Focus On Women’s History Month : Dolley Madison

March is Women’s History Month. Claire Hickey, a Chicago native who moved to Texas  at age 15, shares  her two-part article on Dolley Madison. Claire is Editor/Writer at Communities Digital News, . She writes the column: Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul.  Please leave a comment  or answer the question: Which woman do you think has had the most influence in history?


When people think of Dolley Madison, one of two thoughts come to mind. Either that of a determined woman bent on saving national treasures from a British onslaught or a pastry company that made snacks for children’s school lunches. And these are both true. But this enchanting lady is so much more than that to American history.

Dolley Madison forged and defined the role for the wife of the President of the United States. Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson Randolph all served well as the President’s Hostess. But Dolley Madison blazed the trail and set in stone the function of the First Lady. In fact, it was Dolley Madison for whom the title, “First Lady” was coined.

The National First Ladies’ Library says this:

With more conscious effort than either of her two predecessors, and with an enthusiasm for public life that neither of them had, Dolley Madison forged the highly public role as a President’s wife, believing that the citizenry was her constituency as well as that of her husband’s.”

It was the role she created that is the standard and what we expect to this day.


Dolley Payne was born in North Carolina to Quakers John and Mary Payne in 1768. She grew up in Virginia and later moved to Philadelphia where she married Quaker lawyer John Todd, Jr.

They had two children, John Payne Todd and William Isaac Todd. The younger child died on the same day as her husband during an epidemic of yellow fever.

The White House website relates that after a period of mourning:

“By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city. With her charm and her laughing blue eyes, fair skin, and black curls, the young widow attracted distinguished attention.”

Introduced by US Senator Aaron Burr, Dolley Payne Todd and James Madison hit it off from the get-go. She was twenty- six, seventeen years younger than Madison but it didn’t matter. They married in September of 1794.

James and Dolley lived in Orange County, Virginia when Congress wasn’t in session. At Montpelier, Dolley honed her skills as hostess and helping James’ career.


James Madison 

When Thomas Jefferson named Madison as his Secretary of State they moved back to Washington City. However, the nation’s Capitol was quite different 212 years ago than it is now.

The Power Couple Arrives in Washington

Upon their arrival in 1801, the “wilderness capital” had changed quite a bit since the Madisons had last seen it. The President’s house and the Capitol building now stood out.

Author Catherine Allgor states in her book, “A Perfect Union”:

“…the city’s main road, ‘Pennsylvania Avenue’ was a grand appellation for the slash of mud that proved almost impossible for any vehicle to navigate….To paraphrase a famous jibe, Washington was a town of houses with no streets and streets with no houses.”

In addition, there was no entrenched social structure like in older established areas. Most cities grow over time. Washington City did not. The city, designed by Peter Charles L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson was whole from the start.

Allgor adds,

“The long established cities of Philadelphia or New York possessed entrenched social structures and hierarchies, to which the federal government had to adapt during each city’s tenure as capital. Washington City lacked such existing configurations or customs and so invited innovation…..However, the very novelty and nature of the capital city presented its residents with several formidable obstacles to realizing their dream of a ‘new Rome’ on the Potomac.”

The couple first lived with President Jefferson at the “President’s House.” Later, the Madisons moved to their own home on F Street. It was here Dolley began building Washington society. Since President Jefferson was a widower, she often served the role of presidential hostess for many official functions as well.

F Street House

Early photo of the F Street House


Please leave a comment  or answer the question: Which woman do you think has had the most influence in history?

You can find Claire At the following places: soul/.




4 thoughts on “Focus On Women’s History Month : Dolley Madison

  1. Thank you for posting about an interesting woman in history. Dolley Madison was an interesting first lady unlike some of the more recent ones.


  2. You write about Dolley Madison. So why did you choose to research and write about her versus one of the other “first ladies?”


  3. Well….I’m sorry to say that I did not know that it’s Women’s History Month. Thank you for the segment on Dolley Madsion. I look forward to reading the next section.


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