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The Widow Washington
Martha Saxton, the Starr Center’s new Patrick Henry Fellow, explores Mary Ball Washington’s place in history at an event on February 9.
Current events in Washington, D.C. and around the world have brought attention to women’s rights, but women’s roles in shaping and defining American history span centuries. Distinguished author and professor Martha Saxton is a leading scholar in the field of gender studies and women’s history, and she is the spring 2017 Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
Her most recent work is on the life of Mary Ball Washington—the mother of founding father George Washington. To kick off her residency, Saxton will give a presentation on “The Widow Washington,” at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 9 in Hynson Lounge, Hodson Hall, on the College campus. Sponsored by the Starr Center and the Rose O’Neill Literary House, the lecture is free and open to the public.
Saxton’s upcoming book The Widow Washington is a biographical study of Mary Ball Washington. Minimally educated, Mary Ball left few records. Generations of George Washington’s historians have filled in around the sparse evidence that remains about her with increasingly unpleasant and frequently unfounded interpretations of her and her relationship with her son. Saxton’s book reevaluates this picture against the background of her life that spanned the dramatic changes of 18th-century Virginia. An orphan by the age of 12, Mary Ball went on to become a wife, mother, widow, planter, slave-owner, and devoted Anglican. Historians have tended to see George Washington as a self-made man, but Mary’s exacting temperament and reliance on her son in early widowhood to help her steer the family through precarious times strongly shaped his ideas about duty and his outsized sense of responsibility.
The genesis for The Widow Washington grew out of Saxton’s Being Good, Women’s Moral Values in Early America (2003), which had a section on 18th–century widows in the Chesapeake region. More broadly, the book is part of Saxton’s lifelong interest in locating the lives of women within their historical and social contexts so that their struggles with prevailing conventions can help restore to their memories meanings that have been lost. This was the goal of her earlier biographies— of the sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield (1976) and Louisa May Alcott (1977).
Martha Saxton retired in 2016, after teaching at Amherst College for 20 years in the History and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies Departments. She has also taught at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia and for several years in the Inside/Out Program at the Hampshire County House of Corrections in Northampton. Saxton has garnered numerous awards and fellowships for her work as a scholar and a teacher and has published in the Women’s Review of Books, Journal of American History, and William and Mary Quarterly among other scholarly publications.
Based in an office at the Starr Center in the circa-1746 Custom House on the Chester River, Saxton will work on completing her book and teach a seminar in the Department of English. The course, “From Biography to Fiction: Transformation and Revision,” explores the relationship between biography and the imaginative process of writing fiction using the accounts of three well-known early American novelists: Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Louisa May Alcott, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Saxton will live in the restored Patrick Henry House, a 1730s-era house in Chestertown’s historic district. Washington College acquired the Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence in January 2007 through a generous gift from the Barksdale-Dabney-Patrick Henry Family Foundation, which was established by the Nuttle family of Talbot County, direct descendants of the patriot Patrick Henry.
Launched by the Starr Center in 2008, the Patrick Henry Fellowship aims to encourage reflection on the links between American history and contemporary culture, and to foster the literary art of historical writing. It is co-sponsored by the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Washington College’s center for literature and the literary arts. The Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship’s funding is permanently endowed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, with further support provided by the Starr Foundation, the Hodson Trust, and other donors.