A convicted lunatic, a publicly hated First Lady and a tragic widow to one of America’s greatest Presidents, Mary Todd Lincoln may not have been considered a ‘great woman’ but she was most certainly a fascinating one. Through Steven Spielberg‘s lens, Sally Field‘s emotional portrayal of Mary has helped humanise a controversial and perplex character – but has Lincoln done enough to provoke a reconsideration of this potentially misunderstood and troubled feminist?
Described by biographer Jean H. Baker as “one of the most detested public women in American history,” historians and feminists have long been divided over both Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental state and the happiness of her marriage to America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Disliked for her extravagant spending in a time of great hardship, her acceptance of bribes and her openly emotional, erratic behaviour (something not considered appropriate for a lady of this time,) controversy has forever clouded Mary’s name.
In feminist terms, it could be considered that Mary’s strong and opinionated attitude was something perhaps ahead of her time. Well-read, educated and with a keen interest in politics, she had developed what people used to call a ‘masculine mind’. Emulating men to get ahead isn’t something now so uncommon to think of, is it? Regarding her obsession with fine clothes and her lavish redecoration of the White House, feminist historians have interpreted this preoccupation with spending as an attempt to control something Victorian Washington allowed a woman to have slight power over. On the flip side, it’s easy to see how in the public eye this far-from-reality and sly nature vividly opposed her husband’s down-to-earth and honest demeanour.
Yet, underneath the silhouette of an incredibly unpopular lady lay a fragile woman who despite her faults had been dealt an incredibly rough hand in life. Mary unfortunately suffered from dark moods and bi-polar episodes following an exhaustingly sad list of tragic and heartbreaking deaths. After witnessing the assassination of her husband at the opera, this state of depression deepened and eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln ‘saved his mother from further public humiliation’ by instigating her conviction to an insane asylum. But was she insane? I don’t like to think so, and here’s why; here was a lady who was most likely not suffering from mental illness, but rather an intense amount of unaided and bottled up grief.
Mary lost her mother aged just six years old and her wealthy father remarried quickly. After desperately trying to please her cold stepmother, her attempts were rebuked and she was soon shunted off to boarding school. Later marrying poor country lawyer, Abraham Lincoln (a man her family then considered worthless,) she gave birth to Robert Todd – an unaffectionate son. Birthing three more sons, two then died prior to Abe’s assassination – forcing the president himself to struggle and not fully provide emotional support to his devastated wife. During the Civil War, some of Mary’s relatives were killed fighting for the Confederacy causing her Southern-rooted family to disown her and both sides deem her as a traitor. The final blow to Mary’s ability to cope, came holding her beloved husband’s hand as he was shot in the head next to her.
The shocking truth is that women of Mary Todd Lincoln’s time were given no opportunity to grieve. Discouraged from funerals and banished from sick beds by male doctors for being too emotional, there was no time for a highly distraught lady to let out her pain or be comforted by anyone familiar – even the woman she considered her closest confidant later betrayed her. Unable to even say goodbye the man she deeply loved – is there any wonder this woman acted the way she did? Such sadness forced Mary to eventually act in out a way that was misunderstood and more easily labelled as insane.
Following her institutionalisation, a retrial nearly four months later saw Mary Todd Lincoln legally declared sane, but she spent the rest of her days fearing that she would be sent back to that place.
Nearing the end of the Speilberg’s Lincoln, we hear Mary tell her husband that if people want to understand him, they’ll have to understand her, too. And Mary, I think I finally do.
Words © Francine Heath
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