A Preview of "American Patriarchy"
Updated: Sep 2
It's been almost eight years since I first wrote and published "American Poverty" from my "Life in America" series. Yet I have not been idle of course. Since beginning the Legendary Women of World History series with "Boudicca: Britain's Queen of the Iceni" in March, 2014, that series has expanded into 13 published biographies and had various books from it translated into half a dozen or more languages. 32 audiobooks are available on Audible now spanning all four available languages: English, Spanish, German, and French.
With publication of "Eleanor of Aquitaine" in early June, 2022, I have shifted my work back to American history. The next LWWH biography will be about Abigail Smith Adams, the first Second Lady of the United States and second First Lady of the United States. But before I delve into that research with my usual fervour, I am taking time right now to write two more books for Life in America: "Founding Mothers" and "American Patriarchy."
Here is my second essay from part two of "American Patriarchy."
Essay Two: Hostess as the American Ideal for Women
When we first think about what a woman is and what her role in society is, many descriptions come to mind: wife, mother, housekeeper, helpmate to her husband. Yet rarely do we realize that one word encapsulates all of these: HOSTESS.
Hostess is a woman who welcomes others into her home and makes them feel at home there. She takes care of the people near her, making sure each person has his wants and needs satisfied. The children in her space are kind, cordial, well-behaved, and never too loud or boisterous. Everyone always has plenty to eat and usually served the finest food and drink the household is capable of providing. A hostess augments her husband’s reputation (she is almost always married) and bolsters his career at every turn. She is gracious and keeps her cool no matter what happens.
This is the ideal woman. A good hostess lives to serve others. She never considers her own wants or needs, never exhibits personal ambition outside of the domestic sphere. The home is her domain to rule and she never steps outside of it except at her husband’s bidding and in service to his desires.
In American history, the model hostess is first embodied in first lady Dolley Madison. She is most famous for protecting the portrait of George Washington that hung in the White House when it was threatened with destruction by the Burning of Washington DC on the 12th of August, 1814. What we forget in the 21st century is that saving the presidential portrait was simply one moment in the life of the most popular and loved first lady of the 19th century.
As described in my biography of her in my book “Founding Mothers,” Dolley Payne Todd Madison was the ultimate Washingtonian hostess. She was the role model against whom American women have been compared against and largely judged against since first coming into the public eye in 1801 when her husband James was named Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state. She created our concept of a presidential wife, of the first lady of the United States as hostess in chief of the country. Other first ladies would follow her example, but no one, not even Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy would be as successful nor as loved as she was. Madison’s accomplishments were many and deserve considerable attention – which I hope you will give her by reading the chapter about her in “Founding Mothers.”
In being the sublime Washingtonian hostess and precedent-setting first lady, Dolley Madison set the standard by which women, even today, remain judged, even if people have barely heard of her. Born before England’s Queen Victoria (credited with establishing the “cult of domesticity”), she was the ultimate American wife to a politically very powerful man, embodying feminine “virtues” so successfully under patriarchal standards that nearly all women born since are a failure in comparison. It probably helped that for most of her life she owned Africans and African American slaves who did the hard work for her, giving her the comforts of a wealthy and extremely prosperous home life devoid of the intensive labor required to maintain her home.
It’s easy to be a gracious hostess when your main cares in the world center upon your social life.
Even I feel the pressure to live up to Dolley Madison’s example.
Despite my general lack of abilities towards domestic pursuits, I still want a beautiful home to entertain others in (if anyone actually wants to come to my home). I oddly delight in dishes, in purchasing and using matched pieces from my favourite Pfaltzgraff dinnerware patterns. In December, I love putting out “winter berry” pattern dishes, especially those with red cardinals on them, as a way to decorate for the holidays and celebrate my birthday. Dish towels synchronized to each holiday and season fill my kitchen. Just because I am very poor does not mean I do not want a beautiful and elegant home. Unconsciously I want to be the hostess that Dolley Madison was. I want to be as loved by her family and general society as she was.
But can I ever have those things yet still be true to myself as an intellectual, as someone who loves learning and wants everyone else to feel as excited as I do when given the opportunity to learn something new? Must women always have to choose between a happy and prosperous social and home life and also an enriching intellectual life? Must it always be, if only between the lines, taboo for women to be highly educated, to run businesses, to wield Power? Why must a woman always be confined to the domestic sphere? Why am I not allowed to succeed at both?
In choosing my love of learning, I am alone. Must this always be?
For more information about Dolley Payne Todd Madison, see:
The White House: Dolley Payne Todd Madison
First Ladies: Dolley Madison
White House Historical Association: Dolley Madison