March 26, 2020
Women Also Know Washington
10 min read
By Lindsay Chervinsky
In the preface to You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, Alexis Coe emphasizes that she is the first woman in many decades to write a cradle-to-grave biography. A modern take on the Washington biography genre is certainly welcome—if there are thousands of books on Washington, the vast majority are still authored by men. The last decade has witnessed a noticeable uptick of works on Washington authored by women, with more to come in the pipeline.
A few examples are illustrative of the broader trend. Mary Thompson’s The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret is the definitive work on the enslaved community at Mount Vernon and Washington’s complicated relationship to slavery. Erica Armstrong Dunbar famously brought Ona Judge’s life back into focus and changed how we talk about slavery and the presidency. Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon’s For Fear of an Elective King explores the delicate balance Washington tried to strike between common citizen and monarchy as he crafted the presidency from scratch. Susan Dunn co-wrote the George Washington volume in the New York Times American Presidents Series. Lydia Brandt’s First in the Homes of His Countrymen examines how people across the country replicated Washington’s iconic Mount Vernon to pay homage to his republican example.
Meanwhile, Lorena Walsh is completing a book on the labor practices and enslaved population at Mount Vernon, Amy Hudson Henderson’s book on the Republican Court surrounding the Washingtons is forthcoming, and graduate students, including Stephanie Lawson and Camille Davis, are working on dissertations that feature Washington.
Just to name a few.
What explains this enormous output in a relatively short period of time? While I haven’t interviewed all of these historians, I would offer one speculation: writing about Washington is available to women in a way that it wasn’t for a long time.
It’s not a secret that professional history was the purview of men for the majority of the profession—especially political history or history of the presidents. When women began to make inroads to the field, many focused on social, cultural, or gender history, and for good reasons. These fields hadn’t really been explored and scholars produced new and exciting work. Additionally, women were told, either explicitly or implicitly, that these subjects were more “appropriate” for their study. Furthermore, questioning founders’ relationships to slavery certainly was not encouraged.
Dunbar and Thompson have produced phenomenal scholarship, which has built on the work that came before them. In my opinion, Annette Gordon-Reed’s work on Jefferson’s relationships with the Hemingses changed the way we talk about founders and slavery. That’s not to say that scholars who write on the subject, especially female scholars of color, have an easy time. One need only read the comments on the essays in the 1619 Project to know that they still face significant resistance. But there is certainly more scholarship available now than there was, and that’s a good thing for everyone involved.
Simultaneously, the definition of what constitutes “political history” has expanded over the last couple of decades as scholars explored bottom-up, side-to-side, and top-down approaches. Historians also began to consider the international pressures on politics as the field took an Atlantic turn. Others began to reevaluate what we know about government institutions and how they organically developed after the ratification of the Constitution. I have taken this own approach in my own book (The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution). Rather than assuming the cabinet existed from day one of Washington’s presidency and that the confines of the executive branch were fairly well established, I explore how Washington created the cabinet to address deficiencies in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution and to provide support when faced with international crises, constitutional questions, and domestic rebellions.
Perhaps then, women scholars are taking alternative approaches to evaluating Washington based on their alternative experience as citizens and historians. Still, there’s much work to be done. Lauren Duval, Rachel Engl, and others are writing fantastic military histories, but no woman has written a book about Washington’s military experience. Engl’s work explores the relationships between soldiers in the Continental Army, so certainly Washington plays a role. But there is a lot of room for women to dive into the world of military history and explore Washington’s role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The Confederation Period needs more scholarly attention writ large and Washington is no exception. Although political history is beginning to see an increase in scholarly attention, I’m a firm advocate that new approaches to political history are needed, perhaps now more than ever. Wherever women scholars of Washington turn their gaze next will be welcome and I look forward to the continued growth of the field.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is White House Historian at the White House Historical Association and can be found on Twitter @lmchervinsky. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Presidential History. The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution will be published by Harvard University Press on April 7, 2020.
For Further Reading
Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon, For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).
Lydia Brandt, First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016).
James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, George Washington (New York: Times Books, 2004).
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).
Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (New York: Viking, 2020).
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (New York: 37 Ink, 2017).
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008).
_____, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998).
Mary Thompson, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).
 To my knowledge. I would be thrilled to be proven wrong.