When thinking of the people who crafted the U.S. Constitution, the name Eliza Harriot doesn’t usually come to mind.
Mary Sarah Bilder, Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School, sheds light on this inspiring female figure in her book Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution, which unpacks Harriot’s role in making the Constitution more inclusive.
While researching for her previous book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, Bilder found a diary entry detailing George Washington’s attendance at a lecture by Harriot, the first female public lecturer in the United States. This entry inspired Bilder to write Female Genius.
“George Washington said she was ‘quite tolerable,’” Bilder said. “When I finished that book, I decided I would just go try to find out who she was and what she was doing there. Did it matter that she was there at the same moment that men were writing the Constitution?”
Bilder saw the significance of this small phrase, “quite tolerable,” and questioned its presence. While other historians might have glanced over this small detail, Bilder found meaning in it, according to Laurel Davis, BC Legal Information Librarian and Lecturer.
“She saw this reference, and it sort of sat percolating in her mind, and then she decided to dig into it,” Davis said.
From there, Bilder decided to dive deeper into Harriot’s life and see if she had any impact on the writing of the Constitution.
“Out of that little question came this big book on that woman,” Bilder said. “The book argues that her presence and the argument that she represented is why the Constitution was written in what at the time was gender-neutral language.”
The title of the book includes both Harriot’s and Washington’s names, which Bilder said emphasizes how women’s rights were still limited at the time.
“The book argues that education was a political right,” Bilder said. “Women wanted access to education as a way to then be allowed to participate in politics, and in the period of the dawn of the Constitution, it’s not yet clear that everyone should be excluded based on race and gender.”
Harriot played a role in the “dawn of the Constitution” by influencing its drafters to adopt more gender-neutral language, Bilder said.
“It tries to reclaim the framing period as a space where there’s possibilities, so it’s not clear yet that women won’t be able to participate,” Bilder said.
The spotlighting of a female figure in a time period dominated by men puts Female Genius in a unique space within constitutional history, Davis said.
“It’s amazing to see how [Graver] thinks about people who have been overlooked in that historical record and how you can really weave these little nuggets of information into a bigger story,” Davis said.
Aside from being a historian and scholar at BC Law, Bilder is also an exceptional professor with a strong devotion to her students, Davis said.
“She’s an incredibly engaging lecturer,” Davis said. “Her class on property was my favorite class here in the three years I attended law school.”
Bilder went to law school thinking it would be a good way to get a job. After clerking for a judge, she decided to return to school to study history and eventually start teaching.
Now at BC, she’s especially interested in the influence of law on everyday life.
“I think that I’m really interested in how law structures the way we live our lives,” Bilder said. “Particularly, the way in which we think the world is one [way] because it exists one way, but we can learn that it exists one way because of laws, or a history of laws.”
To better understand her students, Bilder said she tries to experience what it’s like to learn something for the first time. For example, she said she’s currently learning Latin and taking ballet lessons.
“She has these very deeply thought-out approaches to being a law professor, and being a teacher, and being a colleague,” said Katharine Young, professor of law and associate dean of faculty and global programs.
According to Young, Bilder emulates what it means to be a “female genius” as an educator, colleague, and scholar.
“She takes these lessons of ‘female genius’—of pioneering ideas and supporting education—in a way that is really effective for a law professor in 2023,” Young said.