Helpless: Why Aren’t We Talking about Gender in Hamilton?

“We are living in the age of Hamilton,” admitted Annette Gordon-Reed at a recent book talk. Reed’s comment is surprising: she’s a leading scholar on Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s rival. But her praise is not; nowadays, everyone loves Hamilton.

The sudden resurgence of this sometimes forgotten founding father is the result of the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, which opened on Broadway last year. Hamilton tells the story of the American hero we’ve been waiting for, a self-made man, an immigrant who never owned a plantation. The musical has won a slew of awards including the Pulitzer, not to mention earning a record-breaking sixteen Tony nominations and eleven wins. On a technical level, it’s a work of genius. But much of the almost universal praise for the musical focuses on the way it cleverly reframes history by employing a largely non-white cast. Hamilton feels progressive, even revolutionary. Miranda is fond of telling the media swarm that has developed around the show, “This is a story told about America then, told by America now.”

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The diverse cast of Broadways Hamilton. (Annie Leibovitz/Vogue)

A few critics have attempted to poke holes in the bubble of praise surrounding Hamilton. Gordon-Reed is among several academic historians who have noted that the musical erases historic characters of color (Sally Hemings is mentioned only briefly). But despite the play’s glorification of privileged, slave-holding white men, Hamilton’s status as a progressive touchstone remains largely unquestioned.

But there is another problem with the adoring conversation around Hamilton: the show’s women. As revolutionary as Miranda’s achievement feels, it fails the Bechdel test. The show deals in female tropes: the virgin, the whip-smart oldest sister (unlucky in love), the whore. The Schuyler sisters, styled as an eighteenth-century Destiny’s Child, fade into the domestic background before the end of Act I. And while the male actors of color are given the extraordinary opportunity to rap about the national debt and their Macbethian ambition, their female counterparts sing about little more than romance.

Certainly a musical visionary enough to cast a non-white George Washington could do more for its women. Of course, history presents certain constraints. Before we can wrestle with Miranda’s interpretation of the women in Hamilton’s life, we must become familiar with their historical reality. And to do that, we must also unpack Alexander’s own, cruel, and sometimes disastrous relationship to gender.

The real Hamilton’s story is about sexism rather than race. Or, as Abigail Adams put it: “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.” Legally, Alexander was a bastard, the son of a woman jailed for adultery. As he approached his own marriage, Hamilton began to reveal some troubling expectations for the women in his life. In a letter describing his perfect wife, the young Alexander requests an impossible mix of beauty, fragility, intelligence and obedience. It turns out that Hamilton’s distrust of the opposite sex ran deep: “they are full of weaknesses,” he anxiously wrote to his fiancée Eliza. She, of course, was “one of the exceptions.”

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John Trumball’s portrait of Alexander Hamilton is the model for the face on the 10 dollar bill. (National Portrait Gallery)

Turns out, it was Eliza who should have been worried—our hero was a cheater. Over a decade into the marriage, Alexander’s extended affair with Maria Reynolds made national headlines. His decision to publish his own account of the sordid details in 1797 led to attacks on his wife, making Eliza one of the first in a long line of political wives who made enormous, humiliating sacrifices to save their husband’s careers. Meanwhile, Hamilton claimed he had simply felt sorry for Maria, a “weak” woman.

In truth, Eliza had been saving Hamilton since the two met, giving him access to the elite classes of New York society and financial support for much of his life. In return, Alexander died in a duel in 1804, leaving his wife and seven children with mountains of debt and a repossessed home. His excuse? He claimed that avoiding the deadly challenge from Aaron Burr would “unman” him. Having struggled to support a depressive, philandering husband for decades, Eliza was left to survive alone for fifty more years. Yet she and her sister Angelica thrived, continuing their close relationships with many of the founders.

Gender permeates every stage of Alexander Hamilton’s story, but I left the Public Theatre last year thinking the women had been brushed aside in the musical retelling. I began to wonder: does Hamilton forfeit the stories of real women for dramatic effect, just as it erases characters of color? Existing within the male-centric frameworks of history, hip-hop, and musical theatre, the women on stage are fighting an uphill battle. Is this “progressive” musical, which makes us think so differently about our founding fathers, doing the same for the women who lived alongside them?

To quote Miranda’s fictional Eliza, “have we done enough?”

Check back next week for Part 2 of our series on Hamilton.

 


Carrington OBrion can typically be found standing in the rain waiting for student rush 041tickets. She’s passionate about the way that history and the arts can help us see our lives differently. Particularly interested in the ways that public performances can showcase and effect change, she has written about race, gender and art throughout America’s history. When not writing, you might find her sitting on a museum floor or tweeting @ACarrintheWorld

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