November 11, 2020 8:36 AM EST

Alexis Coe is the first woman to write a George Washington biography in 40 years (and the first in over a century, if you only count books written by historians). That’s not a trivial fact: The authorial imbalance means we’ve gotten a male slant on the founding father’s story. Coe notes that male biographers, for instance, obsess over Washington’s “manliness” and speculate about his sexual prowess, as if to compensate for what they see as a failure: the fact that the first president of the United States never fathered any children. (He did, as she points out, selflessly play stepfather and father figure to many.) Those heavily versed in Washington’s life and politics will find few revelations, but for more casual readers, Coe offers an enjoyable, accessible easy-to-digest portrait of a man who had an outsized sense of duty. He was often admirable, but occasionally a tyrant, and by distancing herself from the (mostly male) Washington obsessives that have preceded her, Coe paints a balanced portrait.

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