Letter: Sweet Briar “Ladies” at Mount Vernon

Front view of Washington's Mount Vernon Home
Mount Vernon

I first met Gay Hart Gaines, Class of 1959, in Palm Beach. A woman of uncommon intelligence and energy – with beauty to match it – she was born in Canada of American parents, and raised in Bombay, Sydney and Paris. She had travelled the four corners of the world before her father, who headed global operations for Colgate-Palmolive, sent her “home,” saying that she now needed to become an American.

This was an exhortation well heeded. The first question she asked me – and it hadn’t escaped her that I was another person who had been raised everywhere but here – whether we teach, as a core requirement, the founding principles of this country. We have a core, I said, that teaches women leadership, but no, we don’t have the “founding principles,” or the history and politics of the early Republic, as a core requirement. This reply prompted an exquisite lamentation on the loss of history, and the erosion of democracy and citizenship – long enough and passionate enough that I wanted to crawl under the table.

How we remember the founding of the nation, and the revolution that created it, is a contentious – even tendentious – issue. Part of the controversy centers on America’s exceptionalism, from whence sprang, in Thomas Jefferson’s felicitous phrase, the “Empire of Liberty,” with its moral claim for leading the nation and the world. Others have to do with citizenship rights, then based on the color of skin and gender. And still others have to do with the habits of social science: there is too much focus on human agency in the writing of American history of that era, bordering on hagiography.

The study of the early Republic has an obvious appeal, especially for Sweet Briar, located as it is in a state that produced seven of the first twelve presidents. Political and scholarly arguments of the day notwithstanding, the founding principles of the nation – and all the debates that surrounded them – are consequential because all societies evolve in a “path-dependent” manner: the paths we took at the point of origin shape who we are, which is another way of saying that history matters.

So, last week I packed the twenty-two students from my class, “The Consequential Citizen,” into two vans and headed out to Mount Vernon. The required capstone for our leadership core, the course will use the resources of presidential homes, libraries and museums in Virginia to reflect upon the conundrum of leadership. Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Monticello, as well as the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, will become our classroom – and toward the end of the course, the Woodrow Wilson Library will be added, to enable us to examine the leadership of a 20th century president from Virginia who did much to spark the idea of self-determination in the minds of the colonized peoples around the world, yet has a troubled legacy in terms of his attitudes about race.

All leaders—indeed all of us—have complex histories. At Mount Vernon, the students learned to understand George Washington as president and also as a soldier, farmer, planter, fish exporter, home-spun architect, husband – and as a man who owned slaves and freed them upon his death.

The highlight of the long day was probably the simulation exercise called Be Washington. Our students were introduced to a number of challenges that try one’s leadership skills, the historical and political contexts of these challenges, and an array of advice for options. For instance, in 1793 during the French Revolutionary Wars, should we have supported the French, without whom we could not have won the War of Independence, to remain true to the 1778 Franco-American alliance, or should we have remained strictly neutral and not gotten involved in the internecine wars in Europe? Or should we have referred the whole issue to the Congress to decide? What would George do?

At Mount Vernon, one learns about another kind of leadership. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association is the all-women governing body of this historical site. Created in 1853 to rescue the disintegrating estate of George Washington, it was also the first national historic preservation organization. Led by women who carried all before them, it blazed a trail in the field of conservation and preservation.

I already knew two regents leading this remarkable group of women. The fifteenth regent (1993-1996) was Vaughan Inge Morrissette, Class of 1954, whose daughter and daughter-in-law also went to Sweet Briar. Focused on George Washington’s interest in horticulture and farming, Vaughan helped transform, among other things, the four-acre parcel of former swampland near the Potomac into a learning field, with an exact replica of the 16-sided treading barn Washington had designed and built in the mid-1790s. It was both fun and deeply meaningful to have the current Sweet Briar “ladies” circling the treading barn that was used for processing wheat, the most important cash crop for George Washington.

Gay Hart Gaines served as the eighteenth regent. Deeply committed to creating historical programming about Washington’s legacy, she also spearheaded the campaign to build Mount Vernon’s museum and orientation center, as well as an education center. For a capital campaign with a goal of $60 million, Gay helped deliver $116 million.

There were others I did not know about. Staring at the roster of current vice-regents for the Ladies Association, I noticed the presence of two alumnae: Judith Wilson Grant, Class of 1966, and Ann Cady Scott, Class of 1971. There was also Elizabeth Medlin Hale, who is married to a family with extensive Sweet Briar connections.

“How do you get three Sweet Briar ladies out of 21 vice regents?” I called Gay to ask. “Oh, Meredith,” she said, “in my time we used to have more.” Mary Pope Hutson, our vice president for alumnae relations and development, ticks off more “ladies” names:  Derrill Maybank Hagood ’55, Frances Archer Guy ’42, Lynn Crosby Gammill ’58.

I think I will call the archivist for the “Ladies” to get the full list – for the next blog.

Our current Sweet Briar “ladies” were buoyed by the great legacy of which they are part. The study of women’s leadership through the core curriculum suddenly came home to them. The notion that they are women who make history – in this case by preserving and conserving it – was no longer a fanciful abstraction but a reality before their very nose.

Thank you, Gay, for inspiring us.

6 thoughts on “Letter: Sweet Briar “Ladies” at Mount Vernon

  1. While it is incredibly important to incorporate these historically significant places into a leadership curriculum, I hope that Sweet Briar students are also learning about leaders like Harriet Tubman, who lived just over the border in Maryland, and Booker T Washington, who has an absolutely lovely (*now*, I’m sure it wasn’t so much living in that Washington’s log hut with a dirt floor) and incredibly instructive (speaking as a Landscape Architect) homeplace a little south of Poplar Forest. The two make a striking comparison, architecturally as well as socially & culturally. Sweet Briar has it’s own dual history, the written and unwritten, the built and the buried. I hope the leadership curriculum challenges students–most especially white “suburban” women like me–to interrogate even the most cherished stories to find the buried ones. California is only just beginning to really discuss the terrible atrocities the indigenous people, Chinese immigrants and Japanese immigrants here suffered in the name of principles, and we should acknowledge these as part of our founding stories if we expect to do any better in the future. Also, a minor correction, Washington asked that his slaves be freed *after Martha’s death*. She only freed them a year or so later when she became paranoid they were trying to kill her. The vast majority of the estate’s slaves belonged to Martha from her first marriage, and were never freed. Overall, bravo for challenging students with these courses, seeing these places in person brings these stories to life and we have so much to learn from them. It’s heartening to know that alums are part of preserving these important historical landscapes, provoking new conversations about them in our current time.

  2. “And still others have to do with the habits of social science: there is too much focus on human agency in the writing of American history of that era [ the founding ] , bordering on hagiography.”

    Yes. If we eschew full context, we actually disempower human agency. Iraq, post-Saddam? “Just call forth your G. W. and your T.J. and you too will be an American-style democracy.” As Woo suggests, the defective writing of history has grave consequences.

  3. What a wonderful class for the lucky young ladies of SBC ! How wonderful to highlight not only the importance of history and our place in it, but also to recognize the many SBC ‘ladies’ (as well as non-SBC ladies) who help preserve and present it. I know there are many ‘ladies’ all over the country engaged in historic and lineage organizations, all doing their best to insure that the history in their little corner of the world is preserved and shared. Dare I say, in perpetuity? Hats off to all of those ladies, everywhere!

  4. The core is the core. Of history. Of our very being as humans we have a core. Our task as leaders and parents is to reveal that core to our students and children – all within the context of their grasp and their time in history.

    You have achieved this. Well done.

  5. Thank you for another fine read! Woo, you are dynamite. I am so grateful for your combination of grace and doggedness. You tenderly yet fiercely lay it wide open that the history of our founding is triumphantly human and not without flaws. I wish I could have been a student in your van ride to Mt. Vernon. Also, I learned three new vocabulary words in a single paragraph of your blog


  6. This class reminds me History classes at Sweet Briar with Joan Kent. After years of scribbling notes from lectures in high school to be regurgitated on a test, I was in an English history class with Ms. Kent, and she asked us to talk about Elizabeth I, did she lead or was she led? The conversation was robust among the 20-ish members of the class. And I was reminded of a law school class, several decades later, in which a hypothetical was posed to a 1st-year criminal law class of 120-ish–law school, famous for hypotheticals, this one a what if …. you are in a sinking ship, below deck, and a person on the ladder to the upper deck has frozen, not moving, you have an uncomfortable choice–the conversation was robust among five of us; then from the back row comes “Why don’t you just tell us what will be on the test.” I wasn’t at Sweet Briar anymore.
    I hope to hear more about the evolution of “The Consequential Citizen” class, as there are so many directions it could go–and that’s a good thing.
    (PS: the person who just wanted to know what was on the test in the criminal law exam was given the boot after the first semester. Just saying…)

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