By Nancy Novick
Just in time for International Women’s Day, the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library has opened Saving Washington, the debut exhibit of the museum’s new Center for Women’s History. Named for Mrs. Madison’s quick thinking in rescuing the White House portrait of George Washington from British vandals during the War of 1812, the exhibit explores the contributions of women of all classes to political and social causes of the time, despite being excluded from official roles in affairs of state.
First Lady Dolly Madison was perhaps best known as a formidable hostess, capable of bringing together political adversaries in a congenial atmosphere. To give visitors a taste of Mrs. Madison’s popular “squeezes”—gatherings in which guests had to ”squeeze” into the president’s mansion—interactive features offer the opportunity to virtually experience a dinner table conversation and a friendly card game. But Mrs. Madison’s behind-the scenes influence and that of her female contemporaries are also explored in the exhibit, which includes more than 150 artifacts. Among those items on display in Saving Washington are political documents and publications, household objects, works of art, and personal effects belonging to Mrs. Madison including a silver snuffbox, the contents of which she shared freely with her guests.
Saving Washington is housed in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, a space in the center that is dedicated to rotating exhibits, and will remain open through July 30, 2017. During a Tuesday morning preview, Center Director and Curator Valerie Paley noted that one of the important purposes of the center is to remind visitors that “all of history is infused with the stories of women.”
The full Center for Women’s History, which the museum describes as “the first institution in the United States that is fully open to the public and dedicated to showcasing the central role women have played in American History”, opens late next month.