Letter: Sweet Briar “Ladies” at Mount Vernon

Posted on January 31, 2020 by Meredith Woo

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.