Reflections on Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership at #oah2016


Sarah Childress Polk

We were very pleased to have Elise Leal, a Ph.D candidate in American history at Baylor University, writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence.  Leal’s research examines the relationship between evangelicalism, social reform, and childhood in the early nineteenth century with a particular focus on the American Sundays school movement.  Enjoy her post!–JF

As a newbie to the OAH, I was pleased to discover that the conference offered a range of fascinating panel choices. I mainly attended sessions on American religious history, since that is my primary field of research. I also took a tour of the American Antiquarian Society on Saturday morning, which I’ll be writing about soon. However, for my last day at the conference, I chose to attend a panel slightly outside my wheelhouse, entitled Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership: Reconsidering the Power of the “First Lady.”

In this session, presenters Amy Greenberg of Penn State University and Stacey Robertson of Central Washington University made the provocative claim that historians need to broaden their definition of political involvement in order to account for the informal, but highly significant ways that women influenced antebellum politics. While women could not hold formal political office or cast votes, they wrote political pamphlets, attended meetings, organized campaigns, and presided over political debates within their homes. Greenberg and Robertson both contended that these activities were crucial in shaping American politics, and they supported this argument using two compelling case studies.

Greenberg began the session by analyzing the political activities of Sarah Childress Polk, wife of the 11th President of the United States, James Polk. Greenberg argued that Sarah Polk was one of the first truly political first ladies and that understanding the way Polk used her role can transform historical interpretations of female political power in the antebellum period. Polk exercised political influence in a variety of ways. For example, she served as her husband’s private secretary and created special spaces in the White House for political discussion, such as when she converted the Yellow Room into the Red Room specifically to provide ladies with a place to discuss politics. Polk’s political influence was so well known at the time that she was called “Mrs. President.”


Jesse Ann Benton Fremont

Greenberg argued that Polk actively distanced herself from the growing feminist movement and adopted a lifestyle of female submission. Because she presented herself as an extension of her husband, Polk was less threatening to the patriarchal establishment, which in turn enabled her to exercise unusually high amounts of political influence. Sadly, as Greenberg points out, Polk’s willingness to accept wifely submission as a means of exercising informal power also led to her virtual erasure from the scholarly narrative, which prefers to focus on the rise of antebellum feminism.

Similar to Greenberg’s presentation, Robertson’s paper showed how it was virtually impossible for a man to navigate the treacherous waters of antebellum politics without a capable wife to guide him. Shifting our focus from the White House, Robertson analyzed the political activities of Jesse Fremont, wife of the first Republican presidential candidate of 1856, John Fremont. Robertson described how Jesse Fremont, who was much more politically capable than her husband, emerged as a leading figure of abolitionism in the 1840s and 1850s. She wrote compelling anti-slavery publications, organized women’s participation in political rallies, and served as her husband’s main campaign manager and political strategist. Her actions were so inspiring that women across the country formed female political societies in her honor during the 1856 election, often adopting names such as “Jesse’s Tribe” or “Jesse’s Band.” Robertson argued that these activities fall within the category of informal political influence, substantiating her larger claim that the scholarly definition of political activity needs to be widened. She did assert, however, that abolitionist activities provided a more direct way for women to engage in politics and that Jesse Fremont led the way in forging this radical path.

As pointed out by commentators Matt Gallman of University of Florida and Susan Johnson of University of Wisconsin–Madison, the idea that historians need to widen the definition of politics is not new. Scholars like Catherine Allgor and Rosemary Zagarri helped pioneer this argument, so perhaps Greenberg’s and Robertson’s main accomplishment was providing additional examples that highlight the need broaden our definitions further. However, Greenberg and Robertson still broke new ground by using elite female examples. As Gallman noted, previous women’s histories often focus on reconstructing middle-class experiences, leaving high-profile women like Fremont and Polk relegated to the sidelines. Greenberg and Robertson showed that, with proper care, historians can use elite figures to effectively support larger scholarly claims that are also applicable to ordinary women’s experiences.

In sum, this was an insightful and thought-provoking panel. Attending this session reinforced the value of stepping outside my specific area of interest and engaging in scholarly discussions on unfamiliar topics. When I attend the OAH again, no longer a rookie, I’ll keep this lesson in mind.

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