Anna Quindlen: Mary Todd Lincoln's Tragic Story

As a Catholic schoolgirl I supplemented the obligatory "Lives of the Saints" with the biographies of famous women, searching for the possibility of a future that did not include an apron. The pickings were slim: Elizabeth Blackwell, Florence Nightingale. Some of the women I learned about then are still among my heroines, especially Elizabeth I. I remain a fan of world domination and red hair.

But it was difficult to escape the cautionary tales as well, the women of history who had hitched their fortunes to some man and suffered surrogate consequences. There was Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, who gets the blame for the end of the Catholic Church in England and the lack of a male heir when her fickle husband, the king, was the culprit. There was Marie Antoinette, who was detested by the French because she was foreign—plus ça change—and who likely never said "Let them eat cake." Notoriety means winding up with your head on the chopping block.

Which means that as the Lincoln bicentennial has flooded the nation with books, documentaries and commemorative coins, the Lincoln I've been thinking about is Mary Todd, the first lady. Her story breaks my heart.

Here is how the world remembers her, if it remembers her at all: short, plump, shrewish, crazy. Here is what's important to know: smart, educated, politically engaged. She'd had 12 years of formal education while her husband had less than one; a story about her girlhood says that, seeing her running to school so eagerly, the town watchmen assumed she must be eloping. At a time when the operative mode for women was to be vacuous, she was witty and entertaining. When she went to live with her older sister in Springfield, Ill., she had her choice of the two men who would face off in the best-known debate in American history, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. She chose the latter, although her sister called him "the plainest man" in town.

Despite his lack of grace and style, and his crippling depressions, she saw something in Lincoln that others did not. "Mary insists that I am going to be senator and president of the United States too," he once told a reporter, laughing at the thought. He returned the favor by taking her seriously; he once gave her the gift of a list of election returns from recent legislative contests, and she tied it up with a pink ribbon. He often left her alone with their sons as he rode the circuit, but when he was at home they talked politics, and she worked behind the scenes on his behalf. As her biographer Jean H. Baker notes, Lincoln's male advisers "called her ambitious, the insulting antithesis, when applied to females, of the modest deference sought in wives."

That's the tragedy of Mary Todd's story, that the narrow strictures applied to women in her time boxed her into a life unsuited to her nature or abilities. It reminds us that societal customs and laws that hobble individuals not only sentence them to lives of frustration and desperation, but also deplete the stock of available human talent. You see it in the Catholic Church, which refuses to ordain women while the number of priests dwindles and its influence wanes, or fundamentalist sects that make themselves isolated outposts. One look at Barack Obama in the White House, and one look back at the moment when Teddy Roosevelt was excoriated for perpetrating a "damnable outrage" by having Booker T. Washington to dine there—that's all it takes to know that communities that impose rigid roles on their members wind up diminishing themselves.

When Mary Todd Lincoln and her husband went to the White House, and the Civil War took his attention away from her, her thwarted nature found sad expression. Like many a bored and underemployed woman before and since, she shopped: china, silver, wallpaper, lace, jewelry. She traded in influence, too, taking gifts from those who wanted access to the president. Even her grief was considered unseemly; she buried three of her four sons, systematically losing the only real job she'd ever known, but was criticized for exhibiting passionate bereavement instead of the pious acceptance then in fashion. "Keep that woman out of here," one of the men was said to have snarled as her husband lay dying. Is there anything sadder than the fact that she had once told a girlhood friend she had to marry a man who would take her to the theater?

By the standard of our times most of what Mary did is, if not acceptable, at least understandable. But in our times her life would have been different. Her son would not have been able to commit her to a lunatic asylum because she bought gloves in multiples, was worried she was being watched—she was, by detectives he had hired—and was, according to one witness, "not like ladies in general." Calculating and ambitious, she might have dreamed of being president instead of marrying one.

Of all the things to admire about Abraham Lincoln, one of the most human and touching is his way with his wife. When he learned the presidential election results in the Springfield telegraph office in 1860, he ran home, crying, "Mary, Mary, we are elected." When he wrote to her at the beginning of April 1865, he paid her the compliment of significance: "At 4:30 p.m. today General Grant telegraphs that he has Petersburg completely enveloped from river below to river above, and has captured, since he started last Wednesday, about 12,000 prisoners and 50 guns." Two weeks later, and he had become a god and she a pariah, an unruly and inconvenient woman.