Sexual humiliation in American women’s political history: the longue durée

On my way to and from work lately, I’ve been listening to the original cast album of Hamilton, which is of course as catchy and terrific as everyone says it is.  (Trust me:  it’s worth even more than the hype, and I bow to no one in trashing the so-called Founding Fathers, although I do have one misgiving which I describe below.)

It’s especially interesting to listen to alongside the news about the current presidential campaign.  In particular, I’m thinking about the middle part of the album, which  features several songs about Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds and its exposure, as well as the revelation of his extortion by Reynolds’s husband.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton illustrates the partisanship at play in this political and sexual scandal by showing Hamilton essentially accused of corruption by Thomas Jefferson (the new Vice President under John Adams in 1797), and his fellow Democratic-Republican allies James Madison and Senator Aaron Burr, who had recently defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law in the New York Senate race.

This is pretty rich, considering that Jefferson and Burr had their own extramarital sexual affairs–Jefferson’s longstanding liaison with Sally Hemings, whom he owned; and Burr’s relationship with his wife Theodosia, which began long before she was widowed in the Revolution.  Confronted with the prospect of political ruin, Hamilton published his own pamphlet admitting to sexual incontinence but defending his honor as a steward of the public trust, saying that he paid the blackmail with his own money.

Hillary Clinton, 2016

Hillary Clinton, 2016

Is it really such a coincidence that we have a hit Broadway show and a presidential campaign that both feature strong backstories involving the sexual humiliation of political wives?  I kept thinking of Hillary Clinton while listening to Eliza Hamilton’s song “Burn,” sung by Phillipa Soo:  “You told the whole world how you brought this girl into our bed.  In clearing your name you have ruined our lives.”  Reynolds was herself a pawn used by her husband in the blackmail scheme–two women sexually humiliated at the cost of Alexander Hamilton’s political career.

What if the U.S. at the turn of the nineteenth century were a world in which Eliza Hamilton could have run and won a seat in the senate, and then have gone on to have the presidential career her husband never did?  What if the U.S. at the turn of the twenty-first century no longer looked at women only or primarily as sex objects either desired or spurned by men?  The sexual humiliation of women is so completely bound up in our politics (for 227 years and counting) as a means to destroy both men and now women political opponents that I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

This is not just because of the particular biographies of Hillary and Bill Clinton.  The candidacy of the first serious contender who was a woman would end up being all about sex anyway.  People of all political persuasions are guilty of this whenever women rise to political prominence.  Democrats and lefties should remember the sexually and gender-charged ways in which they went after Sarah Palin eight years ago.  Sexual humiliation is like sexual assault:  it can happen to any woman, especially because we love to blame women for their husbands’ sexual incontinence as well as their own!  Any woman’s sexual history–or her husband’s sexual history–can be spun into a noxious cocktail of calumny brewed only for its political potency.

My one reservation about Hamilton?  I don’t think it passes the Bechdel Test.  This is a profound disappointment, but not a surprise.  You could say, “hey, it’s the eighteenth century!”  But I think we can do better in imagining the ways girls and women communicated throughout history.  After all, no one was “in the room where it happened” in any of Miranda’s imagined eighteenth century.

Here’s a funny slice of Hamilton listening for you, enjoyable by those who know the score and those who don’t, alike.

18 thoughts on “Sexual humiliation in American women’s political history: the longue durée

  1. I can only pray that Hillary Clinton wins. Donald Trump will put womens rights back a hundred years.

    Please America look at this man as a human being not as a man not as a woman. He is despicable. He is selfish and is self serving. I am ashamed I ever considered voting for him . But the more I heard what he was spouting the more my skin crawled . Hillary has worked for America all her life for justice and to better others lives while Trump only cares about himself. he doesn’t respect his wife all three of them .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Huh. It hadn’t occurred to me that Hamilton doesn’t quite pass the Bechdel Test, though I certainly apply it to every other media I consume. “The Schuyler Sisters” comes close but it’s still framed as a marriage market song, no matter how much they talk about political revolution.


    • Schuyler Sisters is all about Daddy and then A. Ham. I double-checked it yesterday, because a student pointed out that it might contradict my judgement. But it doesn’t, sadly.

      Also, I have to note that all of the women get sappy slow songs, no fun hip-hop or rap battles. The women only come into the picture to provide love, sex, and children. They have no interests outside of these concerns, which really stinks IMHO.


  3. As contributory to a bibliography proceeding from this post, I would offer: Sarah Knott, “Female Liberty? Sentimental Gallantry, Republican Womanhood, and Rights Feminism in the Age of Revolutions,” _William and Mary Quarterly_, (July, 2014), 425-456, and Andrew Cayton, _Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism & Historical Change, 1793-1818_, (Chapel Hill, 2013). Tough and challenging reading, both, but relevant and worth it.

    Given the fiscal-actuarial unlikelihood that a Broadway-sized investor bet on A. Hamilton would have hit the American theatregoer’s dramatic funny bone, which it did, of course, I would have preferred to see a comparable dice-roll on an obscure but colorful founder like Harmon Husband (which sounds like a fictionalized name, whatever the truth), or indeed, even Burr, but one that back-stories the duel and the Louisiana caper in favor of an emphasis on his very early and very much later lives.


    • No–Hercules Mulligan is the one *I* want to know more about! He gets some good lines in some good songs, but not nearly enough stage time for me.


    • Ever since Alexander Hamilton became a musical, I have been wanting one for Harmon Husband! My current book project is about the cross sections of the Stamp Act, the Regulator Rebellion in North Carolina and the Townshend Acts, all three political entanglements with both obscure and more famous colonists. For me, the blind spot in Hamilton is avoiding the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, i.e. a rebellion in which he is decidedly not a populist/man of the people. Harmon Husband was a major player in instigating the Regulator Rebellion in the 1760s and the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s and his political/religious writings campaign for a very different world than the one that was actually created.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s a dissertation on Husband, at Northern Illinois, c. mid-late 1980s, doubtless directed by Alfred F. Young. It never saw print, as far as I know, save for an article and maybe an encyclopedia entry. Even if Husband didn’t have the box office dis/ad/vantage of sounding like the hapless title character of a Restoration-era farce, he would have some tactical advantages as an exponent, in his mercurial mobility, his mysticism, and maybe as an alchemyst-catalyst for even the more obscure figures who he was cast among. The Whiskey Rebellion has been written about by some talented scholars, but its penumbra, away from the big stills and headline confrontations is I think pretty undeveloped. He has a kinship network into eastern Pennsylvania and the waterways of the upper Chesapeake Bay. There is an actual place, “Husband,” near Somerset, in Western PA, where his restless spirit finally came to rest.


  4. You’ve hit on the one aspect of Hamilton which also bothers me. I still love the musical to bits, and I can see where LMM is trying (thinks he is trying) to include women — but yes. One more major and spectacular work of art which essentially keeps women in the margin.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s frustrating. My daughter and I were just listening to it in the car, and BOTH of us just want to skip over the women’s songs, which (as I say above) are slow & sappy. Nothing compared to the stirring “here come the general” lines in “Right Hand Man,” or the “Layfayette” part of “Guns & Ships.” I’d even settle for the campy humor in King George III singing “You’ll Be Back” and “What Comes Next?”


  5. Eliza and Angelica are the very best of that show. One thing that struck me while watching #HamilDoc this weekend was the idea that Eliza never spoke about her husband’s affair publicly. Maybe I’ve missed something recently, but last year I read HRC’s autobiographies and was a bit struck by the fact that she didn’t expound in what she thought of Lewinsky et al. Maybe it’s not exactly the same, but it reminds me of Eliza.

    And what I love is even though the show is too much Alex and not enough Eliza, we still end with her, and Chernow frames his bio with her as well. Even more, I love her own story of creating the orphanage that still continues her work today.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, she gets the last say in the show, and about A. Ham’s life & legacy. I still think that the women are decorative and reactive up to that point. The men make the story move, and that’s not because it’s set in the 18th C–that’s because of the decisions that Miranda et. al. made in the early 21st century.


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  7. It’s as if Eliza and Hillary are both versions of the failed “republican wife.” They were both unable to use their sexuality to keep their political husbands on the path of virtue. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is the amoral seducer — the person who doesn’t even care about virtue — the one figure an idealized republic has no answer for. (But I’m not an Americanist . . . this is what comes of reading Jan Lewis’s article while watching a presidential debate!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey–are you the Amy Stanley who wrote “Maidservants’ Tales” in AHR last spring? We’re reading that article for my grad class on Wednesday!

      And, you’re exactly right: failed Republican wives, if not failed Republican mothers. (Eliza was especially so–but too bad her wife & motherhood overlapped with dueling culture to such a devastating degree!)


      • Yes, that’s me! And I’m so happy you’re teaching the article. I actually owe you for it – I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and I think it was partially a post you wrote about Amy Froide’s book about single women that helped give me the idea. Anyway, I hope they get something out of it!

        I’d love to meet you at AHA! I’m giving a paper on Friday and will be around for a little bit. Would be great to say thanks in person!

        Liked by 1 person

    • That’s all good–glad to hear something around the ranch was inspirational!

      Yes, let’s plan to meet up at AHA–I’ll be mostly just holding court there all weekend. Look for the long line of pilgrims–


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