Martha Saxton is Professor of History and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies and Elizabeth W. Bruss Reader, Emerita at Amherst College. This interview is based on her new book The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).
JF: What led you to write The Widow Washington?
MS: I wrote the Widow Washington because I discovered in researching my last book that Mary Washington and her son George had conflict over money and property like many other widows and eldest sons in Virginia. I was puzzled, given his reputation for probity. Then I discovered that historians, based on very scarce evidence, have concluded that she was a selfish person and a bad mother. I wanted to know more.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Widow Washington?
MS: Mary Washington, orphaned early and then widowed early, had a long and difficult life. She struggled successfully to give her five children a good start in life and imparted to her first child, George, many of his most impressive qualities: persistence, stoicism and resilience, and much of the philosophy by which he lived.
JF: Why do we need to read The Widow Washington?
MS: It’s important to recognize that our founding father had a strong and influential mother. It’s also important to get a sense of the violence of slavery that permeated eighteenth-century Virginia and how it blunted the empathy of slave owners like Mary Washington.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MS: In college I thought that history was the most comprehensive approach to studying the world around me, and I majored in it. I went on to graduate study some years later when I needed more training to complete a book on women’s moral values in early American communities (published as “Being Good”) which I had started.
JF: What is your next project?
SR: I am not sure about my next project.
JF: Thanks, Martha!