Library Journal Review
With this highly readable biography, Greenberg (George Winfree Professor of History and Women's Studies, Pennsylvania State Univ.; A Wicked War) tells the fascinating and largely unknown story of an unheralded presidential spouse and provides an insightful analysis of gender roles in 19th-century America. Sarah Childress Polk (1803-91) skillfully manipulated cultural expectations for women of her class while forging a companionate marriage that was a true political partnership. Throughout James K. Polk's career as Speaker of the House, governor of Tennessee, and U.S. president, Sarah served as his communications director and managed his correspondence. The author shows how the politically engaged first lady deliberately cultivated a deferential persona in order to adhere to traditional values, and how she served as an example to future conservative women with political power. Greenberg astutely explains that Sarah failed to attain recognition by distancing herself from the emerging suffrage movement, championing the deeply unpopular Mexican War, and acting in the interests of the ­Confederacy. This well-researched account aims to correct the historical record and refute misinterpretations of her life. ­VERDICT Greenberg's sensitive portrait should appeal to a wide audience, from serious historians to general readers interested in the lives of first ladies and achieving women.-Marie M. Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Greenberg (A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico), a professor of history and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University, delivers a stellar biography of Sarah Polk, an influential yet not well-known 19th-century American woman. She argues that Polk, as first lady from 1845 to 1849, was powerful, popular, and publicly political. Liberal women supported the emerging women's rights movement, but the more conservative Polk acquired power by manipulating female deference-remaining outwardly subordinate to men-to advance her own power. Born on the Tennessee frontier in 1803, the wealthy, well-educated, religious Sarah Childress married James K. Polk, a fledgling politician, in 1824 and dedicated her life to promoting his career and the Democratic Party platform. She excelled at Washington's "parlor politics," hosting dinners and parties to foster James's prospects in Congress. Sarah managed the correspondence for his 1839 Tennessee gubernatorial campaign and his 1844 presidential run. As first lady, she supported westward expansion and the 1846 war with Mexico. Widowed, she ran the family's plantation, remaining an unrepentant slaveowner through the Civil War. Sarah Polk comes alive in these pages, with Greenberg expertly illuminating the intersections of the public and private, providing readers a refreshing new way to look at 19th-century American political and social history. This is a highly recommended work. Illus. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Booklist Review
Few lists of influential first ladies include Sarah Polk, the wife of James K. Polk, eleventh president of the U.S. In this extensively documented account, Greenberg (A Wicked War, 2012) asserts that, despite her current anonymity, Polk was once the most powerful woman in America. She was held up as a paragon of her sex, despite being childless in an era of large families. She was a recognized public figure in a culture in which wives were supposed to be nearly invisible. She was known for her popular and unabashedly political entertainments at a time when government affairs were thought to be far beyond the grasp, let alone the business, of females. More social history than biography, the text traces Polk's steadily growing expertise in charming, manipulating, and exerting pressure to abet her husband's political career, which made for lasting change in Democratic Party policies. This is an in-depth, telling account of a largely overlooked woman who was able to effect profound influence while working within the constraints of her time and place.--Kathleen McBroom Copyright 2018 Booklist