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Few would describe the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association founder Ann Pamela Cunningham as a cheerleader for the feminist movement, in part because her rescue of George Washington's historic estate came long before this term was popularized. The trailblazing organization she created was a feat born out of integrity, determination, and bravery.
There is no doubt that this seemingly mild-mannered lady from South Carolina recognized the untapped power and determination of American women early on. Without being disingenuous or manipulative, she sought women with a certain set of characteristics to serve as Vice Regents for the association. She needed women who were smart, creative, and perhaps most of all, connected. Miss Cunningham knew to be successful in purchasing Mount Vernon, she needed to find a way for her ladies to work with men, not around them.
When asked what qualities were sought to be a member of the of the association, Miss Cunningham defined the role of a Vice Regent as such:
She shall be of a family whose social position would command the confidence of the State, and enable her to enlist the aid of persons of the widest influence...She must be able to command considerable leisure, as the duties will require much time until stipulated funds are raised. She should also possess liberal patriotism, energy of character, cultivation of mind, and such a combination of mental powers as will insure that she shall wisely and judiciously exercise the power of voting in Grand Council upon the future guardianship and improvement of Mount Vernon.
As proven in her acquisition of the estate, this determined South Carolinian was ahead of her time. Today, the chairmen of most nonprofit organizations would create an almost identical job description for their board members. Miss Cunningham was a true pioneer of philanthropy and set an example for future business leaders.
In the post-Civil War era, almost every aspect of society reinforced that a woman's place was in the home, far from the public eye. In seeking Vice Regents, Miss Cunningham did not openly campaign against these social norms as the goal was not to lead a social movement. She simply ignored the status quo and searched for women who could get the job done.
Miss Cunningham's philosophy was clearly reflected in her selection of the first Vice Regents. Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie of Richmond was a descendant of a famous Anglican bishop and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, while her husband was a member of Virginia's General Assembly. She was also a talented poet, playwright and novelist. Yet in some lofty social circles, Mrs. Ritchie had ruined her reputation by becoming an actress - a profession frowned upon in some circles of Victorian Society. In the end, Miss Cunningham's faith in Mrs. Ritchie was well rewarded (both politically and financially) as her flamboyant personality helped draw attention to the Association's plight.
In Massachusetts, Miss Cunningham selected Louisa Ingersoll Greenough, the widow of the famous sculptor Horatio Greenough who created the massive statue of Washington that at that time faced the U.S. Capitol. During that time period, the state of Wisconsin was considered a frontier state in 1858 when Miss Cunningham selected Martha Reed Mitchell, wife of one of America's wealthiest railroad magnates. In Florida, the Regent tapped Catherine Murat, who was a French princess by virtue of her marriage to the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, while also being the great niece of George Washington himself.
And just like that, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA) was born. Still, in almost every respect, the first women who gathered together as Mount Vernon's board were a truly remarkable team. When war was tearing apart the nation, when President Lincoln's assassination sent the country into mourning, when reconstruction changed forever the balance of power in the American economy, the Regent and Vice Regents were seldom at odds with each other. They remained focused and never lost sight of their goal.
The association set an example of what true determination and integrity looked like in dire times. The ladies had a job to get done and set a high bar for future boards. Since its inception, the ladies original standards continue to be met today. The current 26 members carry on Miss Cunningham's devotion and passion of preserving the legacy of George Washington and the spirit of Mount Vernon.