Award-winning constitutional historian Mary Sarah Bilder delivers a three-part educational series to provide a deeper understanding of Founding Era. The provocative set of lectures, titled The Lady and George Washington: Female Genius in the Age of the Constitution, argues that the Constitution was drafted in an extraordinary moment of female progress. The life and career of the remarkable Eliza Harriot O'Connor, first American female lecturer and principal of a female academy, will guide this exploration of the ways women and men of the framing era understood female intellect and imagined female political capacity.
Mary Sarah Bilder is the Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School where she teaches in the areas of property, trusts and estates, and American legal and constitutional history. Her recent work has focused on the history of the Constitution, James Madison and the Founders, the history of judicial review, and colonial and founding era constitutionalism. She is the author of Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard University Press) which won the Bancroft Prize, considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history, and was a finalist for the 2017 George Washington Prize.
September 20: Female Genius
The early 1780s saw the growing awareness of learned women across Europe and a rising insistence on women's education. In 1786, Eliza Harriot O'Connor opened a boarding school for young ladies in New York, a few years after George Washington heard a lecture urging America's embrace of female genius and education. This cosmopolitan, transnational enlightenment vision of female capacity contained the foundations for women’s political participation.
October 11: The Forum and the College
In May 1787, George Washington heard Eliza Harriot O’Connor lecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon thereafter she proposed a female-governed Academy with a female lecturer, which was met with resistance. The Constitution was drafted amidst these contrasting visions of female capacity; its final language intriguingly, and perhaps even deliberately, tilted the document towards Eliza Harriot O'Connor’s perspective.
November 29: The Rights of Women
In 1788, Eliza Harriot O’Connor visited George Washington at Mount Vernon to obtain advice as she left her new female academy in Alexandria to join her husband in the south. The 1790s saw continued steps towards the recognition of the equal capacity and status of women: women voted in New Jersey; female-governed schools began to prosper; the “rights of women” and Mary Wollstonecraft were debated seriously in newspapers. And yet, the economic and legal realities of coverture proved a constant challenge. As laws began to explicitly limit the franchise to men, the writing of the Constitution in a time of expanding ideas of female capacity was forgotten.