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tv   Mary Sarah Bilder Female Genius  CSPAN  May 26, 2022 6:19pm-7:20pm EDT

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archives in washington d. c..
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on the ancesstral 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. eliza 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
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co-author of appeals to the privy council from the american colonies. martha s. 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 insisted 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.
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>> 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 shedding 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, to anyone who knows your work that you are gonna show us something new about this constitution. and 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
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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 eliza 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 an interesting 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
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and he calls her tolerable. which is, of course, fans of pride and prejudice know what mr. garcia calls eliza 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
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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 applied 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 word 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
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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 things, 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 it tended 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
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in some ways that term is the beginning of the very beginning of the romantic period. so it also is beginning to carry that proto 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
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capacity. and then also, in some ways, looking back and recognizing that a number of the women who we hold up as exemplars 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 wondered if you 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, eliza 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
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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
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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 1749, 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
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historiography, a 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 over time. and this is a long tradition that 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
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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
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pick up the text and expect a sort of erudite engaging with the text 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 we'll 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 eliza
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harriet, about the constitution itself? >> so i think for me this is the book's subtitle's 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. linda colley has 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, but over a much larger period of time. and 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
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used to and developing sophisticated ideas about constitutions 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. ao instead of seeing this moment as it has answered questions for us, it's a moment that opens up all sorts of debate. and one really significant debate in this period, of which the american revolution is a part, is a question of who gets represented and how in government. you can understand the american revolution as part of this, you can understand the french revolution coming out of this, efforts in ireland to achieve independence. it's a
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transatlantic phenomenon. what 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 over time. that sometimes we think, men 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 a lot, and 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. so 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. so i talk about this being a framing generation, not framers, a
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framing generation, and that there's lots of people in that generation. a few of them are inside those conventions but 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, of writing free white or white male and constitutions, and 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. and you know, we don't have polls. maybe her view is not the view that the majority of people would feel. but her view is a view that other people feel, and we can find in newspapers, we can find in correspondence.
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>> as one example out of your work. i really, you turn on a label for me. that's the example of new jersey. so, 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, that is early in the 18th century, and there is this moment than when this 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 a great exhibit on it. i know that new jersey state archives have done a lot of work. there's a number of women historians who worked on it. it floated over here. it is
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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 didn't say male. in fact, the massachusetts constitution is pretty unique in this period, in 1780, in putting mail in. under that constitution, people, vote women vote, 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 newspaper accounts or the poll records. and new jersey has that for later periods around 1800. but we know from newspaper reports and statutes that use the word she that women and people of color vote. they vote consistently through to about 1811, when they are
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actually excluded through a change in the constitution that says basically only men can vote, white male voters, white male citizens. that's pushed by claims of voter fraud, people claim you don't know about married woman 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. and there are accounts in newspapers of where women and people of color pushed the election towards the federalists. 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 impossibility. sometimes you, think oh, no one
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thought of that. actually, not only did people think that, people knew about the experience. it's a story that's very interesting to women's activists in the 19th century. they go back and try to interview also to people. >> now i'm going to ask you the question that i'm afraid will lead viewers to, their eyes will glaze over. because i'm going to ask you about federalism. but 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, and the national constitution, and state level constitutions. i came away after reading not quite sure how you want us to think about that. in other words, the voting rights of women in new
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jersey, peopl of, color in new 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, but i wanted to know more expressly your take on how in this period we should think about the relationship between those two systems of governance. >> when i do, in part, having written such a big book on constitutionalists, 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
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know, some others might have 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, where the person he is the vocabulary used, where 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 referenced. one of those was actually the fugitive slave clause, where the word he or she was explicitly in the original way that they drafted that language. and it's really 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 in their minds. and so we have three examples of that. the final committee that recreates the style of the constitution does away with all the gendered
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references. instead, people in the constitution become described as persons with he being the pronoun. and 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 eliza 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, was an inspiration and allowing the federal constitution to be open to the possibility that women could participate. and it's because of the federal constitution is open to the possibility of that women can participate, because it's written gender neutrally to begin with. when we get the 19th amendment, the 19th
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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 enfranchised 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. >> so. let's drill into her larger project. one of the points you made is that in fact we discounted the place of education, and how foundational ideas about education are to thinking about the constitution, about citizenship. tell us more about her project in this regard, and what she does with this in terms of institution building her own ideas more. >> i'm going to call her eliza
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harriet, it's really the only part of her name she could control herself. it's her first and middle nam, n 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 admiralty, gentry family. her uncles will become governors of new york and new jersey before going back to england. and she marries a young irish catholic law student in england. very unusually, her family doesn't show up for the wedding. and as a young girl, sometimes part of her life, she probably spent in new york and then in charleston. but 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, and
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when 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 reformists who are interested in women's education were educated. she comes of age at a moment in england when there was a lot of ideas around women having capacity, being 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 because 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 wth
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a very ambitious curriculum. and her curriculum is a lot when we expect male curriculums to look like, but she's very interested in particular 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, and then she's very committed to public examinations. that is that girls would stand up and be examined public, they would read things, give speeches. in new york, she very cleverly claims that she doesn't have a large enough place to do that. and so she asks 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. so tyis is a thing she turns out to be very good
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at is finding power and linking herself to power to get publicity. and then she moves to philadelphia. we can talk more about her speeches. but another thing she suggests in philadelphia is a very dramatic kind of female academy, a french academy in philadelphia. which would be run always by a woman with a board of equally 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 couldn't participate in politics, which is that 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. and the idea is, if
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you can show that female, that women 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 and 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 of that, and therefore a female
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capacity. >> then if we are, ithink 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 coverture and to their subordination tusbands. 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. >> yeah, sshe 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.
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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 in the book it's 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 heiresses, that is women who are known to be heiresses, 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
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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
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it's a 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, very long time into the 19th century. so many of the women activists who we come to know in the 19th century enter public life, if you will. by way of classroom. what they do with the classroom. i always think when i encounter 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 some really extraordinary scenes tto
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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
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if you think that fits. i've 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? >> yeah, no, 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. her intial advertisement says 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.
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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 aspect 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 to the newspaper, 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
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very entrepreneurial in leveraging washington's political power. she will do that again when she moves to alexandria. and she will ask him to serve on the board, he declines. but he offers her his support. she will go to mount vernon spent four days at mount vernon. get herself invited there in order to talk to george washington and 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
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cities. and granville ganter, 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 entrepreneurs. 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. >> well, and that to me speaks to one of the benefits of the advertisement, right, is that kind of visibility that doesn't require folks to have come to the lectures to understand some
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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 1820s and 30s making the case for their own literary societies and other efforts at education or it's elizabeth katie stanton in the 1860s calling for the educated suffrage. am i hearing echoes? tell us more about thinking and maybe some about how you think it resonates into
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the 19th century. >> 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, some 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
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things. but she's mary wollstonecraft crawfish will be younger than her by a decade. and wollstonecraft 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 wollstonecraft writes 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 of the rights of men and then vindication 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 elliza
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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 eliza harriet's lectures. and they basically say the shows that women in the united states are deserting the toilette 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. it's a sort of
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remarkable set of ideas that i think it is a possibility up through the 1790s. and then gradually, really beginning after about 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. now, you've already invoked phyllis wheatley, the poet, long time enslaved poet in boston as a female genius. that might be
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one way. but take us back to philadelphia, because i'm thinking about, you know, the extraordinary work of someone like erika dunbar who has really introduced us both to singular figures like ona judge, who is held enslaved by george washington and escapes. or the growing 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 somewhat itinerant life, eliza harriet will migrate south. i wonder how that aspect of the story might even change.
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>> yeah. so i think 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 free black populations, similar efforts at this time for people to access education, the importance of education. and 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
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education. so everybody understands that education is important. and little bit later than her of course, will have so many significant african american women coming out of philadelphia, in particular, the forton 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, spends some time in alexandria and then georgetown and 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 lasts longer there than it did elsewhere. it is probably for the advantages
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that her whiteness and her, sort of, capacity to access labor in an economy that's very significantly built on enslaved labor allowed her. and so part of coming to reckon with her is understanding that about her she, that she was more successful probably in charleston in that space, charleston is interesting in that space. you can actually, charleston had a very large free black population for the time period in a space different what we might imagine. you can see in the 1790s, 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 in 1800, they pass a law saying, you can't give mental instruction. that's like, we don't carry
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your calling, it mental instruction, before and after. so that suggests that people who are running schools or who had other teaching capacities were offering opportunities to people on both ends of the working day, or both ends of their working day. you know, 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 house she was living in and they both acquired enslavedepeople and left for
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alabama with them. 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's 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 just make that explicit for us? >> yeah, so george washington, you know, he is in the title for multiple reasons. why, and four of her 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
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on that political capital. she was very aware of that from her mother's side of the family. like, you linked yourself to a favorite man in england, that is how you got ahead. washington is the most famous man in the united states. she's figured out how to use his political power to advance her commitments. and so he's in the title for that reason. she's really quite remarkable. her husband leaves her to go to etonton. 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 etonton. she says, i'm going to go to etonton. 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
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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 and forth. 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. and so, 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
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success of the dream she has. and he represents that. he represents that also. >> i suspect that 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 you're very explicit in 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.
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>> yeah, 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, but also so many of the ideas that are really ambitious and inspirational are in this period. and they're all this period together. and 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, by people. 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. and more
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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, and all of those people's ambitions. the way that mary wollstonecroft and catherine for me personally, the way that she imagined the importance of women standing up in public, the way that mary wolstonecraft and catherine macaulay writes about women standing up in public, the way that so many women that followed them were for me, honestly, martha, there is a way. you know me, i'm always a little nervous about and speak. things like that. 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
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inspirational. i think it made me a little bit more comfortable about the importance of women putting themselves 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 is 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 framing 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
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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 are 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 moment 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
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to hold up this wonderful book, female genius -- and encourage 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 nation, and as a body politic. i get to say thank you on behalf of the national archives, mary. it is really a pleasure being with you this afternoon. >> thanks, martha. it is such a pleasure to get to talk to you.
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org. ahoy, mate and welcome to tonight's great lives presentation on america's pirates. the talk is sponsored by the ahoy, mates. and welcome to tonight's great lives presentation on america's packs. the top is faltered by the community bank of chesapeake to whom we are grateful for their generous support over the past several years. and it's that kind of commitment that enables it the program to bring to the


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