First Ladies of the Republic

Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role

328 pages

March, 2018

ISBN: 9781479886531



Add to Cart Available: 2/9/2018

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Jeanne E. Abrams is Professor at the University Libraries and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, where she is also Director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, and Curator of the Beck Archives, Special Collections.  She is the author of Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health (NYU Press, 2013).

All books by Jeanne E. Abrams

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.


  • “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 republic…First Ladies of the Republic demonstrates that studies of early American presidential politics must also analyze the work of First Ladies.”

    Journal of American History

  • "Abrams provides a much-needed new approach to understanding the significance of the position that Martha Washington (1731–1802), Abigail Adams (1744–1818), 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

  • "Abrams sets this...entertaining book against the background of the post-revolutionary era, when American ideals and traditions were being formed."

    Denver Post

  • "Abrams contributes a substantive study of the first three (precedent-setting) First Ladies…Earnest, balanced, insightful, well researched, and browsable, this is a rich source of Information."


  • "In the last half century we’ve 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 province—the 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 nation’s 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

  • "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 Abrams’s 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

  • "Martha Washington,  Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison—together, 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