inclined to suppose

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Inclined to suppose is a collaboration between Joan Giroux, Whitney Huber and Lisa Marie Kaftori.

The project reinterprets a dress of Mary Todd Lincoln’s exhibited in “Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady of Controversy” at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, in 2007. Also on view was an image of the First Lady wearing the dress as photographed by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.

The work was inspired by the striking form of the dress itself, aspects of Mary Todd Lincoln’s private and public lives, and her poignant ability to reflect upon her own life and the lives of others in her writing. Her words echo across time, reminding us of the futility of conflict, the pain of absence and loss, and the importance of hope when facing the uncertainty and fragility of our lives.

We see Mary’s life as one lived between carefully defined spheres of Victorian America. We began by imagining the complex challenges she faced as a sophisticated, politically astute woman, more educated than most men of her day, who grew up in an atmosphere of financial and cultural privilege and intellectual freedom, during a period of American history when women were not encouraged to think, much less express their views publicly.

Mary was ardent about cultivating Lincoln’s political career and often used his positions of influence to voice her own social and political concerns. Equally passionate about her family life, she was devoted to her husband and children, recognizing and nurturing the uniqueness of each of them. She loved and feared for them and for herself; her intuition was uncanny. So it is when she writes in a letter to her husband, “Your name is on every lip and many prayers and good wishes are hourly sent up, for your welfare.” These words, in Mary’s own script, encircle the hem of the skirt in inclined to suppose.

We find the intersection of Mary Todd Lincoln’s private and public lives to reveal her complexity—the tenuous balance between loving wife and mother and First Lady. Here we see Mary in a parallax view, at her most vital and powerful and at her most tender, fragile and vulnerable. Her intellect and emotional strength in the face of frequent trauma and loss suggest a formidable spirit. As contemporary women, we each related to the threads of her life and reflected upon how they intertwine with our own experiences. The fabric’s pattern made of Mary’s words, “Others live on in a careless lukewarm state—not appearing to fill Longfellow’s measure: ‘Into each life, some rain must fall,’ ” indicates the extent of the emotional pain she suffered as a result of the many tragedies she experienced, and her ability to persevere despite these challenges.