tv Mary Sarah Bilder Female Genius CSPAN May 27, 2022 2:38am-3:38am 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 ferrio archivist of the united states, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today's conversation with mary sarah builder about her new book female genius, which looks at the pathbreaking 18th century educator elizabeth harriet barons o'connor. joining the authoring conversation is martha s jones professor of history at johns hopkins university. today's guest speaker mary sarah builder will introduce us to eliza harriet barron's o'connor and her work to advance women's education and political rights mary sarah builder his founders professor of law at boston
college law school and 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-author of appeals to the privy council from the american colonies. martha s. jones is the society of black alumni presidential professor professor of history and a professor at the snf agora institute at johns hopkins university. she is a legal and cultural historian and the author of vanguard. how black women broke barriers won the vote and insisted on equality for all. now 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 thanks 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. well, i want to dive in because you know, 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 new light on the constitution and we'll talk more about the capital c small c constitution. that's part of the story, but it's no surprise. i don't think to anyone who knows you work that you were going to show us nothing something new about this constitution and at the same time, i think i didn't expect that. this next book would be so
importantly illuminating actually the place of women and the place of gender in the development of the constitution in its early decades. i thought i'd just might start by asking where this book began for you now, i know and we've heard the archivists the united states allude to george washington, and i know that that's one place where you early on encountered eliza harry it but i want to ask you when you knew this was a book. right when you knew that you had really landed on something that would sustain you and sustain us in a book length work. yeah, is there such an interesting question about sort of at what moment? i i knew i think i think you know, i found i was working on my madison's handbook.
i read the diary of george washington a lot of times. i kept being, you know sort of haunted by this moment where he goes to hear this lady lecturer and he calls her tolerable which is of course, you know fans of pride and prejudice know what mr. doss darcy calls eliza bennett. so that was this wonderful moment and i kept i kept wondering what she was doing there. and also how come she didn't fit into the story. i knew. about the convention which was you know, which in a lot of ways is a very internal story about about men and i think that particularly trying to think about my own interest. which was how did how did i fit? how did other people fit into the story of the convention? i started to read pretty widely in a lot of wonderful work that people have done on gender and constitutionalism and 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 mean, i think we all have this you know, right this is a this is a book and but this is a book that that's 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 and so but i have to say it's a book that i was like really is this 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 i saw it actually applied to phyllis wheatley in this 18th century account about female geniuses in england, and it was at that moment. i started thinking wait. this isn't just a casual term. this is a word that has really a concept and a meaning and at that point the sort of arc of book began to form.
so let me ask you about the phrase female genius because i think to you know a 21st century year. i don't know when we think of genius would we think of macarthur grants? i don't know we think of i don't know mensa and iq tests. that's a very 20th 21st century way of thinking about this, but you tell us that the phrase female genius indeed is a term of art of sorts, but it doesn't mean what we might assume it to me in the 21st century. it's a word that's that's changing meaning and genius is a word that's changing mean and genius is is in this moment going to mean more about capacity so we would think of capacity ability to do think we might think of intellectual capacity? we don't really have a term that quite captures this but it was 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 were who were being presumed to not qualify for that category and in some ways that term is it's this is the beginning of the very beginning of the romantic period. so so it also is beginning to carry that proto-romantic notion of particularly amazing. you know, what we think of with the macarthur but but that but it's on that that sort of liminal space and so what we see in this period is we see increasingly the term being used to describe that people who are not men which is that category woman, right? we tend to think of it, but sort of a contested category, um have the same capacity have equal capacity and female genius. is that concept and i i use it because for i think a lot of
women who are interested in this moment, it's it's that doubleness of the term both meaning capacity and equal capacity and then also in some ways looking back recognizing that a number of the women who we hold up as exemplars in this period really are in some ways example of later 19th century sense because they really sort of stand out from other people. so 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 and so i wonder if you talk a bit about this intersection between what i see is sort of the history of law the history of ideas history of women, but really all framed in biography.
my sense is eliza harriet 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 a small cash of documents at the beginning. yeah, i mean she's a she's she's there's only five letters known about her now. she has a very ordinary name so i think perhaps moving forward will know no more about her four of those letter survived 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 beech. and otherwise, there's there's no papers left of her that anybody knows about right now. so yeah, the book is a biography and it's also a sort of history of this concept of how women and
gender related to the constitution and and in part that's because that's a you know, it's a there's a lot of wonderful women's history that have used different groups of women to try and make that argument but she really allows us the opportunity to to see that argument over time through her own. life and so for me that was just a nice thing. she's born in 1749. she dies in 1811 her lifespan almost perfectly maps on to this this space of expanding ideas about political representation and then the abrupt constriction and exclusion that happens in the 19th century. so her lifespan, you know, even if you were famous she has a good lifespan for the story. she's i argue. she's a significant player in creating this story in the united states, but also she gives us 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 of historiography a sort of type of writing history where you used women's example to establish women's capacity to hold 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 it goes way back in 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 she had this wonderful quote when she that is the epigraph of the book that the power of a woman's example is 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 in essence that that you're always pushing that story forward and so so in some ways by doing a biography and a history of gender, i really want to be in that tradition of the power of the example and i that's why your your book vanguard. we have it here. everybody should read it which is a you know is a i don't know if you knew it right, 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 i know this is on tape and so now i know and other folks will know too. so i that very much. it's a remarkable life story, but you want to teach us something more than this life. and and that's what i want to
ask you about next. 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 on you know, especially for students who pick up the text and expect that you know sort of an area diet engagement with the text is enough. you're 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 on as readers of the constitution is 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 us to take away? from this example this model of eliza harriet about the constitution itself. so i think for me this is you know, the book subtitle. it was called the dawn of the constitution and and i write about that. this is an age of the constitution. this is a moment when i and other people have argued the constitution is developing as a new genre linda. colley has a wonderful book recently also about this in sort of global space and the constitution we think of it as a specific document but in this moment, it's still carries the meaning of a system of government. and in this instance, it's a system of government that people are are trying to write but but a lot of the ideas that we carry with constitution are yet to be discovered and understood and it's all it's all being invented but invented not just in one year but over a much larger
period of time and this is important for me because one of the things that happens when we talk about the constitution is we bring our modern, you know, 200 years of of getting used to and developing. i sophisticated ideas about constitutions back. and so we think the space about the constitution's very small and and i believe the space about the car around the constitution as a system of government is very large. it's very contingent. it's very contested and there are in this framing period many more battles and uncertainties and tensions then we tend to think so instead of seeing this moment as a moment that has answered questions for us. actually think it's a moment that opens up all sorts of debates and and one really significant debate in this period of which the american revolution is a part is a question of what who gets represented and how in government and this is you know,
you can understand the american revolutionist part of this you can understand the french revolution coming out of this efforts in ireland to achieve independence. it's it's actually a transatlantic. a phenomenon and what that does is it opens up the understanding that the way we think about who participates in politics isn't sort of a little line that keeps going up over time and that's sometimes what we think like men get the vote and then so and so gets the vote and then so-and-so gets the vote, but what we can see in this moment is that's not it at all this period begins with most people not being able to participate in politics with exclusions being based on owning a landed property. that and religious exclusions and as 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 as lots of people thinking that they might have ideas, so i talk about this being a framing generation not framers a framing generation and that there's lots of people in that generation a few of them are inside those convention rooms, but lots of them are outside that that um space and lots of people have ideas about who should be included and who shouldn't be included if we skip ahead right 20 30 years we can see that the written constitutions become ways of exclusions of writing. free white or white male into constitutions and those and those sort of create rigid power barriers but in this period that's not yet figured out. and so that's one of the larger points of the book is to really get us back to the space where this is all open for consideration. and you know, we don't have polls so 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 a newspapers we
can find in correspondence. so, um, there's one example out of your work that where i really you just really turned on the light bulb for me. and that's the example of new jersey. so can i ask you to just for a couple minutes drill into the example of new jersey? because i like i think many folks, you know glancingly understood that women had voted early in new jersey that is early as in the 18th century and and that there is this moment then when that closes down, but it seemed to me a strong way of illustrating the point. you're just making yeah, so new jersey, i mean, this is a the fact that women and people of color vote in new jersey in this period has been it's a fact that people know about and the museum of the american revolution did a great exhibit on it recently. i know the new jersey state archives has done a lot of work and there's a number of women's
historians who have worked on it, but it's sort of floated over here like a strange fact, but let's just push it push it out and this book really tries to center it as an example of a central fact, new jersey had a constitution that state constitution that described people who could participate based on the word inhabitants. it didn't it didn't say male in fact the massachusetts constitution is pretty unique in this period in 1780 and putting mail in and under that constitution. people vote women vote people of color vote and we know this it's a little bit people are a little bit uncertain at what moment people actually go to the polls because you only know that if you can find newspaper accounts or the poll records and new jersey has that for later periods around around 1800, but we know from newspaper reports and statutes that use the word she that women and people of
color vote and they vote consistently. through to about 1811 when they're actually excluded through a change in the constitution that says that basically only men can vote white male voters white male citizens and that's pushed by claims of voter fraud people claim. you don't know what a married woman looks like from an unmarried woman or a person who is a black american from a person who's enslaved and so voter fraud is the claim. what a lot of historians think it is. is that the rising democratic republican party wants to stop women and people of color who tended to vote federalists and there are accounts and newspapers of where women and people of color pushed the election towards the federalists. so they're basically a discounted that way and so for me in the story one thing that's really important. is it shows us that at this in this space they're actually is
an example of people of women participating in government that it's not an impossibility. we sometimes think you know we say, oh no one ever thought of that. well actually not only do people think of it, but but people knew about the experience and and it's a story that's very interesting to women's activists in the 19th century. they go back and try and interview all sorts of people. so now i'm going to ask you the question that i'm afraid will lead viewers to their you know, their eyes will glaze over because i'm going to ask you about federalism, but we're gonna make it interesting. i promise because i think that there is a sort of a permanent question that we ask about the relative relevance of constitutional thought and the federal level and the national constitution and state level constitutions, and i i came
away. i'm after reading not sure quite how you how you want us to think about that in other words the voting rights of women in new jersey, um people of color in new jersey are determined by state lawmakers in new jersey not by lawmakers in washington not by the terms of the national constitution. so how do you want us to think about that? i can say in my own work i have tried to level that you know that seemingly bright line between state constitutions and federal constitutions, but i'm not sure i've succeeded, but i wanted to know more expressly sort of your take on how in this period we should think about the relationship between those two sort of systems of governance. yeah, so for me, i think what i do because in in part having written such a big book on constitutional as i was like, i'll talk a little bit less about it in this book. so i was happy to put a lot of that aside the part. that's probably most explicitly
about constitutions is you know, someone else might have made this a bigger part of their book but a couple pages where i um where i i believe that the us constitution was written in its very dramatic gender-neutral form where a person he is the vocabulary use and he is a gender-neutral term there because of eliza harriet's example, and we can show that because there were three sections of the drafting of the constitution in the summer of 1787 where gender 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 testament to the power of black women escaping from slavery becoming fugitive that the drafters couldn't even imagine thinking about that situation without she women escaping being
very big in their minds and so we have sort of three examples of that the final committee that that basically recreates the style of the constitution does a way with all the gendered references and 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 and 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 kind of female academy was a sort of inspiration in allowing the federal federal constitution to be open to the ability that women could participate and it's because the federal constitution is open to the possibility of that women can participate because it's written gender-neutral to begin with that 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 in franchised originally as women and you just bar the states from disenfranchising them. so in that sense her example, that summer is just incredibly important in this sort of critical move about how we think about the us constitution. so let's drill into her larger project because one of the points you make is that in fact, we've discounted the place of education and the how foundational ideas about education are to thinking about the constitution about citizenship. tell us more about her project in this regard and and what she does with this in terms of
institution building her own ideas and more. yeah, so so, um, going to call her eliza harriet. it's the only part of her name. she could control herself. it's actually her first and middle name. not not her last name and she's that maybe a little background is helpful. she's born in 1749. she's born in lisbon portugal. she's the daughter of fairly well to do admiralty gentry family her 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 for the wedding and as a young girl some 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 and she went to a particular type of boarding school. in chelsea french boarding school and she was at that school when john wilkes who's a famous radical and tobias smollett's daughters were there and so she sort of educated in a way that political reformers who were interested in women's education were educated and and she comes of age at a moment in england when there was a lot of ideas around sort of women having capacity being able to participate in things we can talk more about this, but this is the age of female debating societies who are debating political presentation. this is the rise of the woman as novelist sort of really the great flourishing of the novel. it's a way for women to tell their own stories and she ends up having to follow her husband most of the time because he's sort of itinerant ambitious young guy and they end up in new
york in 1786. and in 1786 in new york, she starts a french and english academy with a very ambitious curriculum and her curriculum is looks a lot like what we expect male school curriculums to look like, but she's very interested in particular in eloquence in the power of speaking out loud. and that was thought for men's schools to be so that you could be a politician or a minister or someone who spoke and so she's taking that and saying that's the thing that women should do and then she's very committed to public examinations and in that is the girls would stand up and be examined in public. they would actually read read things or give speeches and 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. and so she then gets newspaper
coverage of her. students being examined at columbia college by the professors. so this is a thing she turns out to be very good at is finding power and linking herself to power to get publicity. and and i um and then she moves to philadelphia we can talk more about her speeches, but in other things she suggests in philadelphia is a very dramatic kind of female academy french academy in philadelphia, which would be run always by a woman with a board of equally men and women but governed by majority votes so women would in essence have the vote and the woman who ran it would always be capable of getting speeches to 300 people in public and so this idea about education that is designed to take the the central idea about why women couldn't participate in politics, which is that women were not capable. they didn't have the right
capacity and so in this sense, her idea isn't just women should get educated. it's an idea about establishing female capacity and the idea is if you can show that female that women have capacity have sort of the same intellectual capacity. man, then of course they're going to get to vote because there aren't yet gender-based explicit barriers in most places. and so 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 it's not a side light claim and so her educational ambition is huge and if we read it with an eye towards understanding what she's arguing. she's making a very powerful claim about female education and the importance of that and therefore female capacity. so then if we're like, i think
some readers will be right surprised right to discover. not only the practice right but the deep commitment to a public life 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 in this period women are subject both by law and culture. certainly elite white women are subject by law and culture to curvature right and to this their subordination to husbands, but this isn't exactly how it works in her household and say a little bit more about that and sort of what you think is going on in this marriage. yeah. she gets you know, 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 correspond. all sorts of people in ireland,
but there's a lot of o'connors 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 enormous aspiration himself as a political reformer and a literary reformer and i i say in the book, you know, we don't know the the foundation of their marriage i feel in the book is very important to pull back and let the readers know where like we might romantically think oh 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 irises. that is women who were known to be eris erases that is there 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 we don't really know that in the anxiety around seduction and rape is a big anxiety and female literature at this time, but 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's sort of going to follow when he put picks up and move somewhere else but in each place
for her giving lectures and then running a school becomes away to earn money and to basically support to support both of them and it's a really important reminder about the fact that education particularly female education was one of the few avenues open to women as a way for them to have a job and to make money and to become independent. and that will be that will continue right for a very very long time into the 19th century that so many of the women activists who we come to know in the 19th century enter public life if you will by way of the classroom, and then what they do with the classroom and in the classroom, i always think when i encounter those figures, you know, what was going on in those classrooms if you were a young woman in that class, right? what were the lessons like and what were the lessons on the books? and what were the lessons that you talk from the women who were
in charge? it's a really extraordinary scenes i think to imagine um and martha. let me just say one more thing about that which is you know, it is such an important point about sort of what does it mean to be a teacher and how important education is, you know to be a teacher is always to be an example to as an example to have. kind of authority and and one of the things that you can do as a teacher is is your is your really showing capacity? you're always showing your mind. you're always encouraging other people's minds and so i think for 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're 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 and entrepreneurial and i wonder if you think that fits i've heard you talk about. following and tracing her advertisements on and i and i wonder if there is there an aspect of this that is remarkable because she's so entrepreneurial. is that is that a good word? yeah, no, she's definitely entrepreneurial. she's ambitious. she's um, she's she's you know, she's quite clever about getting people to notice her she maybe this is a good space to talk a little bit about how she gets washington to go to the lectures. she starts in philadelphia giving these lectures. she's the first woman we know about to give public lectures in the united states her initial advertisement says that she's going to be a lady giving lectures, but it doesn't say a 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 gonna 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 about what she's going to cover. and and 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 it's part of this sort of entrepreneurial aspect of her awareness of political power because washington goes to her lecture and then every newspaper reports that washington went to her lecture and she or her husband actually right sort of anonymous correspondence to the newspaper describing washington at her lecture and and she's
aware of if washington can go to her lecture and then there can be accounts 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 moves to alexandria and she will ask him to serve on the board he declined but he offers her good support. she will go to mount vernon and spend set 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 she's an entrepreneurial in that sense. and then she's always just economic on sort of in an entrepreneurial sense. her lectures are subscription lectures, which meant you were supposed to pay up front. so what that meant was that you'd you had to get the money you got the money before you gave the lecture and you tried to encourage people that you were going to have like a whole course of lectures so that you could get a big subscription up front and she does that
repeatedly in cities and granville ganter. who's the other person who he's 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 lectures you showed yourself off as a teacher and then you also sort of got some enough money to be able to rent a house and 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 or run with women printers so she's she's finding other women like her to sort of either support or be supported by well and that to
me speaks to one of the one of the benefits of the advertisement, right? is that kind of visibility, right? that doesn't even require folks to have come to the lectures to understand sort of some of what her project is about, but i want to segue to ask you about the lectures in her ideas because and tell me more about them and if you think i'm right, you know, i i think i hear echoes right of her thinking, you know all the way across the 19th century, you know, whether it's you know 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 i don't know elizabeth katie stanton in the 1860s calling for educated suffrage. am i hearing echoes and tell us
more about her thinking and and maybe some about how you think it resonates into the 19th century? yeah. i mean, i think that katie stanton and the educated suffrage is a sort of sad twist. i mean, it's 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 and reversing that very sadly white some white suffragettes at the end of the century basically start arguing only educated people should vote and that's not where that's not where she is at all but i do think her this constellation of issues is one that that she's interested in and that other women who i think are one might call them kindred spirits are interested in and and when sees that, you know, it's sort of like who how do people who knows who how do people know?
things but but she's mary wollstonecroft is a little bit younger than her by a decade and and wollstonecraft follows some of the same paths. she started out being a teacher. she hated it. actually she starts writing. her first major book in 1787 is thoughts on the education of daughter. 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 wollstonecroft then writes under a pseudonym a book called the female 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 goes on to write vindication of the rights of men and then vindication of the rights of woman and so we can see in wolstoncroft's sort of career which which although she's a little bit younger is very parallel to the time period that
eliza harriet is working the same constellation of beliefs that is that women had equal capacity that they were capable of equal that they could show that through public oratory and that therefore they'd be allowed to go to college and the political forum and in the summer of 1787. there's a commentator probably herself or her husband who writes to the newspaper about eliza harriet's lectures and they basically say this shows that women in the united states are deserting the twilight and the parlor. so those were the two areas that women traditionally were right their private bedrooms or private chambers or the parlor which suggests these sort of mixed gender salons that had been become popular, but she stands for something more than that that they will desert those for the college in the form for
education and the political arena and and she represents this belief that you can see other ambitious women aspiring to in this period and and you know, it's sort of remarkable a set of ideas that that i think is a possibility up through the 17 1790s and then and then gradually really beginning after about 1792.93 the us constitutional system political system begin to close this possibility down. i want to come back to philadelphia if i could because i want to ask you. how if at 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 female genius that might be one way, but i take us back to philadelphia because i'm thinking about you know the extraordinary work of someone like erica dunbar who is really introduced us, you know both to singular. figures like own a judge on a judge who is held enslaved by george washington and escapes or the growing kind of 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 us help me. think about that, but i know that in her many i some what
itinerant life eliza harriet will migrate south and and i wonder then how that aspect of the story might even change. i think so. i think first of all one thing that's really significant not about her so much personally, but about the moment she represents and recognizing how education is a political claim for people in this period it's is a way to understand how how she and other people experienced that that education is this idea that you are not inferior to access education is so important and we see in philadelphia in new york in most of the large cities where there were large free back black populations similar efforts at this time for people to access education and the importance of education and we see in in reverse in
communities. for example charleston where she will end up efforts to actually make sure that people of color can't access education. so everybody understands that that education is important and a little bit later than her. of course, we'll have so many significant african-american women coming out of philadelphia in particular, you know, the fourteen daughters sisters for example, who basically stand for the same constellation of issues that she does. yeah she moves moves persistently south that may be following her husband. it may be because at one point she had lived in, south carolina in charleston. she goes down through washington spend some time in alexandria and ben georgetown and and then she goes and ends her life first in charleston and then eventually in columbia, south carolina and in in particularly 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 is probably because of the advantages that her whiteness and her sort of capacity to access labor in a economy. that's very significantly built on enslaved labor allowed her and so so part of of coming to reckon with her is is understanding that about her that she was more successful probably in charleston in that space charleston's interesting in that space because you can actually charleston had a very a large free black population for the time period and the space different than what we might imagine and you can see in this in the 1790s other glimpses of finding people teaching people of color young people of color in that space.
and actually that looks like it was enough of a problem that i think 1800. they pass a law saying you can't give mental instruction. i mean that's that's like we don't care what you're calling it mental instruction before and after so that suggests that people who were running schools or who had other kinds of teaching capacities were offering opportunities to people on on sort of the both ends of the working day or both ends with their working day and you know in my heart i would love her to participate in that i can't there's no proof of that and i don't even know that that was who she was she ended her life by leaving her. need to two daughters of the person who's how she was living and they both acquired enslaved people and and took off to alabama with them. so she's there's aspects of her career that are really remarkable and then there's ways in which she is very much a white woman of that time period
willing to sort of accept the world in which she's living. we have some time for questions coming in from the audience and so one person asks, can we can we come back to her connection to george washington, right? it's right there in the title. yeah. yeah. i i think that's it that's important and and we've gotten some glimpses of that. but um, but why is george washington in the title? and and and and what does that connection? can you just make that explicit for us? yeah. so george washington, you know, he's in he's a title for multiple reasons one the four of her five letters are to him. and so the way which we find her we see her is because of her connection to him her will her awareness of that connection, right? that's a connection. she created and her capitalizing on his presence at her lectures
delaying the lecture making sure he can come and then massively publicizing his presence afterwards. so she she traded on that political capital. she was very aware of that from her mother's side of the family how that like you linked yourself to a famous man in england, and that was how you got a head and she's doing that washington's the most famous man in the united states and she's figured out how to use his political power to advance her commitments and so he's in the title for that for that reason. i mean and she's really quite remarkable. she her husband leaves her to go to edenton every time she manages to get a success. school running he takes off again. and so she she's just running a very successful school in alexandria. and he takes off for edenton. and so she says i'm gonna have to go to edenton and she writes
washington that she'd like to come and visit and talk to him about him and martha about what she should do. so first of all, this was kind of like who does she think she is, but you can see she has enormous self-confidence and then when washington invites her to come to mount vernon, she says well, she would love to come but she doesn't have a carriage and so then washington has to send the carriage to bring her back and forth. so this is not a person who's i mean she's respectful, but she does not think of herself as subordinate subordinate to washington. so he's he's you know, she she traded on that power in her own in her own lifetime. he's also in the title because you know, 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 her sort of willingness to confront him and deal with him in her own lifetime to trade on him to get
his at probation to be called tolerable also reminds us of there are real barriers for women. there are real difficulties for the success of the dream. she has and he represents that he represents that also i suspect that some of us. are 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 i'm not an originalist. that's not my project, but i am a constitutionalist and so i wonder what kind of reading of the constitution you want to encourage. from us in a time where i think originalism gets a lot of 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. yeah. i mean, you know, this is a period i really love and and i think one of the reasons i love working in this period is because so many of the things that we struggle with today so many of the 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 in this period together and rather than seeing this period as locking down one set of ideas. i i really think about it as showing us how those ideas were being struggled with at that moment in that in that time by by people who we can find some of them we find easier than others right pretty easy to find george washington harder to find other people but one of the things that i think historians
have begun to do really really well is work to recover more lives and more lives of people who occupy the same space as some people whose records were much stronger in terms of their written record and really bring those bring those people back to life and understand that the system that we inherit is made up of all those people and all of those people's ambitions, i think for me honestly martha, there's a there's a way i mean, you know me, i'm always a little nervous to go out and speak and things like that and so for me personally the way that she imagined the importance of women standing up in public the way that mary wollstonecroft and catherine mcauley right about women standing up and in public the way that so many women who followed them. we're willing to go and stand up in public to literally put their their and their body out there
as an example of the type of capacity of who they represented. i found that super inspirational and and i think made me a little bit more comfortable about the importance of of women sort of putting them out putting themselves out there being willing to speak in public being willing to take on positions of political power because i do think that 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 in i think that brings us, you know right back around to your choice to approach this question about women gender and the constitutional era through biography, right? it makes the point right that it's i think biography is just continues to be such an important and powerful vehicle right for not only framing the
history right for reshaping our imaginations right about who we are about where we come from and and it isn't there isn't one answer to that even in this even in this critical and much written about period we have one more minute. so before i thank you and the national archives you want to tell us what else you're working on because i know you've got other projects. yeah. no, i think i'm just gonna continue to um sort of poke around in in this period i have to say i i love this period there's so many questions and and i really think the more that we can learn about this framing generation. not just the people inside that room in philadelphia, but all the people who really participated in the framing moment in this country, you know, the better legacy we have to understand this period so i'm going to continue to find maybe i'll find somebody just as interesting as her to write on
next. we're sure you will i want to thank you mary sarah builder for this time with us at the national archives. i just want to hold up this wonderful book female genius and encouraged folks to to buy it to borrow it but most importantly to read it because it really is new powerful and i think important for thinking about who we are in the 21st century as a nation and as a body politic so i get to say thank you on behalf of the national archives. mary is really a pleasure to be with you this afternoon. thanks martha. that's always such a pleasure to getn.org.