I guess the first thing that springs to mind is under-appreciated by whom? There are lots of historical figures that are well known to professional scholars that even well educated people know very little about. But I will try to play to the middle for today.
Ok, so gather round while I fangirl Dolley Madison, who is appreciated by the general public but for all the wrong reasons.If you know anything about Dolley Madison, you know she was James Madison's wife. She is often referred to as being the "first First Lady" because she was such an excellent hostess. Dolley Madison served ice cream at the white house and saved the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington when the British sailed up the Potomac and burned Washington DC during the War of 1812.
Now, you're probably reading this and thinking, "so what, she was a lady who gave parties, how on earth is that transgressive or innovative or cool Dr. Kmo?" But as historian Catherine Allgor demonstrates in her book Parlor Politics, which tells the story of how Dolley and other Washington women during the Early National Period (1789-1828) "built a city and a government." Dolley and these other women, including Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of president John Q. Adams, were politically savvy, sometimes even more so than their husbands. By hosting parties, and balls, and teas they created a third space between the public male sphere of politics and the private female domestic sphere where women could actually participate in politics at a time when they did not even have the right to vote. Dolley was a masterful politician, and her "squeezes" (so called because people were packed in so tightly) brought together politicians from both sides of the aisle. Even congressmen at the time remarked that she was a more skilled politician and far more charismatic than her brilliant but shy husband. An opponent of Madison's once said, "I could have defeated Mr. Madison alone, but not Mr. and Mrs. Madison together." Dolley shone so brightly people called her "Queen of Washington City" and loved her for it. She did so much more than make ice cream. Even saving the portrait of Washington was about preserving a symbol of a fledgling nation in crisis. Dolley understood symbols, pomp, and ceremony and how to use them effectively. I give her a lot of credit and it breaks my heart that her home was burnt after she spent so much effort into getting it to look like a place worthy of being the president's home. Thomas Jefferson essentially left the white house looking like a frat house after his term was over. Oh TJ what an inconsiderate jerk you are, but that's a topic for another day....
I highly recommend Parlor Politics and the American Experience documentary based on it if you'd like to learn more about Dolley and the other women of Washington City. It's a very accessible book (I teach it to undergraduates) and the documentary stars Eve Best, one of my fave actresses aka O'Hara from Nurse Jackie, as Dolley Madison. I totally adore and fangirl Dolley and yes my AO3 icon is a painting of her.