Dolley Madison and Her Peers Ran Their Own ‘Pussy-Hat’ Brigade

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The historical society opened its doors in 1804, and the founding period is what Ms. Paley calls the “sweet spot” of the collection. The exhibition starts with an array of manuscripts, dueling pistols, imposing oil portraits and other objects arranged in a snug opening gallery Ms. Paley has nicknamed “the man cave.”

“It’s the picture of the founding we’re familiar with,” she said. (Or mostly familiar with: Who knew that gentlemen periodically had their powdered wigs boiled?)

From there, it opens into a more female-centric view of early America, highlighting the flesh-and-blood women who helped define liberty, freedom, democracy and other concepts so often depicted by allegorical female figures. The show puts famous women like Sarah Jay, the wife of John Jay, and Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, alongside less acknowledged players. That the George III statue on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan was torn down by an angry (male) mob and melted down for musket balls is well known. But who did the melting? The women and children of Litchfield, Conn.

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Cut-outs of Dolley Madison to reenact her “Wednesday Night Squeezes,” interactive tables and other pieces from the period are on display as part of the Saving Washington inaugural exhibition in the new Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Librar

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Byron Smith for The New York Times

Which isn’t to say this is a populist take that eschews elite glamour. The central figure is Dolley Madison, whose transformation of the just-built White House into a vibrant social space is paid clever tribute in a bells-and-whistles central gallery.

Out with the “cold, drafty place” of patriotic austerity (as Ms. Paley put it) cultivated by the White House’s previous inhabitant, Thomas Jefferson. Dolley Madison, the show argues, turned it into a place of cross-partisan conversation and civility, and threw the doors open to the broader public in her famous “Wednesday night squeezes,” as one wag of the time put it.

The installation brings a similar breath of fresh air to the stodgy period-room concept. Yes, there are teacups, silverware, jewelry and other decorous objects (not to mention a mannequin wearing one of Madison’s elegant gowns and a beyond-“pussy-hat” headdress).

But the mirrored walls and on-trend white-on-white palette — sprinkled with a dash of intense color from period paint and fabric sample books shown in one case — are more Elle Decor than Colonial Williamsburg. Giant cutouts based on photographs of costumed re-enactors are scattered around the room, evoking the guests (and enslaved servants) at the squeezes.

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Among other items, a bust of George Washington and portraits of James Madison, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the exhibition.

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Byron Smith for The New York Times

There’s a serious argument behind the stylishness: that women, despite their exclusion from formal politics, engaged in meaningful, informal politicking. It’s driven playfully home by two touch-screen tables, where visitors can play an interactive game.

At the men’s table, a two-seater titled “Zero-Sum Game,” you can engage in what the exhibit calls “male political combativeness” over issues like trade or the need for a standing army. (Disclosure: This female reporter racked up big “honor points” but quit before she got killed in a duel.)

At the other table, a mixed crowd engages in seemingly apolitical conversational thrusts and parries, getting things done in deeply partisan times while also reinforcing a sense of “unity and civility,” as Ms. Paley put it.

“We wanted to use the table as a metaphor,” Ms. Paley said, “and ask, what’s on or off the table at any given moment, politically? And what’s under the table?”

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The exhibition highlights figures in the suffragist, temperance and abolitionist movements.

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Byron Smith for The New York Times

A final room takes the story up through the mid-19th century, showing how a broader range of women jumped more directly — and collectively — into politics, powering various reform movements (temperance, abolition) and ultimately demanding political rights for themselves at the Seneca Falls Rights Convention in upstate New York in 1848.

And it wasn’t just white women: There is material on Sojourner Truth, and Anna Murray-Douglass, the wife of Frederick Douglass, whose paid labor, the show notes, helped support her husband’s political work.

And Madison? She fell on hard financial times after James Madison’s death, the final exhibit in the show notes, and sold some of the enslaved people the family owned, with devastating consequences for those on the block. (The show glances at what Ms. Paley delicately called her “spotty record” on slavery.)

Dolley Madison died in 1849, having lived long enough to attend the groundbreaking of the Washington Monument in 1848, the same year as the Seneca Falls convention. (That aspiring phallic symbol is shown, still half-built, in a photograph from around 1860.)

Also present at that groundbreaking was Elizabeth Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton, a onetime political opponent of James Madison.

“They understood the power of symbolism,” Ms. Paley said. “And that included how important they themselves were as living symbols of the past.”

Correction: March 11, 2017

An article on Friday about “Saving Washington,” an exhibition about early female patriots, at the New-York Historical Society, erroneously attributed a distinction to Thomas Jefferson. He was the first president to live in the White House from the beginning of his term, but not the first president ever to live there. (John Adams moved in at the very end of his term, in 1800, before being succeeded by Jefferson, in 1801.)

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