Center for Women's History

Women’s history is American history. Bring it into your classroom with our new curriculum!

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Major support for Women and the American Story provided by



Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation



Curriculum website and learning experience made possible through a grant from



This program is supported as part of the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.



Lead support for New-York Historical's teacher programs provided by




Module 1 - Unofficial Politician: Dolley Madison in Washington

“Unofficial Politician” focuses on Dolley Madison and the important role she played in the political life of the early federal period. At the time, partisan divide ran so deep it sometimes ended in physical fights, even duels. Dolley Madison was not officially a politician, of course, but she was a woman of great political savvy. She used the power of her position and her personality to offer a new way for politicians, always male, to interact and bridge the disagreements and rivalries that separated them.

This unit explores Dolley Madison’s life from childhood to old age—her Quaker upbringing and later slave ownership, her first marriage and traumatic early loss, her friendships, her money problems, and her relationship with her troubled son. But the central focus is Dolley Madison as the astute political partner of James Madison during his terms as secretary of state and president. It offers a new way to look at the nation’s early history, and at the part women played in bringing the Constitution to life on the ground, even as laws and attitudes restricted their freedom. And it provides a lens for looking more broadly at the lives of women in the early republic—not only elite white women like Dolley, but the women of different races and classes who interacted with her as well.

Suggested Activities & Discussion Questions

Life Stories

Dolley Madison
James Madison
Margaret Bayard Smith
Eliza Brock


Resource 1: Coverture
Resource 2: Political Battles
Resource 3: Lessons Learned
Resource 4: Parties and Politics
Resource 5: Fashion and Politics
Resource 6: Saving Washington
Resource 7: Paul Jennings’s Account of the British Attack
Resource 8: Washington Burns
Resource 9: Write to Me

“Unofficial Politician” Resource Library

Creative: Tronvig Group