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

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with Mary Sarah Bilder about her new book, Female Genius, which looks at the pathbreaking 18th-century educator Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor. Joining the author in conversation is Martha S. Jones, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs coming up soon on our YouTube channel.

On Thursday, March 17, at 1 p.m., historian Laura F. Edwards will discuss her new book, Only the Clothes on Her Back. By studying the clothing of ordinary people, Edwards tells us, we can uncover the hidden history of power in the 19th-century United States.

And on Friday, March 18, at 1 p.m., we'll present a panel discussion on the topic “Working-Class Women, Race and the U.S. Suffrage Movement,” with historians Page Harrington, Cathleen Cahill, and Alison Parker.

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In June 1788, George Washington responded to a letter from a lady in Alexandria, Virginia. She asked him to consider serving on the board of visitors for her academy for young ladies. Although Washington declined the request, he expressed his “real satisfaction at the present flourishing state of your Academy and ardent wishes for its future prosperity.”

The letter-writer and founder of the school was Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor, a pathbreaking female educator who brought the concept of female genius to the United States.

A year earlier, Washington had heard her lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, just after arriving in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. She was the first public female lecturer at the university and a staunch advocate of education and wider opportunities for women.

The letters between Washington and Harriot may be read in full at Founders Online, a searchable website hosted by the National Archives through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Founders Online provides free access to more than 185,000 documents from the authoritative Founding Fathers Papers projects.

Today’s guest speaker, Mary Sarah Bilder, will introduce us to Eliza Harriot and her work to advance women’s education and political rights.

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Mary Sarah Bilder is Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School and author of the Bancroft Prize–winning book Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. She is also the author of The Transatlantic Constitution and co-author of Appeals to the Privy Council from the American Colonies.

Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, professor of history, and a professor at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. She is a legal and cultural historian and the author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.

Now let’s hear from Mary Sarah Bilder and Martha S. Jones. Thank you for joining us today.