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Parlor Politics

Catherine Allgor (2000) 

In Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, Catherine Allgor examines the early development of society in Washington, D.C. and the often hidden—but not insignificant—unofficial roles women played during the formative years of the nation. Allgor researched private letters, diaries, invitation lists, and calling cards to show how these early Washington ladies worked behind the scenes to help lay the groundwork for a new republic.

Allgor argues that “[d]uring the capital’s first thirty years, [Thomas] Jefferson and his followers had engaged in an experiment to construct the unworkable, a government of republic virtue, an antipolitical, antipower political power. The republican obsession with public virtue and fear of corruption meant that public men rejected the connections, the acting on mutual interests that makes politics work. However, government and politics needed the kind of face-to-face interactions that republicans abhorred.”

Jefferson eventually realized that he needed the ladies’ help. The early women of Washington, often the wives of the politically powerful, used an elaborate system of formal social calls, salons, soirees, and balls to facilitate an atmosphere where the nation’s earliest political connections could be made. While their men maintained their republican purity, the women became the early “influence peddlers,” getting jobs filled and laws passed.

Two of the most notable characters who used this method of social networking were Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams. They used their events to lobby and campaign as their spouses were unwilling and unable to do. It was possible to make proposals or suggestions as well as make decisions that would be impossible or awkward in an official venue. The result of these early networks and the efforts of early Washington wives was the creation of a civic culture that enabled Washington to become a significant center of power.

Those who enjoyed reading Parlor Politics may also appreciate Ten Years in Washington by Mary Clemmer Ames. Women’s roles in Washington politics have continued to expand over the years. In 1922, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Senate was Rebecca Felton. Learn more about the women who have served in the Senate.