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Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. (Reviews).

Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. By Catherine Allgor (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000. 299 pp.).

Catherine Allgor has written a book about the "ladies" (and one "tart") of Washington in the early days of the republic. Her focus is the power wielded by a ruling elite, the wives of powerful men in government. Four women stand out in her study: the Queen-like and turban-topped Dolley Payne Todd Madison; Margaret Bayard Smith, a political insider for forty-four years; the always elegant, harp-playing Louisa Catherine Adams; and the infamous Margaret Eaton, the unlikely wife of Andrew Jackson's secretary of war, whose very presence in the Washington social scene caused such a scandal that the President was compelled to seek the resignations of his entire cabinet. Allgor is interested in the commonality among these four women (or in Peggy Eaton's case what she failed to have in common with the others). From this, Allgor draws a portrait of elite women's political work in the federal city.

She begins, however, with the perfect foil: Thomas Jefferson. Interested in eradicating all signs of the Federalist "Court," Jefferson arrived in Washington with a different game plan: no more levees, no more gaudy displays or dress, and a relaxation of the diplomatic protocol treating foreign ambassadors as dignitaries. He inaugurated a new republican style, and as the master puppeteer, Jefferson controlled all social events at his home with what Allgor describes as a "feminine style." He was, in her words, a "perfect lady." Jefferson, Allgor argues, imitated the manners of a manipulative housewife; he spoke softly, gossiped with his female friends, and only had intimate dinner parties, which he alone orchestrated, pulling the emotional strings of his unsuspecting guests.

Well, almost. Unfortunately, Allgor's Jefferson is a caricature. For some reason, she seems not to understand that Jefferson's rules of gentility (his softness, gentleness, refined manners) were an accepted part of the culture of sensibility. It is as easy to envision Jefferson as an English lord of the manor, combining informal and formal kinds of social interaction. His desire to ride alone, like a lord visiting his tenants, carry on casual chats with the locals, dress down, and yet entertain his guests with fine wine and intelligent conversation, are not necessarily feminine as much as a genteel style. But, Jefferson's faux feminine style is a ruse; Allgor is really trying to demonstrate how his republican model of society failed. While Jefferson tried to be all things to all people (i.e., "We are all men, we are all women"), he simply paled in comparison to his female successors.

Allgor's Dolley Madison can do no wrong. And it is easy to see why Allgor admires Dolley and Louisa Catherine (Mrs. John Quincy) Adams: these are women who consistently capture the center of attention. They are consummate performers, political actresses who dress the part, wearing elaborate costumes, but without displaying too obvious signs of aristocratic excess. Both First Ladies had socially inept husbands: James Madison was of small stature, silent in crowds, a shriveled apple of man, according to satirist Washington Irving; John Quincy was austere, bookish, and easily made enemies. Saddled with such egghead mates, what were these women to do? Like the wives of academics in the 1950s, they took charge and created a social personality for their ambitious spouses. Dolley redecorated the presidential home, organized large and small social events, and made herself the heart of Washington society. Louisa Catherine made her mark during the divisive presidential campaign season of 1824. Through visiting, holding elaborate balls and weekly socials--often featuring musical performances--Louisa Catherine stole the spotlight, dazzling members of Congress and their wives, and socially out maneuvering her husband's competitors. Playing the female role to the "hilt," as Allgor explains, these women garnered social influence and political power.

What Allgor tries to recreate is the social geography of Washington, that is, how women's visiting patterns, social performances, and "patronage peddling" provided an informal social arena in which elite women operated and reinforced the personal ties that fashioned an emerging political elite. Margaret Bayard Smith was a longtime player, who arrived in Washington during Jefferson's administration, and used her contacts to advance the careers of family members and other acquaintances in her social circle. While Allgor's survey of women's public activities clearly demonstrates the connection between the social and political realms, she perhaps overstates her case when she contends that patronage was only "women's work." Smith worked the behind-the-scenes game of patronage even when her husband was out of favor with the current administration; and yet, men, despite the pose of disinterestedness, engaged equally in this game. If Allgor had actually done a comparative study of how men and women peddled, distribut ed, and called in favors, her argument would be more persuasive.

The "Eaton affair" stirred up such a clamor because Margaret Eaton lacked the necessary moral and class cachet to rule Washington's social scene. Her close relationship to Jackson, a widower, placed her in a powerful position, and many feared she might become his social hostess. Margaret was a social outcast even before Jackson's election and her sudden marriage to his most trusted adviser ruffled the feathers of more stately cabinet wives. At Jackson's inaugural ball, Floride Calhoun, the wife of the Vice President, refused to acknowledge her presence. Over time, all elite Washingtonians had to choose sides: they would either join the "Ladies" and shun Eaton, or side with Jackson, who desperately tried to defend Margaret's honor. This nasty business ended with all the participants exiled. The Eatons went to Spain, and those in Jackson's cabinet who sided with Floride went packing. Disgruntled cabinet members exposed the whole affair in angry letters to the press, conjuring more hatred for the "tart," Peggy E aton.

Allgor's study tells an entertaining tale. She succeeds in showing how elite women exercised power in Washington. She avoids calling them "feminists," as she is right to do, and reveals that office seeking required ambitious men to fashion a likeable social persona. Wives, and their informal networks, played a crucial role in this process. Unburdened by any complicated theories of gender, Allgor's argument extends Paula Baker's famous thesis, "The Domestication of Politics," backwards in time, demonstrating again how elite white women had influence long before they had rights. (1) While Dolley Madison did not invent ice cream, she and Lousia Catherine Adams did help to create a style, becoming in that sense the first female celebrities of the republic.


(1.) Baker identifies the post-bellum era as the decisive period of domesticating politics. See Paula Baker, "The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920," American Historical Review 89 (June 1984): 620-47.
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Author:Isenberg, Nancy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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