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Center for Women's History

Explore women's history through exhibitions, programs, scholarship, and immersive multimedia.

Women and the American Story: A Curriculum for Middle and High School


About the Center

In 2017, a substantial portion of the New-York Historical Society’s fourth floor will reopen as the Center for the Study of Women’s History, a cutting-edge museum and hub for scholarship. This landmark initiative will be the country’s first permanent, public exhibition and educational center dedicated to women’s history. It will highlight the significance of women’s history to the study of the American past, and demonstrate how women across the spectrum of race, class and culture exercised power and brought about change even before they could access the ballot box. Guided by a committee of distinguished historians, and informed by the latest research, the Center will combine permanent installations, temporary exhibitions, and a vibrant program of talks and debates to enrich the cultural landscape of New York City.

Contact us

"Miss Rose Bower of North Dakota" Woman playing trumpet, wearing "Votes for Women" sash. Gelatin Silver Photograph, New-York Historical Society.

Major funding for the Center for the Study of Women’s History is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Joyce B. Cowin, and Jean Margo Reid. Corporate support provided by Hogan Lovells.

Module 1 - Unofficial Politician: Dolley Madison in Washington

“Unofficial Politician” focuses on Dolley Madison and the important role she played in the political life of the early federal period. At the time, partisan divide ran so deep it sometimes ended in physical fights, even duels. Dolley Madison was not officially a politician, of course, but she was a woman of great political savvy. She used the power of her position and her personality to offer a new way for politicians, always male, to interact and bridge the disagreements and rivalries that separated them.

This unit explores Dolley Madison’s life from childhood to old age—her Quaker upbringing and later slave ownership, her first marriage and traumatic early loss, her friendships, her money problems, and her relationship with her troubled son. But the central focus is Dolley Madison as the astute political partner of James Madison during his terms as secretary of state and president. It offers a new way to look at the nation’s early history, and at the part women played in bringing the Constitution to life on the ground, even as laws and attitudes restricted their freedom. And it provides a lens for looking more broadly at the lives of women in the early republic—not only elite white women like Dolley, but the women of different races and classes who interacted with her as well.

Suggested Activities & Discussion Questions

Life Stories

Dolley Madison
James Madison
Margaret Bayard Smith
Eliza Brock


Resource 1: Coverture
Resource 2: Political Battles
Resource 3: Lessons Learned
Resource 4: Parties and Politics
Resource 5: Fashion and Politics
Resource 6: Saving Washington
Resource 7: Paul Jennings’s Account of the British Attack
Resource 8: Washington Burns
Resource 9: Write to Me

“Unofficial Politician” Resource Library

Creative: Tronvig Group