Saturday, August 4, 2007

Catherine Allgor's "A Perfect Union"

Catherine Allgor is a professor of History at the University of California Riverside.

She is the author of Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (University of Virginia Press, 2000) and A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Henry Holt, 2006), to which she applied the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
Page 99 is a delicate turn in the analytic dance of A Perfect Union. In this biography of famous First Lady Dolley Madison, I argue that we should take seriously the political work of a woman best known for ice cream and a line of packaged pastries. Understanding the precise nature of what she did for the Madison administration and her country enlarges our sense of politics and the ways one can be political.

Three-quarters of the way down the page, at the end of the story of the Merry Affair (a diplomatic contretemps that resulted in the business of British diplomacy taking place not at Jefferson's White House but at Dolley's dinner table), comes the crux of my argument:

"In order for politics to work, it needs two arenas of action. The official sphere includes the documents of government such as treaties, legislation, and meeting minutes, as well as events like cabinet meetings, congressional debates, and public speeches. Though the structures of government have their own processes -- by which a bill may become a law, for instance -- the official sphere is about the final product of politics."

The next paragraph describes the second arena of action:

"The 'unofficial' sphere concerns the process of politics. The 'life and soul' of politics unfolds in the spaces between the official actions of 'policy declarations, open debate, and polished legislation.' This realm allows for 'informal' politicking, which includes proposals, negotiations…."

At this point, the page ends, but clearly the idea is that because this unofficial sphere takes place outside the official setting of offices, at homes and during social events, women are an important part of the process. The terms I use to describe this model -- "official/unofficial"-- deliberately evoke a political science mode. I could have used the term "social sphere" to delineate this space for process and compromise, but it would have been instantly "understood" and dismissed. Do not understand me too quickly, said Andre Gide, and sadly, when it comes to women and women's activities, we are too quick to relegate them to the unimportant. Are such activities feminized because they are trivial or trivialized because they are feminine? Even editors are not immune -- Look at all the quote marks in the paragraph about the "unofficial sphere."

Joseph Ellis once said that I was the historian of what "everyone knows," but doesn't understand. "Everyone knows" that much work of all kinds can only happen at the dinner table or on the golf course, but still, scholars and politicians alike refuse to subject the "unofficial sphere" to serious consideration, until, at least on the politicians' part, they pay at the polls. Partly, I suppose, this refusal is sexism, but it also may be that the power of the unofficial sphere lies in its unconsidered quality, its ability to cover and mask that most essential of political commodities -- power! Think about page 99 next time someone throws out a suggestion over a glass of wine, in the flickering candlelight.
Read more about A Perfect Union at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue