'Founding mothers' finally get a say

What was the other half of the population doing during the Revolutionary War?

The Old State House - Boston's oldest public building - now sits surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic. Yet as the former seat of British government, it still stands as a testament to America's colonial past.

In the great hall, enormous maritime paintings depict the bustling port of Boston; cases flank the sides of the great hall filled with scrimshaw, Canton china, and tankards forged by Paul Revere.

It is not difficult to envision the room filled with men, debating their loyalty to the British crown. Women, it is assumed, were not part of this discourse.

So there is something oddly fitting about the fact that on a recent spring night, some 200 years later, a female speaker is holding sway in the old State House, telling her listeners that she takes a "perverse pleasure" in "reveling in complicating events, shattering comforting myths" of the "satisfying, simple version of the American Revolution."

That woman is Carol Berkin, historian and professor of American history at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, speaking about her new book "Revolutionary Mothers."

The biographies and writings of the Founding Fathers have enjoyed a renaissance of interest in recent years. They are routinely invoked by politicians as well as regularly examined by historians.

It is all part of the famous, familiar story of the historical, even romantic pageant that the American War for Independence has become.

But it's a history that, until recently, omitted half the society that contributed to it.

'"Revolutionary Mothers" is Professor Berkin's effort to fill in those omissions, to tell the story of women's political activity during the 18th century.

The book's title refers to the mothers of the era who urged patriotism in their sons. But the book's real focus is female political emergence in the 18th century.

Women's stories were long ignored by scholars. Yet it is through these obscure, uncited tales - sometimes stashed in the family Bible, recounted in letters, or retold down the generations - that we learn of the efforts of thousands of ordinary lives that brought about societal change.

Most readers, of course, know something about Martha Washington, few of whose letters survived, and Abigail Adams, whose prolific writings are well documented. But even these women have been viewed largely through their famous spouses.

Berkin's ten-chapter book has several sections devoted to the underreported stories of women. They include those both loyal and resistant to the Crown, native American women, and African-American women.

Much of the book describes women's involvement and occasional participation in the military, from those who followed the Revolutionary Army as support staff to spies and saboteurs.

While Berkin scoffs at what she calls "Hollywoodized history," she would be a great screenwriter for the televised version. Her heroines are well selected - a testament to her three decades of studying lives of 17th and 18th century women and their companions.

Readers learn of Mercy Warren, a propagandist par excellence of the Massachusetts resistance; Sybil Ludington, who rallied militia troops; and Emily Geiger who, captured while serving as a messenger for General Sumter, ate the handwritten note she was carrying (though like any good spy, she had memorized it).

All this makes for juicy reading, even though enticing readers with these riveting stories is not Berkin's real interest. Her purpose, rather, lies in illustrating the way women's roles changed during the course of this war and were forever altered afterward.

They had to take up tasks out of shortage, or hardship, or necessity - as they have done in wars throughout history - and these new duties proved powerful in reshaping both their lives and their perspectives on the world.

One example Berkin offers of such change is the way "spinning sessions" were transformed.

Because cheap, plentiful English cloth was no longer being imported, women had to gather together for the colossally boring task of spinning wool.

But these sessions, Berkin explains, became ideological showcases, and one of many venues that provided political awakenings for women.

Back in the hall at the Old State House, a listener asks Berkin if there is a pattern to the way in which war - social as well as armed conflict - affects women.

There is, says Berkin. Women's roles are changed by war. While they might settle back into old routines once conflicts have ended, they have still demonstrated their abilities and proven themselves, and that opens the door for the next steps.

After the Revolutionary War, she says, advancement came in the form of the establishment of academies for female education. After the Civil War - the subject of her next book - it was the suffrage movement, the fight for property rights, and eventually for the ballot.

Another listener asks Berkin if social networks and peaceful forms of protest have also been powerful forces for change in the lives of women.

Yes, she says. Women worked in a social network with men, as well as with other women and were there exposed to pressures that brought about change.

Berkin is a great storyteller. At the end of her talk at the State House she tells her audience the story about what prompted her own interest in history. She is from Alabama, she explains, and so, as a young girl learned a version of the Civil War told selectively from a Southern perspective.

One cannot help but think that this has influenced her desire to tell the other side of the story, the unreported aspects of history.

Her dedication to telling the stories of these women is evident. She describes how she admires their "feistiness, fortitude and ingenuity."

In addition, she says, "Studying the past is the closest we can get to time travel."

Leigh Montgomery is the librarian of The Christian Science Monitor.

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