Much of my work has treated the relationship between ideology and the interior lives of American women. I have explored this interplay in biographies and in community studies in early America, the nineteenth century, and in the mid-twentieth century. The ideologies that particularly interest me concern the sexual and moral behavior of women, rich and poor, black, Native American, and white. Initially, I focused on individual women and the attitudes, beliefs and economic constraints that shaped their worlds. I tried to track the forces that they resisted, complied with, and/or expressed in their lives and work. In my last book, I looked, instead, at groups of women and how ideas, customs, and laws governing the moral behavior of each group overlapped or differed. These differences and similarities for better and for worse, shaped women's inner lives and our national identities in the early nation.
I am currently working on a study of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington's mother. My interest in her developed from research on conflict between widows and their sons in late eighteenth-century Virginia. This conflict led me to review historians' treatments of Mary Ball. Accounts of her as a mother begin in praise in the nineteenth century and move to condemnation in the twentieth. This study attempts to recover the outlines of Mary Washington's life, while looking at the transformation of biography in the last two centuries and its implications for the stories we tell about women.