Traditional textbooks have often relegated the history of women to the sidebars of the page or ignored their stories all together. But not in my classroom at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California, where the stories of women take center stage in my U.S. History class. Because we teach chronologically, colonial history and the founding of the new nation are some of the earliest lessons of the year, so my students get to know Martha Washington early on.
My goal for my students is to have them understand the complexities and nuances of American women’s history, and Martha Washington makes the ideal lens. I wanted to create lessons that would bring Mount Vernon to the classroom and give students the chance to look critically at colonial women’s history through three key lessons: private versus public spheres for women, coverture and colonial family ethic, and slavery. The Life Guard Teacher Fellowship awarded to me by Mount Vernon allowed me to utilize the rich resources available at the estate and library.
Women’s history is often delineated into public and private spheres. Recently, historians have been exploring how these two seemingly separate worlds interacted and influenced one another. My goal is to have my students, in roles as the next generation of historians, analyze the primary sources for insight and clues. Reading the letters to and from Martha Washington helps students to puzzle out an interpretation of colonial history.
During George’s presidency, Martha held Friday evening drawing-room gatherings at the couple’s temporary home in Philadelphia. Both men and women regularly attended. This evening gathering, known as the Republican Court, was a symbolic gesture in which the male-dominated world of politics intertwined with the private female-dominated world of the family sphere. Though Martha Washington became friendly with prominent women such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren, she often bristled against the expectations placed upon her by the public. Her letters to family members, especially to her niece Frances “Fanny” Basset, demonstrate this tension. Students examine these letters to shape a portrait of Martha Washington and how she both conformed to, as well as dissented, against the limitations placed on her. When reading Martha Washington’s actual words, they get it.
Students then move on to learning about colonial family ethic and coverture to understand the constraints under which free women in the 18th century lived. Governing their lives throughout the various geographic regions of Britain’s North American colonies was a system whose four basic principles were marriage, complementary roles for helpmeets (spouses), child bearing and child rearing, and literacy. Remarriage after the death of a spouse was expected, because too many unmarried women of childbearing age was viewed as destabilizing to a community.
Coverture was the system of laws governing women’s place in society and ensuring it was subordinate to that of men. Widow Martha Custis understood this pressure when she married George Washington. My students read letters from Widow Custis acting as the business manager to her deceased husband’s estate and a letter in which Mrs. Washington provides her niece Fanny advice about whether or not she should marry. This comparison allows students to create a nuanced picture of Martha Washington under colonial family ethic and coverture and also see the same woman shrewdly conducting business and pushing the boundaries of her gender.
Lastly, students examine how Martha Washington, as the mistress of a plantation, participated in and perpetuated the brutality of slavery. After Daniel Parke Custis’s death in 1757, Martha Dandridge Custis was entitled to the use of one-third of her husband’s estate, including the enslaved men and women, their labor, and the wealth produced from their work, for the duration of her life. Under the laws of coverture, these enslaved people were known as dower slaves, as they were considered part of her widow’s share. After marrying George Washington in 1759, control of the dower slaves fell to Martha’s new husband. Many of the Custis enslaved people were brought to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. By comparing Martha Washington’s will to George Washington’s will, students can think critically on the ways in which Mrs. Washington embodied the southern plantation mistress. Her letters to Fanny Bassett on the plans to move several of the enslaved from their presidential home in Philadelphia back to Virginia highlight how the Washingtons worked to ensure they could continue to benefit from slavery. It is important that students confront the unvarnished side of history and see the Washingtons as they truly were.
Martha Washington is often relegated in history to having “George Washington’s wife” as her only achievement of note. But with students looking through the lens of women’s history, the woman behind the man is at last able to step forward.
Bonnie Belshe is a George Washington Teacher Institute alumna and Life Guard Teacher Fellow. She teaches at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California.