Martha Washington: What We Know (and What We Don’t Know)

Allison Lange
Allison Lange
Wentworth Institute of Technology

Historian Allison K. Lange is associate professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where her work explores the intersection of gender and power in US history. For the 19th Amendment centennial, Lange served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. She also curated exhibitions at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, as well as a website for Melinda Gates’ Pivotal Ventures called Truth Be Told: Stories of Black Women’s Fight for the Vote. Professor Lange is the author of the book Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

 

Overview

June 24, 2022, 4:00 pm

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We often hear about the founding fathers of the United States, but we don’t hear nearly enough about the founding mothers. Yet George Washington might never have become the first president if he had not married Martha, who was a wealthy widow when they met. Martha Washington facilitated her husband’s rise to power, created the job of the first lady, and set the tone for the political gatherings she hosted for local and international officials. After her death, she became an icon who represented the ideal woman for many Americans: a woman who hosted her husband’s political gatherings and not one who demanded equal rights. Washington and her portrait were so popular that she became the first–and as of April 2022–the only woman who has ever appeared on US paper currency. Together, we will learn how Martha Washington and her legacy shaped the nation.

 

Recommended Reading:

First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role, by Jeanne E. Abrams

You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, by Alexis Coe

Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, by Allison Lange

(Note the chapter: “Dominant Images of Gender and Power in Antebellum America”)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What role do you think Martha Washington played in the nation’s founding?
  2. Why do you think Washington became so iconic during the late nineteenth century?
  3. How does your understanding of Washington compare to the ways that nineteenth-century Americans thought of her?

 

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