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HYBRID BOOK TALK: Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution
Mary Bilder in conversation with Karin Wulf
In this provocative new biography, Mary Sarah Bilder looks to the 1780s—the Age of the Constitution—to investigate the rise of a radical new idea in the English-speaking world: female genius. Bilder finds the perfect exemplar of this phenomenon in English-born Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor. This pathbreaking female educator delivered a University of Pennsylvania lecture attended by George Washington as he and other Constitutional Convention delegates gathered in Philadelphia. As the first such public female lecturer, her courageous performance likely inspired the gender-neutral language of the Constitution.
Female Genius reconstructs Eliza Harriot’s transatlantic life, from Lisbon to Charleston, paying particular attention to her lectures and to the academies she founded, inspiring countless young American women to consider a college education and a role in the political forum. Promoting the ideas made famous by Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza Harriot brought the concept of female genius to the United States. Its advocates argued that women had equal capacity and deserved an equal education and political representation. Its detractors, who feared it undermined male political power, felt deeply threatened. By 1792 Eliza Harriot experienced struggles that reflected the larger backlash faced by women and people of color as new written constitutions provided the political and legal tools for exclusion based on sex, gender, and race.
In recovering this pioneering life, the richly illustrated Female Genius makes clear that America’s framing moment did not belong solely to white men and offers an inspirational transatlantic history of women who believed in education as a political right.
Professor Mary Sarah Bilder teaches in the areas of property, trusts and estates, and American legal and constitutional history at Boston College Law School. She received her B.A. with Honors (English) and the Dean’s Prize from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, her J.D. (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, and her A.M. (History) and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization/American Studies. She was a law clerk to the Hon. Francis Murnaghan, Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. Her recent work has focused on the history of the Constitution, James Madison and the Founders, the history of judicial review, and colonial and founding era constitutionalism.
Dr. Karin Wulf is Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and Professor of History at Brown University. A historian of early America, what she refers to as “Vast Early America,” from 2013 to 2021 she was the Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and Professor of History at William & Mary. Wulf earned her PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1993. She writes for public and academic audiences about early American history, the worlds of scholarship and scholarly publishing, and why footnotes can save democracy (really). The author or editor of prize-winning scholarship on gender, family, and politics, she is now finishing Lineage: Genealogy and the Power of Connection in 18th Century British America for Oxford University Press and is under contract to complete Genealogy: a Very Short Introduction, also for OUP. Having served on a variety of boards, she is appointed by Governor Ralph Northam to the Virginia 250 commission for the commonwealth, is a board member for the National History Center and a co-founder of Women Also Know History.
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