[Paleopsych] LAT: Our Founding Mothers
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Thu Apr 7 16:55:49 UTC 2005
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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