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Bilder Named Distinguished Lecturer

The professor and legal historian joins prestigious speaker roster on eve of new book.

Photograph by Webb Chappell

Mary Sarah Bilder, Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School, is among the 23 Distinguished Lecturers selected by Philip J. Deloria, president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), in 2021 to serve an extendable three-year term. She joins a roster of nearly 600 prominent scholars who speak to audiences across the country on all aspects of US history.

The multi-prize-winning legal historian enters the Distinguished Lectureship Program, now in its 40th year, on the eve of the publication of her new book, Female Genius: George Washington and Eliza Harriot at the Dawn of the Constitution, forthcoming in 2022.

According to the OAH, this year’s accomplished group of lecturers offers historical expertise in topics that include: slavery, women’s rights; sports and recreation; old age; gender; elections and voting rights; civil rights; crime and violence; public history and memory; environmental history; LGBTQ+; legal and constitutional history; early national history; Latino/a history; African American history; and intellectual history, among others.

Bilder, whose specialties are constitutional, revolutionary, and early national legal history as well as women’s rights, activism, and suffrage, won the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize in 2016 for her book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. Her 2004 The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire received the Littleton-Griswold Award from the American Historical Association.

Her most recent work, a path-breaking article in Fordham Law Review this year on Native Nations and the Constitutional Convention, reveals the important influence of hitherto unknown Native Nation representatives who traveled to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

“OAH’s Distinguished Lecturers increase public awareness of our nation’s history and help the organization fulfill its mission of promoting excellence in history and encouraging wide discussion of historical questions,” says OAH Executive Director Beth English. “We congratulate this year’s cohort of lecturers and sincerely thank them for their service to OAH and the profession.”

Distinguished Lecturers can be scheduled virtually or in-person to headline events and commemorations and to bring context to today’s most pertinent and perplexing issues. Bilder brings to the lecture series her expertise 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.

Professor Bilder’s upcoming book.

Female Genius, Bilder’s upcoming book, explains “female genius” as a radical new idea in the English-speaking world in the 1780s—the Age of the Constitution—that women had equal capacity and deserved an equal education and political representation. According to the book’s abstract, the concept arrived in the United States in the person of Eliza Harriot Barons O’Connor, an English-born, Irish-married teacher. She gave the first public lecture by a woman in a university in the United States.

Through innovative digital research, Bilder reveals O’Connor’s importance to women’s rights and her likely influence on the Constitution’s gender-neutral language. Nonetheless, Bilder writes, for many white men “female genius proved too threatening and constitutional exclusions arose.”

Bilder has taught at Boston College since 1994 and as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School. She received her BA with Honors (English) and the Dean’s Prize from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her JD (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, and her AM (History) and PhD from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization/American Studies.