OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Mary Sarah Bilder

Portrait of Mary Sarah Bilder
Image Credit: Webb Chappell Photography

Professor Mary Sarah Bilder is the Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. Her latest book, Female Genius: George Washington and Eliza Harriot at the Dawn of the Constitution will be published in early 2022. Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (2015) received the 2016 Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy, and was a finalist for the 2016 George Washington Book Prize; The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire (2004), received the Littleton-Griswold Award (American Historical Association). Her recent scholarship has focused on the Age of the Constitution and the framing generation, transatlantic feminism, James Madison and the Convention record, and colonial and founding era constitutionalism, as well as Robert Morris, the early African American civil rights activist and lawyer. She has taught at Boston College since 1994 and as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School. She teaches in the areas of property, American legal and constitutional history, and trusts and estates, and has twice received the Emil Slizewski Faculty Teaching Award. She received her B.A. with Honors (English) and the Dean’s Prize from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her J.D. (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, and her A.M. (History) and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization/American Studies. She was a law clerk to the Hon. Francis Murnaghan, Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. She is Literary Director of the Ames Foundation and a member of the American Law Institute, the American Antiquarian Association, and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. She is member of the Massachusetts Bar Association and the State Bar of Wisconsin (inactive status). Professor Bilder has written for broader audiences at the Atlantic, Boston Globe, and online publications, and appears in the Annenberg Foundation’s classroom history videos.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

James Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention have acquired nearly unquestioned authority as the description of the U.S. Constitution’s creation. No document provides a more complete record of the deliberations in Philadelphia. But how reliable is this account? In an unprecedented investigation Bilder reveals that Madison revised the Notes to a far greater extent than previously recognized. Madison’s Hand offers a biography of a document that, over two centuries, developed a life and character all its own.
In the summer of 1787, a remarkable woman gave the first public lecture by a woman to an audience including George Washington and Convention delegates. Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor was an English-born, Irish-married educator who promoted the ideas made more famous by Mary Wollstonecraft. She represented a radical new idea in the English-speaking world: female genius, which signified that women had equal capacity and deserved an equal education and political representation. Innovative digital research reveals Eliza Harriot’s conviction that women deserved access to the college (public-funded higher education) and the forum (political representation and office-holding), and her probable influence on the Constitution’s gender-neutral language. This biography of one ambitious woman is also an inspirational transatlantic history of women who believed in education as a political right.