March is Women’s History Month. So let’s talk SHEroes. Not heroines, like in romance novels and cozy mysteries. SHEroes. Women who have changed history, gone toe-to-toe with greatness, and made the world a better place simply by using their strengths for the greater good. Over the next few weeks, I’ll introduce you to historical ladies I admire. My personal list of SHEroes.
Today, I want to tell you about Dolley Madison. No, not the ice cream. The first First Lady. The wife of President James Madison. Dolley was a woman of great wit and intelligence, a charming hostess, and her husband’s closest political adviser. When the Madisons first arrived in Washington, Thomas Jefferson was president and a widower. Dolley became his social hostess for all state affairs. After her husband’s inauguration, she continued these duties, making every guest feel welcomed, remembered, and important.
During James Madison’s presidency, he often discussed matters of state with Dolley and listened to her counsel. Her patronage was sought by private citizens and politicians because it was well known how much her husband respected her opinions.
Dolley is probably best known for saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, along with many of the country’s important papers, when the British burned down the White House during the War of 1812. But it was Zachary Taylor, at her funeral, who coined her, “the First Lady of the land,” the first time that title was used to describe a president’s wife. She was also the first presidential wife to become involved with local charities and organizations dedicated to social issues of the time. She held weekly “drawing rooms,” which were enormously popular with local politicians and socialites.
After her husband’s death, Dolley was assigned an honorary seat in the House of Representatives.
Sadly, Dolley died in poverty, beholden to friends and neighbors for charity, thanks to the excessive gambling debts and spending habits of her son from her first marriage. She received a state funeral, with all government businesses closed for the day, so that mourners could grieve her loss.
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