Book Review: Parlor Politics by Catherine Allgor

In her book Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, Catherine Allgor does exactly what the reader expects her to do. She goes through several examples, the most detailed of which is Dolly Madison, of women who were equally as influential in Washington D.C. and its evolution of the city Americans see as their capitol today. Allgor limits her study of the women of Washington to the white, upper class in order to more accurately describe a certain, powerful section of the private sphere. Catherine Allgor points out that those working behind the scenes in Washington, the wives of the men with the power, were just as integral to the development of the city and the government as the men they were married to.

Allgor does a lovely job of describing how un-lovely Washington D.C. was in its earliest days. People who were traveling into the city often asked where it was when in fact they were standing at the heart of it. It was up to both the men and women of Washington society to create the society the city is now famous for as well as to create the base of what would be an incredibly strong government. The gender role reversal that Allgor describes is what allowed this to happen. She argues that the ones doing all of the political work was the women, while the men maintained the image of disinterestedness and attempted to avoid corruption. The women were the ones forming the groups and campaigning on behalf of their husbands or brothers attempting to gain them positions of power. They often hosted lavish dinner parties and social gatherings and passed them off as such instead of the political escapades that they really were.

One of the biggest aspects of Allgor’s argument is that gender as a societal construction functioned as an ideology. It “can be manipulated and shifted to help shift mechanisms of power” (http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=5033). Seeing it as an ideology allows gender to be a driving force behind the development of Washington as a hot bed of political gossip, power and ideas. Due to the actions of the women of Washington and their lobby groups and their use of the private and public sphere to manipulate American politics, the politics of the city became based upon networking and allegiance to certain people. The women that Allgor describes use their domestic role in the home and the nature of their role in society to establish a culture in American politics that remains even to this day.

Allgor’s argument is very well supported. Not only has she analyzed the women who have always been thought of as politically influential, first ladies Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison but sisters of politicians and women such as Margaret Bayard Smith, who while not the wife of any president, got swept up in the whirlwind that was the structure of Washington society. She explains in the first chapter, how important the relationships in Washington were and how politics and ideas were constantly the talk of the town. She describes how, despite its unfinished architecture and small town feeling, Washington was charming in its own way and had the beauty of an old European city. Allgor provides a plethora of evidence to support her story and her argument. She provides detailed diaries of the women that she profiles as well as detailed accounts of the parties that they hosted at their homes. She sorts through the tedious accounts of the lives of the women constantly portrayed in the shadow of their historically famous husbands. She does this in order to get to the bottom of their influence over Washington and how they managed to acquire such an amount of indirect power.

I am quite convinced by Allgor’s argument. Based upon her evidence and her examples of influential women presented as part of the argument, I do not feel that Washington could have prospered into the flowering political center of American culture without their feminine touch. I believe that if the men were expected to keep up the persona of being disinterested in politics and keeping up this appearance in the public sphere, then it was only natural that the women took over in the private sphere and managed to reach their influence into the public sphere as well. However, while the book is well researched and well supported, Allgor does not try particularly hard to stay objective. She clearly supports the women and appreciates the fact that they challenged their typical small town domestic role. They were afforded the opportunity presented by the unique development of the nation’s capitol to express their opinions to one another and put their ideas into practice via the influence they had over their husbands.

Allgor’s presentation of a different outlook on the development of political life in Washington allows for a much deeper understanding of the Founding Fathers. For example, while John Adams was an influential man on his own and in his own right, in accordance with Allgor’s argument, Abigail Adams was a huge influence over his political behavior and was as much a presence in his presidency as he was. Allgor does a great job of exploring different presidents from different eras of early America. She enables a student of early American history to examine how Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, Louisa Catherine Adams, Peggy Eaton affected Washington politics, both for the better and for worse. While Louisa Catherine Adams and Dolly Madison were a political force in the betterment of Washington, Peggy Eaton, while she was in a position to take on a position of power in Washington, fell prey to the other women of Washington. She was judged by society of Washington for acting as a femme fatale; she was in the position to take on most of the feminine power in Washington, due to the widowed state of the President. The Washington gossip circles engulfed her and called her such names as a tart and other insults not commonly used in civilized society.

Allgor presents a compelling argument that as important as the founding fathers were to the development of Washington politics, their wives and the other women of the Washington lobbying circles, were equally important. Some of the most prominent women making a difference in the newborn capitol were Dolly Madison, Louisa Catherine Adams and Peggy Eaton. However, the women on the sidelines of politics were equally important. Their actions surrounding politics enabled their husbands to maintain the public demeanor of disinterestedness in politics, while they promoted their husbands through indirect political actions and appearing as politically supportive wives to the most powerful men in the country. “Remember the ladies” Abigail Adams remarks, and Allgor allows the reader to understand not only that they should be remembered but what they are to be remembered for.