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Catherine Allgor Recognized as “Trailblazer” in Field of First Ladies Research
FLARE names Allgor 2023 Gould Award winner, praising her for contributions to the research and education of first ladies.
When Catherine Allgor first authored a book about former First Lady Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth president, James Madison (1809-1817), Allgor wanted to explore how women drove political power in the decades following America’s founding. While some might use the term “behind the scenes” to describe women’s relationship to power at the time, Allgor believes anytime politics is happening, it’s center stage.
For example, Allgor refers to the founding men of the city of Washington, D.C. when they were trying to create a government (Washington, D.C. was established as the seat of federal government in 1790). At that time, she says, the women of Washington (the wives, mothers and sisters) were constructing a parallel structure where political favors, connections, compromises and legislative proposals were made outside the traditional halls of power. That all took place because women created comfortable social spaces. “What men couldn't do in the official spotlight, they could do at a party, and they could do it at home,” she says.
Allgor goes on to explain how the profession of lobbyists was pioneered by early Washington women. For Allgor, it shows a story about power, political development and nationhood from a very new angle. “Dolley Madison was so good at it,” Allgor says, adding that Madison was at the head of “a rudimentary political machine that was staffed by [Washington] women.”
[Dolley] Madison was at the head of “a rudimentary political machine that was staffed by [Washington] women.” — Catherine Allgor, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the 2023 Lewis L. Gould Award winner.
It’s insights and expertise like this that has garnered Allgor, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a new honor — the 2023 Lewis L. Gould Award bestowed by the First Ladies Association for Research and Education (FLARE) for Allgor’s contributions to the study of America’s first ladies. The mission of FLARE, which was established 2021, is to create and sustain a network to promote and publicize research and education about the contribution, lives, impact, and lasting legacy of U.S. first ladies. Allgor was named the recipient in a virtual ceremony Monday that took place over YouTube and Facebook.
Allgor is the third recipient of the award, which was established in 2021 when FLARE honored Gould as the inaugural recipient of the award. Gould, the Eugene Barker Centennial Emeritus professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin, is widely credited for his pioneering work that created a new discipline in the study of America’s first ladies, inspiring a new generation of first ladies scholars.
Allgor, in her acceptance speech, says reading Gould’s book “American First Ladies” was a “turning point for me.” It was a moment, she says, when she understood that first ladies are a subject worth serious consideration.
Anita McBride, a founding member of FLARE, second recipient of the Gould award, and former chief of staff of former First Lady Laura Bush, described Allgor as “a trailblazer” in the field of first ladies with meticulous research and depth of knowledge.
“She elevated the study of first ladies,” McBride says during the ceremony, adding, “She helped shine a bright light on a description of a first lady when there is no description.”
“[Catherine Allgor] helped shine a bright light on a description of a first lady when there is no description.” — Anita McBride, founding member of FLARE, second recipient of the Gould award, and former chief of staff of former First Lady Laura Bush
In turn, Allgor credits FLARE for institutionalizing the study of first ladies.
“It means a lot because it’s from FLARE,” Allgor tells East Wing Magazine in a phone interview. “It means a lot coming from this organization, which is really trying to not only help people study the first ladies, but also promote them as a topic worthy of serious study.”
FLARE recognizes Allgor’s more than 20 years as a leader in scholarship and publications on first ladies. Allgor has focused in particular on Abigail Adams (wife to John Adams, the second president of the United States from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801) and Dolley Madison in both the classroom and in her publications. Her books and scholarship have been recognized for their academic excellence, including while at Yale University when she was awarded the outstanding teacher award in addition to her dissertation receiving Yale’s best dissertation in American history honor.
“Catherine has been a giant in our field,” says Myra G. Gutin, FLARE president and professor Emerita in the Department of Communication, Journalism and Media at Rider University, in presenting the award to Allgor. “She understands the importance of passing on the knowledge she has accrued. She lights the way on the importance of first ladies.”
Allgor’s books include “Dolley Madison: The Problem of Unity” (2013), “The Queen of America: Mary Cutt’s Life of Dolley Madison” (2012), “A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation” (2006), and “Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government” (2000).
Allgor is also a frequent lecturer at conferences dealing with first ladies. Her involvement includes speaking on earlier first ladies during a panel at the 2022 White House Historical Association’s Presidential Sites Summit; advising on the 2022 Showtime series on first ladies; and speaking on Martha Jefferson and Dolley Madison for the C-SPAN 2013-2014 series on First Ladies: Influence and Image.
Allgor was also appointed to the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation by President Barack Obama. She is a member of the board of directors of the National Women’s History Museum; she serves on the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians; is a member of the Gilder Lehrman Scholarly Advisory Board; and was appointed to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Aside from her affiliations, Allgor shares FLARE’s commitment to educating the public about the contributions of first ladies. And it’s that alignment that gives her an optimistic outlook about the field.
“FLARE is not the first attempt to institutionalize and legitimize the study of this remarkable group of women, but it is the most serious and the most successful,” Allgor says in acceptance of the award.
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