First Ladies of the Republic
Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role
Published by: NYU Press
How the three inaugural First Ladies defined the role for future generations, and carved a space for women in America
America’s first First Ladies—Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison—had the challenging task of playing a pivotal role in defining the nature of the American presidency to a fledgling nation and to the world. In First Ladies of the Republic, Jeanne Abrams breaks new ground by examining their lives as a group. From their visions for the future of the burgeoning new nation and its political structure, to ideas about family life and matrimony, these three women had a profound influence on one another’s views as they created the new role of presidential spouse.
Martha, Abigail and Dolley walked the fine line between bringing dignity to their lives as presidential wives, and supporting their husbands’ presidential agendas, while at the same time, distancing themselves from the behavior, customs and ceremonies that reflected the courtly styles of European royalty that were inimical to the values of the new republic. In the face of personal challenges, public scrutiny, and sometimes vocal criticism, they worked to project a persona that inspired approval and confidence, and helped burnish their husbands’ presidential reputations.
The position of First Lady was not officially authorized or defined, and the place of women in society was more restricted than it is today. These capable and path-breaking women not only shaped their own roles as prominent Americans and “First Ladies,” but also defined a role for women in public and private life in America.
"Accessible and entertaining, First Ladies of the Republic offers readers a refreshing and often perceptive view of its subjects. Abrams is thoroughly versed in the voluminous literature on women’s and gender history, employing her understanding of that literature to good advantage…this is a compelling effort, and one that historians and the general public will profit from reading" ~American Historical Review
"Abrams’s argument draws much-needed attention to the ways in which each of these figures was dedicated to preserving the political and personal legacies of her husband…Its well-written and accessible prose will likely appeal to a popular audience as well…Abrams’s work… finds its most important contribution in defining the ways in which these women infused their marital partnerships with political power and her argument about these three women’s collective, rather than individual, influence on this critical American role." ~Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
"Abrams presents an in-depth social and political history of three of the First Ladies of the Revolutionary generation. Through this history, the author fills in gaps in our understanding of these three women and their positions as consorts, advisors, caretakers, and protectors of the first presidents…makes a useful contribution to early American history in its portrayal of these First Ladies and can be enjoyed by the general reader as well as the scholar. This book does much to keep early American political and social history alive." ~H-Net Reviews
"Abrams' astute analysis of how Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison shaped the political culture of their times is a welcome contribution to the historiography of the early republic and women's history. Three first ladies who in their time could not even vote exercised intelligence and initiative to transcend boundaries between private and public spheres. How they did it will attract readers inside and outside the academy's walls." ~Alan M. Kraut, University Professor of History,American University, and Past President, Organization of American Historians
"Jeanne Abramss First Ladies of the Republic offers a compelling new approach to understanding the meaning and significance of the position of 'First Lady.' Examining the lives of Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, she shows how these spirited women invented this new role from scratch to accommodate the demands of a new republican government . Written in an engaging and informative manner, the book combines recent research on early American women's history with a deep knowledge of the women's own lives and words.-" ~Rosemarie Zagarri,George Mason University, author of Revolutionary Backlash
"Abrams provides a much-needed new approach to understanding the significance of the position that Martha Washington (17311802), Abigail Adams (17441818), and Madison once occupied.[She] gives life to Martha, Abigail, and Dolley, illuminating the importance of their position to American history...compelling storytelling." ~STARRED Library Journal
"Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madisontogether, these three women created the uniquely American role of 'first lady.' Jeanne Abrams describes the ways in which these women used their role as conventional wives to carve out a place for themselves in the political life of the new nation. The book is well written and engaging, and will appeal to anyone interested in the gender roles and politics of the founding generation." ~Rebecca Tannenbaum,Yale University
"Abrams contributes a substantive study of the first three (precedent-setting) First LadiesEarnest, balanced, insightful, well researched, and browsable, this is a rich source of Information." ~Choice
"Abrams sets this...entertaining book against the background of the post-revolutionary era, when American ideals and traditions were being formed." ~Denver Post
"A fine introduction… Abrams fully tells each woman’s story as an individual biography, relying on both primary and secondary sources … [and] it is instructive to see their stories juxtaposed." ~Edith Gelles, William and Mary Quarterly
"Other books examine specific First Ladies, but Abrams convincingly contends that considering these three together provides an important look at the evolving role of women during the early republicFirst Ladies of the Republic demonstrates that studies of early American presidential politics must also analyze the work of First Ladies." ~Journal of American History
"In the last half century weve seen some accomplished and powerful First Ladies, but Jeanne Abrams shows that the potential for presidential spouses to exert influence existed from the beginning of the republic. Using letters and other records of Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison, Abrams presents convincing evidence that all three women took part in what too often has been considered a strictly male provincethe public political sphere. In a nuanced and expertly articulated argument, she shows that although all three were limited by traditional constraints on women of their time, and although they lacked both the vote and ability to hold office, they managed to play a substantial role in the nations early political life. The book is a commendable addition to our understanding of both a period in American history and a very visible part of our political system." ~Betty Boyd Caroli,author of Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made a President
"Accessible and entertaining, First Ladies of the Republic offers readers a refreshing and often perceptive view of its subjects. Abrams is thoroughly versed in the voluminous literature on women’s and gender history, employing her understanding of that literature to good advantage." ~Canada and the United States