Lady First : The World of First Lady Sarah Polk
by Greenberg, Amy S.

Preface: Mrs. Polk's 1848xi
1 Blackboard, Maps, and Globes
2 A Salon in Washington
3 Communications Director
4 Female Politicians
5 Mrs. Presidentess
6 The Power of American Women to Save Their Country
7 That Fine Manly Lady
8 Profit and Loss
9 Neutral Ground
10 Influence
Epilogue: Love Makes Memory Eternal272(11)
The Childress Family283(2)
The Polk Family285(2)

An exploration of the 11th First Lady's less-recognized political savvy and contributions to American feminism details the contradictions attributed to her character, her wartime achievements and her influential role at the Woman's Right's convention in 1848 Seneca Falls. (biography & autobiography).

Amy S. Greenberg is the George Winfree Professor of History and Women's Studies at Penn State University. A leading scholar of the history of nineteenth-century America, she has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society, among others. Her previous books include A Wicked War and Manifest Manhood.

Few lists of influential first ladies include Sarah Polk, the wife of James K. Polk, eleventh president of the U.S. In this extensively documented account, Greenberg (A Wicked War, 2012) asserts that, despite her current anonymity, Polk was once the most powerful woman in America. She was held up as a paragon of her sex, despite being childless in an era of large families. She was a recognized public figure in a culture in which wives were supposed to be nearly invisible. She was known for her popular and unabashedly political entertainments at a time when government affairs were thought to be far beyond the grasp, let alone the business, of females. More social history than biography, the text traces Polk's steadily growing expertise in charming, manipulating, and exerting pressure to abet her husband's political career, which made for lasting change in Democratic Party policies. This is an in-depth, telling account of a largely overlooked woman who was able to effect profound influence while working within the constraints of her time and place. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.

A sturdy biography of Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891), who revolutionized the amorphous role of first lady while her husband, James, served as president from 1845 to 1849.By today's standards, Sarah, who preferred to be known as "Mrs. James Polk" after marrying when she was just 20, was no feminist—of course, women could not vote during her lifetime, nor could they own property in most states—but she always found ways to become a force in electoral politics despite the legal and societal limitations she faced. Born into an enlightened, financially comfortable Tennessee family, Sarah received more formal education than most women of her era and became comfortable conversing about politics in rooms dominated by men who usually excluded women. She originally met James Polk through her older brother. As Greenberg (History and Women's Studies/Penn State Univ.; A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, 2012, etc.), a leading scholar of Ma nifest Destiny, shows, James saw in Sarah not only a domestic partner, but also a behind-the-scenes manager for his political ambitions. His career progressed from the Tennessee legislature to the House of Representatives to the Tennessee governorship to the presidency of the United States when he was age 49. Sarah and James worked together to expand the geographic reach of their nation, waging a bloody war against Mexico to accomplish their goal. James did not desire to build a long-term political dynasty; he promised to serve only a single four-year term. After the presidency, he planned to return to his slaveholding Southern estates to increase the family wealth and enjoy his childless union with Sarah. Instead, he died the year he left the White House. Sarah lived another four decades as a slaveholding businesswomen, never leaving Tennessee even once but also never retreating into isolation. Even during the Civil War, she managed to support the Confederacy while maintain i ng influence with Union politicians. Though she is largely forgotten, this concise but thorough biography brings her back into the light. An illuminating study of a nontraditional female powerhouse. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.


Mrs. Polk's 1848

History can be capricious, as the following story about two events and one exceptionally powerful woman should make clear. For the twenty-three million residents of the United States and the seven and a half million residents of Mexico, the landmark event of 1848 was the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended a twenty-month-long war between the two countries, and transferred approximately half of Mexico's prewar territory to the United States. Although the war left thirteen thousand Americans and at least twenty-five thousand Mexicans dead, and the contested status of slavery in the newly acquired territories, including California and New Mexico, was already provoking threats of secession in the South, it was recognized at the time as a remarkable victory for both the United States and that exceptionally powerful American woman. Her name was Sarah Childress Polk, and the defeat of Mexico was her reward for years of labor alongside her husband in the name of America's "Manifest Destiny."

President James K. Polk, a taciturn fifty-two-year-old left prematurely aged by compulsive work habits and chronic intestinal complaints, emerged from the war admired by some but loved by very few other than his wife. Humorless and secretive, he lied to members of his own party, to Congress, and to the American people. The war was divisive; antiwar agitators across the country condemned the president for prosecuting an immoral war, and the nation turned against his political party, the Democrats. The opposition party, the Whigs, easily won the presidency that year with a war hero, General Zachary Taylor, as their candidate.

But forty-four-year-old Sarah Polk, a slim, elegantly dressed woman whose vivacity, youthfulness, and ability to charm formed a perfect contrast to her husband, suffered no such backlash from the war that she helped promote. On one hand this is entirely unsurprising. An age-old set of assumptions enforced by both law and custom proclaimed women un t for public life. They weren't citizens, and they couldn't vote. If they were married, their identities were legally subsumed into those of their husbands. That even rich, well-educated white women like Mrs. James K. Polk were biologically and socially incapable of contemplating matters such as foreign policy was for most Americans an assumption so obvious as to go entirely unquestioned.

Were a woman intellectually capable of engaging with affairs of state, American politics was utterly unwelcoming for the "gentle sex." Americans were justly proud of their democratic institutions, but those institutions were competitive, coercive, and quite liable to turn violent. Men physically fought over political positions, while partisans fueled by free alcohol attacked one another at the polls. The wrong political statement, put into print, could result in a challenge to a duel, or a surprise attack in the streets. Election-day riots were sadly common. This was considered no space for women.

There was little debate over this point because America's men and women agreed that the two sexes were suited to different spheres. Men belonged in the political, competitive, public world of work and elections, and women in the peaceful, religious, domestic realm of children and home. Women who crossed this line and insisted on openly expressing their political views did so at their own peril. The abolitionist Grimké sisters became notorious in the 1830s for insisting on speaking in public, and were threatened with death by angry mobs. This was the reality of women's lives in 1848.

Yet somehow Mrs. James K. Polk managed to stand above the constraints that bound other women. Her views on the Manifest Destiny of the United States were well known, as were her political efforts in support of her husband. Indeed, her dedication to her husband's agenda, and the fact that the two were a seemingly inseparable team, was a large part of her appeal as a First Lady.

In 1848 she was the most powerful woman in America. She controlled access to her husband and helped coordinate the Democratic Party's political agenda. She managed her husband's political campaigns and negotiated on his behalf with men who understood her value as a conduit. No accident, her power was grounded in decades of work as a political spouse, her remarkable powers of innovation, a deep and abiding love of politics, and the unpaid labor of dozens of enslaved people who toiled for her in her home and on a cotton plantation. As a marital partner and her husband's closest advisor, Mrs. James K. Polk (the name she preferred for herself) helped create the office of the First Lady. Her political partnership with her husband and the manner in which she expanded the First Lady's role prefigured the activist First Ladies of our own era.

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