[Paleopsych] LAT: Our Founding Mothers

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Our Founding Mothers

Revolutionary Mothers Women in the Struggle for America's Independence Carol
Berkin Alfred A. Knopf: 202 pp., $24

    By Ruth Rosen

    Ruth Rosen, a former professor of history at UC Davis, is a senior
    fellow at the Rockridge Institute and author of "The World Split Open:
    How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America."
    March 27, 2005
    Why do Americans have such a seemingly insatiable appetite for
    biographies about Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and
    other Founding Fathers?
    One reason, perhaps, is that many of us seek to understand which
    religious values and secular principles united us in the first place.
    The nastier our cultural wars, the more we try to recover the
    political ideals that shaped our young republic. The more imperial our
    foreign policy, the more we ponder our first president's warning to
    avoid foreign entanglements. The more secretive our government
    becomes, the more we strive to comprehend the Founding Fathers'
    commitment to freedom and civil liberties.
    But what about the Founding Mothers? Do they have anything to teach us
    about the dreams of those who fought for independence and, by
    extension, about our political era? Absolutely, but women were not in
    a position to write the documents that gave birth to a new nation.
    Still, their participation in the American Revolution and the founding
    of the nation was critical to the creation of a democratic republic.
    Carol Berkin, who has written distinguished scholarly studies of the
    Revolutionary War era, is the ideal historian to offer the general
    reader a concise and accessible story with "Revolutionary Mothers."
    Using a novelist's eye for detail, plot and character, Berkin vividly
    recounts Colonial women's struggles for independence -- for their
    nation and, sometimes, for themselves.
    Berkin largely focuses on ordinary women who endured what was a
    home-front war, a civil war and a military occupation. Every choice
    women made had political consequences. By boycotting British goods and
    spinning their own cloth, they helped the Colonies survive an
    eight-year war. With their men away in combat, they kept their
    families alive by managing the farms and businesses. They also helped
    to finance a fledgling government, wrote propaganda broadsides, sewed
    shirts for soldiers, infiltrated enemy lines as spies, joined the army
    dressed as men and suffered deprivation when British troops seized all
    their livestock and looted their household possessions.
    Countless women also were the victims of gang rapes, but most hid
    their shameful secret from public view. Like so many soldiers
    throughout history, British troops viewed Colonial women as the spoils
    of war. "The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation,"
    wrote Lord Rawdon, a British officer stationed on Staten Island, "as
    the fresh meat our men have got here has made them as riotous as
    satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes without running the most
    imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to
    these vigorous methods that they don't bear them with proper
    resignation." He then praised one woman for her sophistication "in not
    complaining after 7 men raped her."
    The American Revolution, as Berkin reminds us, left in its wake
    "widows and mourning mothers, disabled veterans, African Americans
    separated from their families, Indians in danger of losing their
    lands, a colossal war debt, pockets of economic depression, and a host
    of political problems that would not be addressed until the
    constitution convention of 1787."
    That was not its only legacy. Most revolutions or civil wars have
    inspired a small group of educated women to scrutinize their former
    lives with new eyes and, as part of creating a new society, to enhance
    the status and lives of women. The American Revolution was no
    In a letter to her husband on March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams famously
    wrote, "I desire you would remember the ladies.... Do not put such
    unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would
    be tyrants if they could.... We are determined to foment a rebellion,
    and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no
    voice or representation."
    Adams was not alone, Berkin shows, as she resurrects the dreams of
    other female writers, pamphleteers and poets who rejected "the
    traditional notion that women were both morally and mentally inferior
    to men." Who would educate young boys in republican virtue if women
    remained ignorant and lacked education? A representative government
    required "informed citizens, able to resist the siren call of the
    tyrant and temptations of corruption."
    Berkin's lively book reclaims a vital part of our political legacy.
    Although these women lacked formal political power, they claimed the
    ideals of the Founding Fathers as their own. The result? They set in
    motion a movement for women's full political participation as citizens
    and ignited a debate about the proper place of women that still
    polarizes our society more than 200 years later. o

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