The little-known story of remarkable First Lady Sarah Polk—a brilliant master of the art of high politics and a crucial but unrecognized figure in the history of American feminism.
While the Woman's Rights convention was taking place at Seneca Falls in 1848, First Lady Sarah Childress Polk was wielding influence unprecedented for a woman in Washington, D.C. Yet, while history remembers the women of the convention, it has all but forgotten Sarah Polk. Now, in her riveting biography, Amy S. Greenberg brings Sarah's story into vivid focus. We see Sarah as the daughter of a frontiersman who raised her to discuss politics and business with men; we see the savvy and charm she brandished in order to help her brilliant but unlikeable husband, James K. Polk, ascend to the White House. We watch as she exercises truly extraordinary power as First Lady: quietly manipulating elected officials, shaping foreign policy, and directing a campaign in support of America's expansionist war against Mexico. And we meet many of the enslaved men and women whose difficult labor made Sarah's political success possible.
Lady First also shines a light on Sarah's many layers and contradictions. While her marriage to James was one of equals, she firmly opposed the feminist movement's demands for what she perceived to be far-reaching equality. She banned dancing and hard liquor from the White House, but did more entertaining than any of her predecessors. During the Civil War, she operated on behalf of the Confederacy even though she claimed to be neutral. And in the late nineteenth-century, she became a celebrity among female Christian temperance reformers, while she struggled to redeem her husband's tarnished political legacy.
Sarah Polk's life spanned nearly the entirety of the 19th-century. But her own legacy, which profoundly transformed the South, continues to endure. Comprehensive, nuanced, and brimming with invaluable insight, Lady First is a revelation of our eleventh First Lady's complex but essential part in American feminism.
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