Cokie Roberts, the NPR and ABC New political commentator, has written an entertaining and informative book about the women in Washington, DC. during the period 1848 to 1868. Capital Dames does an excellent job of recounting the lives of a well chosen swath of women who lived in Washington, DC, during the middle of the nineteenth century. The book particularly focuses on Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, Rose Greenhow, Jessie Hart Fremont, Elizabeth Blair Lee and Varina Davis, but there are also wonderful cameos of Dolley Madison, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, Julia Grant, Dorothea Dix, and many other equally fascinating women. Slavery and the Civil War are the focus of much of the book, which shows how much women contributed to the debate and to the work that needed to be done. These were active women, who had wide circles of influential friends and who didn’t hesitate to back one politician over another. Even where they disagreed, many of these women remained close friends. When they hit hard times, some of them proved exceptionally resilient, even as others simply never recovered.
It is a rich story that is elevated far above what ladies wore or the mere fact that a woman was the spouse of a famous man. Many of these women were particularly astute and active. Whether they knew it or not, they contributed to the development of feminism because of their activities and because of how they saw themselves in this highly charged, political environment.