Some historians describe Sara Delano Roosevelt as a control enthusiast who hovered over FDR, her only child.
Some say Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s emotional distance harmed JFK and his siblings.
And many depict Mary Ball Washington as a self-absorbed harridan whose demands often frustrated son George.
But Martha Saxton’s prodigious use of archival sources for “The Widow Washington” reveals a productive, religious woman.
Born circa 1708 in Lancaster County, Mary Ball was orphaned at 12, married at 22 to widower Augustine Washington, widowed at 35—and left to raise their five young children on Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg.
“The loneliness of widowhood and its attendant financial and familial worries pushed her toward somberness and anxiety,” writes Saxton.
From those worries and her responses to them, previous historians have drawn an unflattering picture. But Saxton’s research paints a more favorable one. That she had a temper is unquestioned (so did George). That she could be willful is without doubt (so could George). That the two quarreled about her financial situation is unchallenged.
Saxton lists three factors that exacerbated her plight: the loss of Augustine’s income, the cyclical fluctuations of harvests and the subordinate status of women in colonial Virginia.
A retired professor of history and women’s studies, Saxton is the author of biographies of actress Jayne Mansfield and author Louisa May Alcott; her latest book reaffirms her interests in women who struggled with the societal limitations of their times while accepting some dreadful institutions—in Mary’s case—and, of course, George’s—slavery.
Richly detailed, gracefully composed and refreshingly revelatory, “The Widow Washington” also addresses the nature of biography and the sometimes vastly differing conclusions based on the biographer’s gender. She criticizes scholars of George’s life for “egregiously unfair treatment” of his mother.
Neither Mary nor George was saintly. Saxton offers numerous examples of how both could be prickly, especially about money. But, she writes, Mary “kept her attention focused relentlessly on sustaining and bettering her family” and lived to see the son whose character she molded ascend to the presidency.
With evidence and empathy, Saxton forcefully challenges previous interpretations and offers a more nuanced portrait of a consequential Virginian.
Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.