Joseph Wood, Dolley (Payne) Todd Madison, 1817, Oil on canvas. Virginia Historical Society, 1967.14.
Center for Women's History
Women’s history is American history. Bring it into your classroom with our new curriculum!
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Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation
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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
Margaret Bayard Smith
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