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Commentary

Pardoning: A Woman's Work Is Never Done

March 07, 2001|CATHERINE ALLGOR | Catherine Allgor is an assistant professor of history at Simmons College and the author of "Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government" (University Press of Virginia, 2000)

Politicians and feminist scholars have at least one thing in common: We know that to trace the subterranean channels of political power, you look at what women are doing.

The roles of wife and mother hide lots of politicking, and the language of "women's issues"--love, family and home--disguises political transactions of the crassest sort. Gender is about power, the scholars pronounce; politicians translate this to the more practical dictum: Cherchez la femme.

"Finding the woman" is certainly apparent in the unfolding scandals around former President Clinton's pardons. The wife (or ex-wife) who pleads for clemency, the family members who use kin connections for political favors--these characters are as old as politics. Women have acted politically and political acts have hidden behind female skirts since before Esther. But petticoat politics has played a particularly crucial role in Washington from the start of United States history.

The official men of the founding generation were almost paranoid in their fear of executive power and monarchies. After all, the American Revolution was the reluctant "final solution" of British colonists faced with the abuse of a too-powerful king and his court. At the same time, these nation-builders recognized that royal courts provided two commodities the upstart United States needed: political structures and images of national strength and stability. The new nation had to assert its status both to foreign governments and to its own states and citizens.

The need to garner respect and establish the ruling elite was so great that it reduced the zealous anti-monarchist John Adams to advocating aristocratic titles for American government officials. His proposal to call the president "his most benign highness" failed, but the dilemma remained. Enter the ladies of Washington--the wives, mothers and daughters of political families. For the first 50 years of the United States' existence, while men struggled to reconcile the rigorous idealism of revolutionary rhetoric with practical realities, their female kinfolk took over the dirty work of politics.

Shielded from the glare of the official spotlight by the veils of gender, the ladies of the elite paradoxically became the visible manifestation of the kind of aristocratic power the Constitution condemned. George Washington may have been "Mr. President," but Martha was "Lady Washington," a naming practice that spread to all women of the ruling class.

As first lady, Dolley Payne Todd Madison restructured the shabby executive mansion, turning it into not only a national symbol but also the power center of the federal government. Her "reign" marks the beginning of the American people's identification with "their" house, and at her weekly social events, members of all branches of government and their families established the networks that would create the governmental structure.

Elite women's use of architecture, clothing and decor imparted an old-fashioned imperial legitimacy sorely needed by the budding nation. Ordinary people noted approvingly that the meek and modest President Madison seemed the literal embodiment of the properly weak executive office, but they were also reassured by the sight of his wife, beloved as "Queen Dolley," whose regal dress and mien assured these new Americans that they were being well and truly ruled by their betters.

Dolley and other lesser-known Washington women also participated in the meat-and-potatoes politicking that keeps the political machine running. In particular, they fielded requests from the constituents of their male kin. Citizens approached women from political families with requests for jobs, legislation and, yes, pardons and clemency. Petitioning is the weapon of the powerless and so it is a classically female technique. Though men approached influential women with requests, many of these transactions took place solely between women. In fact, the riskier a specific issue was politically in early Washington, the more likely that the requester was a woman. Women begged for the return of an imprisoned husband on the grounds of financial destitution, fatherless children, broken homes. Leapfrogging over official political channels, elite women exercised considerable power, using the language of the heart to act as influence peddlers. Twentieth-century feminism, which allowed women into the official sphere, has given us new players for these old political plot lines. Hillary Rodham Clinton stands at the center of the present pardon drama like a character from a Shakespeare play, acting parts on both sides of the gender divide: trusted wife and trusting sister, but also senator and public servant.

As this story unfolds, we watch the new variations on these old themes, remembering that when it comes to politics, a woman's work is never done, even when men do it.

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