Female Genius: Discovering women’s history in the Constitution

April 3, 2023

Author: Nyah Graham

Boston College law professor and award-winning author Mary Sarah Bilder discussed her latest book, "Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution."

Mary Sarah Bilder presenting a lecture

On March 14, VCU History welcomed Mary Sarah Bilder, Ph.D. of Boston College Law School for the annual Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia Lecture Series. Bilder talked at length about Eliza Harriot, someone you’ve most likely never heard of before, and examined what gender might have meant to the framers of the Constitution when they developed the framework for federal government in 1787.

Harriot was an educated English lady at a time when women had to publish their work anonymously or under a pseudonym - “By a Lady” was most common. She dedicated her life to female education, falling into what men of the time described as “The Female Genius.” She first arrived in New York and founded schools for girls and women, teaching English, French, writing, arithmetic and other subjects throughout the budding United States. 

A critical event, Bilder states, is when George Washington attended a lecture “By a Lady” in May of 1787. This lecturer was Eliza Harriot, who spoke about language and poetry but did so at a time when few women spoke in public. Washington made the news by attending a lecture orated by a woman and described the lecture as “a charity affair because the lady being reduced in circumstance had recourse to this expedient to obtain a little money.” He judged her performance “tolerable.”

Bilder’s analysis of the language in earlier drafts of the Constitution shows that they changed from the one signed and ratified. The language in the original drafts shifted from a gender-specific language like “male” or “bodies of men” into a more gender-neutral language such as “persons” or “people.” This shift in language might have signaled a significant rethinking of how women like Harriot influenced our country’s founding document.