women a, person who is black american, from a person who is enslaved. so voter fraud is the claim,
what a lot of historians think it, is the rising democratic republican party wants to stop women and people of color who tended to vote federalist. there are accounts in newspapers of where women and people of color push towards the federalist. they are discounted that way. for me, in the story, one is really important, it shows us that at the space there actually is an example of people, of women participating in government. it is not an possibility. sometimes you, think oh, no one thought of that. not only did people think that, people knew about the experience. it's a story that's very interesting to women's, the activists in the 19th century. they go back and try to interview also to people. >> i'm going to ask you the question that i'm afraid will
lead viewers to, their eyes will glaze. i'm going to ask you about federalism. the great we're going to make it interesting. i promise. i think there is a sort of, a permanent question that we ask about the relative relevance of constitutional thought at the federal level, the national constitution, the state level constitutions. i came away after reading not quite sure how you want us to think about that. and other words, the voting rights of women in new jersey people of color in the jersey are determined by state lawmakers in new jersey. not by lawmakers and washington. not by the terms of the national constitution. how do you want us to think about it? i could say my own work, i have tried to troubled that sight line we can constitutions.
i'm not sure i've succeeded i wanted to know more expressly your take how in this period we should think about the relationship between those two systems of government. >> when i do, in part, having written such a big book on constitutional, i'll talk a little bit less about it in this book. i was happy to put a lot of that aside the part that's probably most explicitly about constitutions is, you know, some of my it made this a bigger part of their book. a couple pages where i believe that the u.s. constitution was written and it's very dramatic gender-neutral form. the person he is the vocabulary used. he is a gender neutral term there. because of eliza harry it's example. there's three examples of the dropping's constitution in 87
when jenner was explicitly reference. one of those was actually the fugitive slave clause, the word he or she was explicitly in the original way that they drafted that language. it's an enormous testament to the power of black women escaping from slavery, becoming fugitives, that the drafters couldn't imagine thinking about that situation without she, women, escaping, being very big and their minds. we have three examples of that. the final committee that recreates the style of the constitution does away with all the gender references. instead people in the constitution become described as persons with he being the pronoun. we know that because the clause that says you can grab criminals and bring them back to your state is written as person he. i argue that e.l.i.s.a. harriet's example in the summer of 1787, where she was giving
these lectures publicly throughout the summer, and proposing very radical types of female academy. it was an inspiration and allowing the federal constitution to be open to the possibility that women could participate. it's because of the federal constitution is open to the possibility of that women can participate. it's written generally to begin with. when we get the 19th amendment, the 19th amendment can just say, you can't disenfranchise people. because of sex. it doesn't have to enfranchise. it can assume that people were in essence at the federal level enfranchise originally as women, you just bar the states from disenfranchising. them in that sense, her example that summer, is incredibly important in this critical move about how we think about the u.s. constitution. >> let's drill into her larger project. one of the points you made is
that in fact we discounted the place of education, how foundational ideas about education are to thinking about the constitution. about citizenship. tell us more about her project in this regard, what's he does with this, in terms of institution building her own ideas more. >> i'm going to call her eliza harriet, it's really fired the her name she could control herself. it's our first and middle name. not her last name. a little background is helpful. she's born in 1740, nine she's born and lisbon, portugal. she is the daughter of a fairly well to do admiral t gentry
family. her uncles will become governors of new york and new jersey before going back to england. she marries a young irish catholic law student in england. very unusually, her family does not show up for the wedding. as a young girl, sometimes part of her life, she probably spent in new york. and then in charleston. some part of the time, like many fairly well to do young girls in england, she was at a boarding school. she went to a particular type of boarding school in chelsea. a french boarding school. she was at that school when john wilcox, who is a famous radical, tobias smollett's daughter was there. she sort of educated in a way that political reformist who are interested and women's education were educated. he comes of age at a moment in england when there was a lot of ideas around women having
capacity to be able to participate things. we can talk more about this. this is the age of female debating societies. debating create political presentation, this is the rise of the women as novelist. the great flourishing of the novel as a way for women to tell their own stories. she ends up having to follow her husband most of the time. he's an itinerant, an ambitious young guy. they end up in new york in 1786. in 1786 and new york she starts a french and english academy. with a very ambitious curriculum. her curriculum is a lot when we expect male curriculums to look like, she's very interested in eloquence and the power of speaking out loud. -- so you could be a politician, or a minister, someone who spoke. she is taking that and saying that's a thing that women
should do she's very committed to public examinations. that is the girls would stand up and be examined public, they would read things, give spaces. in new york, she very cleverly claims that she doesn't have a large enough place to do that. she asked columbia college to allow her to do her public examination at columbia college. she then gets newspaper coverage of her female students being examined at columbia college by the professors. this is a thing she turns out to be very good at. finding power and linking herself to power to get publicity. and then she moved to philadelphia. we can talk more about her speeches. another thing ceta suggests in philadelphia is a very dramatic kind of female academy, a french academy in philadelphia. which we run always by a woman
with a board of equal lee men and women. but governed by majority vote. women would have the vote. the woman who ran it would always be capable of giving speakers 300 people in public. this is an idea about education that is designed to take the central idea about why women can participate in politics. women were not capable. they did not have the right capacity this sense, the idea, women should not get educated, it's an idea about establishing female capacity. the idea is, if you can show that female, that women, and have capacity, have sort of the same intellectual capacities as man, then of course they're going to get to vote, there aren't yet gender based explicit barriers in most places. one thing that's really significant is to understand that education here, the desire for education, the claim for education, the insistence on
equal education is a political claim. it's not a side like claim. so her educational ambition is huge. if we read it with an eye towards understanding what's she's arguing, she's making a very powerful claim about female education and the importance and therefore a female capacity. then if we are, i think some readers will be surprised to discover not only the practice but the deep commitment to a public life a visible life to public speaking and more. i have to ask you about marriage because i think that one of the other assumptions we bring is that this period women are subject both by law and culture. certainly elite white women are subject by law and culture.
to cover. and to their subordination. two husbands. but this isn't exactly how it works. in her household. and i say a little more about that in sort of what you think is going on in this marriage. >> she has a very unusual marriage, she marries this young irish catholic lawyer, john o'connor, we don't know, i spent a lot of time corresponding with all sorts of people in ireland but there's a lot of o'connor's. he holds himself out as part of the families that were dispossessed by the english going back to the sort of royal irish kings. he may be part of those families, he may have just decided to appear to be part of those families. he's a person of enormous aspiration himself as a political reformer and a literary reformer. and i say in the book, we don't know the foundation of their
marriage. i feel the book is very important to pull back and let the readers know where we might romantically think they fall in love. but we don't know that, it's actually a period when there are a lot of reports of abductions of harris's, that is women who are known to be harris's. they're the only inheritors of their fathers are literally grabbed and raped or married and then raped. and we can't know that that didn't happen to her, that's outside of the historical record. i hope that isn't what happened to her but we don't really know that and the anxiety around seduction and rape is a big anxiety in female literature at this time. but her marriage is a long one. he is often gone. he's always coming up with schemes and very rarely do they materialize. and so she's the economic backbone of the marriage.
and washington recognizes this, washington actually says he thinks she was doing this to make some money. she has a small trust that was put in her name from her father to keep it out of her husband's hands. but that probably didn't supply a lot of money. so she reminds us about women working. her whole life she sort of is going to follow when he picks up and move somewhere else. but in each place for her, giving lectures and then running a school becomes a way to earn money and to basically support, to support both of them. and it's really important reminder of where the fact that education particularly female education was a few avenues open to women as a way for them to have a job. and to make money into become independent. >> >> and that will be, continue for a very long time into the 19th century. so many of the women activists
who we come to know in the 19th century and her public life if you will. by way of classroom. what they do with the classroom. i always think when i'm counter those figures, what was going on in those classrooms? if you are a young woman in that class. what were the lessons like and what were the lessons on the books and where were the lessons that you took from the women who were in charge. it's a really extraordinary scene. to imagine. >> martha, let me just say one more thing about that. it is such an important point about what does it mean to be a teacher and how important education is. to be a teacher is always to be an example. to serve as an example, to have a kind of authority. and one of the things that you can do as a teacher is your really showing capacity.
you're always showing your mind, always encouraging other people's minds. and so i think with so many women who are interested in inclusion in the political space. teaching is both an economic job and it's also a job where you are believing in other people's capacity. so it's in some ways a deeply radical job in that respect. >> so i wonder, one of the words that came to me as i was reading was entrepreneur. or entrepreneurial. and i wonder if you think that fits, i heard you talk about following and tracing her advertisements. and i wonder if there is there an aspect of this that is remarkable because she's so entrepreneurial. is that a good word? >> yet, now, if she's definitely entrepreneurial. she's ambitious. she's quite clever about
getting people to notice her. she, maybe this is because faced are little bit about how she gets washington to go to the lecture. she starts in philadelphia, giving these lectures. she's the first woman we know about to give public lectures in the united states. herrera and michelle advertisements, that she's going to be a lady giving lectures. but it isn't safe place. and then very quickly, she locates her lectures at the university which is where the most prominent male speakers spoke. and she gave lectures in april. but in may, when the conventions is going to start. washington and the rest of the virginia delegation show up. they're waiting for everyone to come. and she's, her ads are in every day of the newspaper. about her lectures and what she's going to cover. and as she actually delays her lecture a little bit. almost as if someone said well
if you can wait till friday, washington can probably be there. and this is part of the sort of entrepreneurial ad speck of her erroneous a political power. because washington goes to her lecture. and in every newspaper reports that washington went to her lecture. and she and her husband actually write sort of anonymous correspondence in these paper, describing washington at her lecture. and she's aware of if washington can go to her lecture and then there can be a counts of that. every newspaper in america will pick that account up. so she's very entrepreneurial in leveraging washington's political power. she will do that again when she was alexandria. and she will ask him to serve on the board, he declines. but he office her the support, she will go to mount vernon spent 40 some of vernon. get herself invited there in order to talk to george
washington in martha washington about sort of her teaching career. so she's an entrepreneur role in that sense. and then she is also just economic sort of in an entrepreneurial sense. her lectures are subscription lectures. which meant you are supposed to pay upfront. so what that meant was that you'd have to get the money, you've got the money before you give the lecture. and you try to encourage people that you are gonna have like a whole course of lectures that you could get a big subscription of front. and she does that repeatedly in cities. incredible, the other person who wrote a wonderful article about entrepreneurial lecturing points out that one thing people did was in order to start a school, you need some sort of expenses. covered and so if you arrived in a location and gave some lecture, you should yourself off as a teacher. and then you also sort of got some enough money to be able to rent a house and get supplies and things like that. so she's exceptionally savvy.
and she recognizes other women who are career women and entrepreneur's. so two of the places that she places her ads in philadelphia and baltimore are newspapers run by, run with women printers. so she's finding other women like her to sort of either support or to be supported by. >> and that to me speaks to one of the benefits of the advertisement. is that kind of visibility that doesn't require folks to have come to the lectures to understand some of what her project is about. but i want to segway to ask you about the lectures and her ideas. because, and tell me more about them and if you think i'm right. i think i hear echoes of her thinking in all the way across
the 19 century. whether it's black women in philadelphia in the 18 20s and 30s. making the case for their own literary societies and other efforts and education. or it's elizabeth katie stanton in the 18 60s calling for the educated suffrage. and my hearing echoes and tell us more about thinking and maybe some about how you think it resonates into the 19 from three? >> i think that katie stanton and the educator suffrage as a sort of said twist. it's taking this idea that starts in this period where if you can show women have capacity, which you can show by allowing them to have education, then they'll be able to participate and reversing that very sadly white, white suffragists of in the century basically start arguing only
educated people should vote. and that's not where she is at all. but i do think her constellation of issues is one that she's interested in. and that other women who i think are when my called the kindred spirits are interested in. and win sees that, it's sort of like who knows how do people know things. but she's mary wilson crawfish will be younger than her by a decade. and wilson croft follows some of the same paths, she sort of being a teacher. she hated it, actually. she starts writing her first major book in 1787. thoughts on the education of daughters, so she's trying to think about how do we educate daughters? how do we educate daughters to have, to show that they have capacity, to have ambition. she then writes mary will some craft rights under a pseudonym
a book called the final reader. which were selections for women to learn to do oratory. and she basically argues in that that it's important for women to learn to speak in public. to have an excuse to sort of put themselves out in public. and then she was not to write vindication's rights of men and then of education of the rights of women. and so we can see an wilson craft sort of career which although she's a little younger is very parallel to the time period that e.l.i.s.a. harriet is working. the same constellation of beliefs. that is that women had equal capacity that they were capable of equal education. that they could show that through public oratory. and that therefore they'd be allowed to go to college in the political forum. and in the summer of 1787, there is a commentator probably herself or her husband who writes the newspaper about e.l.i.s.a. harriet lectures.
and they basically say the shows that women in the united states are deserting the twilight and the parlor. so those are the two areas that women traditionally were. there are private bedrooms, private chambers. or the parlor which suggests the sort of mix gender salon that had become popular. but she stands for something more than that. that they will desert those for the college in the forum. for education and the political arena. and she represents this belief that you can see other ambitious women aspiring to. that that i it's a sort of remarkable set of ideas. i think it is a possibility up through the 17 90s. and then gradually, really beginning after 1792, 93 the u.s. constitutional system,
political system, began to close this possibility down. >> i want to come back to philadelphia if i could. i want to ask you how, if it all, you think we can think about african american women as part of the story that you tell. you've already invoked phyllis wheatley, the poet, a long time enslaved poet in boston as a female genius. that might be one way. taking us back to philadelphia, i'm thinking about, you know, the extraordinary work of someone like erika dunbar who has really introduced us both to singular figures like own a judge who is held enslaved by
george washington and escapes. or the growing i political and social culture of free black women in a city like philadelphia. by the end of the 18th century. maybe you could start us there and help me think about that. i know in her many somewhat itinerant life, eliza harriet will migrate south. i wonder how that aspect of the story might even change i. >> first of all, one thing that's really significant, not about her so much personally, but about the moment she represents in recognize how education is a political claim for people in this period. it's a way to understand how
she and other people experience that education is this idea that you are not inferior. to access education is so important. we see in philadelphia, in new york, in most of the large cities where there are large re-black populations similar efforts at this time for people to access education. the importance of education. we see in reverse, and communities for example, charleston where she will end up, efforts to actually make sure that people of color can't access education. everybody understands that education is important. a little bit layer than her of course, will have so many significant african american women coming out of philadelphia. in particular, the 14 daughters and sisters for example. who basically stand for the same constellation of issues. that she does.
she moves persistently south, that might be following her husband's, and maybe because at one point she had lived in south carolina in charleston, she goes down through washington, spent some time in alexandria and then georgetown she goes and and her life in charleston and scalia, south carolina. in particular in charleston where she runs a very successful school, i make the point that part of the success of her school, her school last longer there than it did elsewhere. it is probably for the advantages that her whiteness and her capacity to access labor in an economy that's very significantly built on enslaved labor allowed her. so part of coming to reckon with her is understanding that
about her she. was more successful probably in charleston in that space, charleston is interesting in that space. you can actually, car charleston had a very large free black population for the time period and the space different what we might imagine. you can see in the 17 90s, other glimpses of finding people teaching people of color, young people of color, in that space. actually, that looks like it was enough of a problem that i think 1800, they passed a law saying, you can't give mental instruction. that's like, we don't carry your calling, it mental instruction, before and after. that suggests that people who are running schools, who had other teaching capacities were offering opportunities to people on both ends of the working day, both ends of their working day. in my heart, i would love for
hurt -- there's no proof of that. i don't even know that that was who she was. she ended her life by leaving her money to two daughters of the person whose how she was living in. they both acquired and save people into left alabama with him. as aspects of her career that are really remarkable. there is ways in which she is very much a white woman of that time period. willing to accept the world in which he's living. >> we have some time for questions coming in from the audience. one person asks, can we come back to her connection to george washington. it is right there in the title. that is important. we have some glimpses of that. why is george washington in the title?
and what is that connection, can you make that explicit for us? >> george washington, you know, he is in the title for multiple reasons. why, and the forever five letters are to him. the way which we find her, we see her is because of her connection to him. her awareness of that connection. there is a connection she created. her capitalizing on his presence at her lectures, delaying the lecture, making sure he can come. then massively publicizing his presence afterwards. she traded on that political capital. she was very aware of that from her mother's side of the family. you link yourself to a favorite man in england, that is how you got ahead. washington is the most favors man in the united states. she's figured out how to use his political power to advance her commitment. he is in the title for that
reason. she's really quite remarkable. her husband leaves her to go to eat in ten. every time she managed to get a successful school running, he takes off again. just riding a very successful school in alexandria. he takes off or even ten. she says, i'm going to go to eaton. she writes washington that she would like to come and visit and talk to him about what she should do there is this kind of, who does she think she is you can see she has enormous self confidence. when washington invites her to come to mount vernon, she says, well, she would like to come, but he doesn't have a carriage. then washington has to send the carriage to bring her back. this is not a person who's, i mean, she's respectful, she doesn't think of herself as
subordinate to washington. she traded on that power in her own lifetime. he's also in the title because washington represents the type of male political power, the white male political power that in some way comes to exemplify our understanding of this period. her willingness to confront him and deal with him in her own lifetime, to trade on him, to get his approbation, to be called tolerable also reminds us of there are real barriers for women. there are real difficulties for the the success of the dream she has. he represents that. he represents that also. >> i suspect some of us want to know how you think this story should shape our 21st century
thinking about the constitution. i know in the introduction to this book your very explicit and saying, i'm not an originalist. that's not my project. but i am a constitutionalist. i wonder, what kind of reading of the constitution you want to encourage from us at a time where, i think, originalism gets a lot of air time? maybe there's another way of using the history of the constitution that isn't in the service of that. >> i, mean this is a period i really love, i think one of the reasons why i love working this period is because so many other things that we struggle with today, so many of the legacies that are difficult for us, so many of the ideas that are really ambitious and inspirational are in this
period. they're all this period together. rather than seeing this period as locking down one set of ideas, i really think about it as showing us how those are ideas were being struggled with at that moment. in that time. washington harder so we can find some of them, some let me find easier than other, right? pretty easy to find george washington. harder to find other people. one of the things that i think historians have begun to do really really well is work to recover more lives. more lives of people who occupy the same space, as -- and really bring those people back to life. understand that the system that we inherit is made up of all those people, all those people, their ambitions. for me, honestly, martha, there
is a way. you know me, i'm always a little nervous about and speak. things like that. for me personally, the way that she imagined the importance of women standing up in public, the way that mary wilson craft and catherine macaulay writes about women standing up in public, the way that so many women that followed them were willing to go and stand up and public to literally put their person and their body out there as an example the type of capacity of who they represented, i find that super inspirational. i think it made me a little bit more comfortable about the importance of women putting them selves out there, being willing to speak in public. being willing to take on positions of political power. i do think that long history of the example where everybody gets emulated and improved on
by other people's just such an important sort of long history to participate and. >> i think that brings us right back around to your choice to approach this question about women, gender, and the constitutional era through biography. it makes the point. biography is such an important and powerful vehicle for not only frame in the history, for reshaping our imaginations. about who we, are about where we come from. there isn't one answer to that even in this critical and much written about period. we have one more minute. before i thank you and the national archives, do you wanna tell us what else you working on? i know you have other projects. >> i think i'm just going to continue to poke around in this
period. i have to say, i love this period. there's so many questions. i really think the more that we can learn about this generation, not just the people inside the room in philadelphia, but all the people who really participated in the framing moments in this country. . the better legacy we have to understand this period. i'm going to continue to find, maybe i'll find some of this is interesting as her right next. >> we are sure you will. i want to thank you, mary sarah bilder, for this time with us at the national archives. i just want to hold up this wonderful book, the male genius -- and then folks to buy, it borrow it, and more portly to read it, it is a really powerful and important for thinking to who we are in the 21st century as a mission, and
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