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Our Founding Mothers

by Ruth Rosen

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence

Author: Carol Berkin
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 202 pp.
Price: $24.00

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 exception.

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.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

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