In the Company of Women

Photo courtesy of Catherine AllgorPhoto courtesy of Catherine Allgor
By Catherine Allgor

One of the most potent delights I anticipated in September 2002, when I arrived to take my place as an Evelyn Davis Green Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, was conversation. I imagined deep discussions with my fellow fellows, a group of scholars engaged in disciplines and projects far afield from mine. And I could even chat with my former graduate school advisor and always-mentor Nancy F. Cott, who had recently become the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library.

But the woman I was really there to “talk” with was Dolley Madison, the wife of James Madison, who created the role of what would be known as First Lady. I was at the Radcliffe Institute to work on a political biography of Dolley, which would be the first full-length scholarly treatment of her life. Little did I know that my stay at the Institute would bring another woman into my life: Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts. Mary Cutts was Dolley’s niece and the author of two unpublished memoirs of her famous aunt. One of the memoirs existed only on microfilm at the Library of Congress, but the other was at the Schlesinger Library.

I will never forget sitting in the Carol Pforzheimer Reading Room, in the company of established scholars and Harvard students, quietly engaged in what was my own passion—the pursuit of American women and their pasts. I opened the box to see Mary Cutts’s own manuscript, in her best handwriting, carefully bound in two sections, tied with a ribbon, and obviously prepared with care. This had been her “fair” copy, intended for Mary Crowninshield Silsbee Sparks to pass on to her husband, an editor and the president of Harvard University, Jared Sparks. (Eventually, however, Mary Cutts settled on Henry D. Gilpin to shepherd what she called her “little undertaking” to publication.)

The manuscript had certainly been known and used by others who wrote about Dolley. But they had treated it simply as a repository of facts, regarding it as the closest we would ever get to Dolley’s autobiographical voice. That is partly true: Dolley’s voice and hands are all over the narration, because most of the action related in the document took place in her early life, decades before Mary Cutts’s birth. But scholarly attention to Cutts’s effort reveals that the story of her aunt is as much about Cutts as about Dolley Madison. Of course, it was fascinating to pull apart the various lies and prevarications that the two women crafted—Dolley’s real name (or not), her relationship with her difficult father, the sorrowful life of her wayward son. But more than that, a picture emerges of Cutts herself, a woman of the 19th century, trying to make history.

Born in 1814, Mary Cutts was the unmarried daughter of Dolley’s favorite sister, Anna Payne Cutts. She came of age during a shift in gender roles in America. At the time that she was constructing her memoir asserting Dolley’s place in history, the ideal of the “perfect lady” was a happy domestic creature content to be an Angel of the Hearth. But Dolley had been an elite political wife of the 18th century, commanding her famous drawing rooms with her elaborate ensembles and charming gregariousness. Nineteenth-century “true women” avoided the dirty work of politics, but Dolley had plunged deep into political waters. Mary Cutts’s struggles to reconcile this contradiction revealed more than she intended. The conflicts in Aunt Dolley’s life mirrored her own, as she claimed her right to a voice as a historian. Sadly, Cutts never saw her efforts come to fruition: She died in 1856, at the age of 41 and on the eve of publication. Her niece, Lucia B. Cutts, published parts of Mary’s manuscript in 1886, editing and bowdlerizing it to suit her own Victorian sensibilities.

A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation was published by Henry Holt in 2006, and now Mary Cutts has her say. The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison, came out this year from the University of Virginia Press. The volume contains both halves of Cutts’s memoir, transcribed, edited, and annotated, along with essays that interpret and frame the documents. As I hold her work, finally between hard covers, I reflect on all the women who helped to bring her into the light, including the careful staff at the Schlesinger Library and Nancy Cott, to whom the book is dedicated.


Catherine Allgor RI ’03 is a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, where she holds a Presidential Chair. She will become the Skotheim Director of Education at the Huntington Library in Pasadena in February 2013. Her biography, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, was made into an American Experience film, Dolley Madison. She edited The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison.

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