Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution

Mary Sarah Bilder

Date: Tuesday, Mar 14, 2023

Start time: 5:30 p.m.

Location: VCU Student Commons, Richmond Salon

Audience: Free and open to the public

As part of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia Lecture Series, law professor and award-winning author Mary Sarah Bilder will talk about her new book, "Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution." Her provocative new biography investigates the rise of a radical new idea in the English-speaking world: female genius. 

Bilder finds the perfect exemplar in English-born Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor, a pathbreaking female educator who 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 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 is the Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. Her latest book, "Female Genius: George Washington and Eliza Harriot in the Dawn of the Constitution" was published in 2022. "Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention" (2015) received the 2016 Bancroft Prize in American History, and was a finalist for the 2016 George Washington Book Prize. She has taught property, American legal and constitutional history, and trusts and estates at Boston College since 1994 and has been a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and Columbia 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 scholarship has focused on the history of the Constitution, transatlantic feminism, James Madison and the Founders, the history of judicial review, and colonial and founding era constitutionalism, as well as Robert Morris, the early African American civil rights activist and lawyer. Professor Bilder is Literary Director of the Ames Foundation and a member of the American Law Institute, the American Antiquarian Association, and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. She is member of the Massachusetts Bar Association and the State Bar of Wisconsin (inactive status). She twice received the Emil Slizewski Faculty Teaching Award. Her first book, The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire (2004), received the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Award. Her articles appear in important essay collections and journals, including the Yale Law Journal, the Stanford Law Review, Law and History Review, Law Library Journal, and the Journal of Policy History. She is co-compiler of the prize-winning Appeals to the Privy Council from the American Colonies: An Annotated Digital Catalogue.

Sponsor(s): Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia

Event contact: Andrea Wight, wighta@vcu.edu