What We Still Don’t Get About George WashingtonRoundup
tags: George Washington, presidential history
Alexis Coe is the author, most recently, of “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.”
Years into writing a book on George Washington, I noticed something curious about my collection of the popular biographies already written about our first president: All of them were written by white men.
I’d gotten used to a certain male skew, but I hadn’t quite realized how persistent it was until I ran my observation by experts at Mount Vernon, Washington’s historic home, and the University of Virginia’s George Washington papers: No woman had written a biography of George Washington for adults in more than 40 years, and no woman trained as a historian had written one in far longer.
For nearly two and a half centuries, most of the stories Americans have told themselves about their country’s past have been by and for white men — and it shows, particularly when it comes to presidential history. When female historians have managed to elbow their way in, however, they often remind us that we don’t always know what we think we know.
My own preoccupation with Washington began with an attempt to read between the lines of his major biographies. All of his biographers are obsessed with his body; Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life,” to take just one example, sometimes reads like a romance novel: Washington, Mr. Chernow writes, was “powerfully rough-hewn and endowed with matchless strength. When he clenched his jaw, his cheek and jaw muscles seemed to ripple right through his skin.”
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