Scholars, Symposium Challenge Mary Washington Lore
The Washington Post, 14 March 2004«back | home
By Michelle Boorstein
Bill and Annie Smith, strolling past the stately stone entry pillars of Mary Washington College, are typical of Fredericksburg residents in their enthusiasm for the school's namesake: She wears an "MWC" sweat shirt, and his car has a bumper sticker that says, "Mary Wash."
They're also typical in another way: They don't know much about her.
"Obviously, she was George Washington's mother, and so of course she had a big influence on him," said Bill Smith, 28, a technology assistant.
"I think she was from here, from Fredericksburg," Annie Smith -- who said she was in her "early thirties" -- noted incorrectly. In fact, Mary was from Lancaster County, at the southern tip of the Northern Neck.
Students and neighbors of the small public liberal arts college and others in the Fredericksburg area -- including those who fought the decision to take "Mary" out of the school's name when it officially becomes a university July 1 -- could be forgiven for their lack of knowledge. Although the area takes great pride in knowing that George grew up in neighboring Stafford County and that his mother lived her last 17 years in Fredericksburg, dying at age 81 in 1789, little documentation of her life -- and not a single confirmed portrait -- exists.
But the recent debate over what to call the school prompted some people to ask: Why keep the name? Who was Mary Ball Washington? Now, scholars are producing work about her for the first time in decades and are challenging the extreme images that have been painted of her.
In the 1800s, Mary's first biographers generally romanticized her, but biographers of the next century tore her down, some recent scholars have said. In some of the most prominent books about George Washington, written in the mid-1900s, his mother was described as superficial, materialistic and so overbearing that one biographer said George was "fleeing from his mother to war."
But recent research looks at the societal context of her relationship with her son, and current researchers have said Mary has been portrayed unjustly. On Tuesday, some of that work will be presented at the college's second symposium about its namesake -- a pair of lectures in honor of Women's History Month.
"What was said about her was purely subjective and derogatory," said Paula Felder, a historian who will be one of the event's two speakers. She has spent the last 25 years reconstructing 18th-century Fredericksburg, including the lives of George and Mary Washington.
"If she had died young, she would have been a footnote, but she hung around for almost his entire life, so they had to do something with her," Felder said of 20th-century historians, "so they made a plot."
Liane Houghtalin, a classics professor at Mary Washington and the symposium's other speaker, said early Colonials generally looked up to Greek and Roman societies and modeled their accounts after that romantic, fantastical style. Biographies of George Washington written in the 19th century followed that pattern, Houghtalin said, and compared Mary to Cornelia, an epic matriarchal figure from ancient Rome who, like Mary, didn't remarry after her husband died.
"Her early biographers didn't know much about her," Houghtalin said of Mary, "so they filled in, and legends grew up around her that parallel the ideal woman."
Philander Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, said the early glorification of Mary Washington was typical in the 19th century.
"I think that was done a lot by Victorians looking back at Colonial times," Chase said. "Mary Washington wasn't a perfect woman and a paragon of all virtues, but at the same time, she wasn't this terrible, awful woman."
The relatively few scholars who have seriously studied Mary Washington have said they think the backlash against her began primarily with Douglas Southall Freeman, whom many considered to be George Washington's most prominent biographer. Felder and others, however, are questioning Freeman's portrait of the president's mother.
"A thousand trifles were her daily care to the neglect of larger interests," Freeman wrote of Mary in a six-volume biography of Washington in the 1940s. He also wrote: "When her complaints frequently drew money from the purse of her son, it somehow was spent and forgotten as a gift."
Freeman, Chase said, "was reacting against this myth of Mary Washington and he debunked it, and properly so, but sometimes it swings the other way."
Last month, Don Higginbotham, a professor of American history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who has written extensively about George Washington, wrote an essay challenging 20th-century biographers' views of Mary, among other women in the Founding Father's life.
"We need to revise our views about his relationship with his mother," Higginbotham said. "I felt they portrayed her harshly."
Felder, whose research was published in 1999, said she hasn't spoken publicly about it since because she found confronting the earlier historians too distasteful. She and Higginbotham examined the same scraps of information as their predecessors but tried to focus on the context of the times.
For example, Mary has been painted as selfish and overbearing for not allowing George to join the British Merchant Marines, but Higginbotham notes that she considered the issue for a year and asked whether her son would be able to advance in such a career as a Virginian. Although some historians used the lack of written correspondence in some years between Mary and George as evidence of an estrangement, Felder notes that the two were living about 50 miles apart and could visit.
Felder challenges the region's notion of itself as very history-minded, saying that much of the city's past has never been documented. She said she senses sexism in the treatment of some female historical figures, such as Mary.
Felder and Houghtalin said they wanted to present Tuesday's program to add depth to the public's understanding of a little-known figure.
In recent years, college officials had sought to name the new university Washington & Monroe. After a bitter fight with some alumni and current students, the name University of Mary Washington was settled on, though some believe sexism kept her name from coming first -- as in Mary Washington University.
"I think the name Mary Washington is a perfectly good name," Felder said.
Although this recent scholarship might stimulate some interest locally, guides at the Mary Washington House in Fredericksburg, which is now a museum, pondered last week whether the city's matriarch would gain a wider audience.
"What I want to know is, what do they think about Mary Washington in Detroit? How much do people know about her outside of Fredericksburg?" Regina Spencer asked.
"I don't think people think about her," Len Malinowski answered. "[Henry] Ford, maybe, but not Washington."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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