Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence
by Carol Berkin A Book Review by Matt Goerss
Untold Stories: The Roles of Women in the Revolution In the introduction of her book Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, historian Carol Berkin discusses the three women who have survived in the popular memory of the American Revolution: Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, and the mythical Molly Pitcher.1 Beyond these three women, however, Berkin notes that there are a multitude of forgotten women who played crucial roles in the Revolution as caretakers, companions, political organizers, and even as soldiers. These women include not only patriots, but also loyalists, Native Americans, and African Americans, and Berkin’s work builds on previous scholarship to introduce readers to the women without whom the Revolutionary War would not have been possible. While Berkin’s vivid examples give new light to the many roles of women during the Revolution, her guiding assertion that women served as eternal helpmates to their male counterparts inadequately explains women’s efforts during America’s war for independence.
Berkin’s argument in Revolutionary Mothers focuses not on recasting women as the main proponents of the Revolution, but rather on giving a voice to their many points of view. Berkin weaves four central elements through her main argument. First, she includes numerous examples of brave acts performed by women during the war. Second, she discusses the role of women as “surrogate husbands” at home while the men were off fighting in the war. Third, she provides examples of political participation by women during war, as well as their return to traditional family roles after the war ended. Finally, she touches on the changes in perspective on women’s roles that were brought about by the Revolution (p. xv-xvii). In the opening chapter, Berkin provides background information on the traditional role of women as wives, mothers, and “helpmates” in colonial America, which gives context to her critical assertion that the actions of women during the war did not blur the line between men’s and women’s roles, but rather served as an extension of the traditional female role as a helpmate to her husband and other men (p. 11). Berkin defends each of these assertions by presenting carefully researched examples of women’s efforts during the Revolution.
To defend her argument, Berkin relies primarily on primary sources produced by the women of the Revolution. She uses letters written by women to their husbands and to other women to bring the feelings and actions of women to life. For example, Berkin reconstructs the journey of Baroness von Riedesel from her home in Germany to join her husband Fritz, a loyalist general, in America through the letters written back and forth between her and her husband. These letters not only illustrate the struggles faced by the Baroness on her journey to London and then to the colonies, but they also show her to be a brave woman who served as a caretaker for injured loyalist troops, tended to her children’s needs, and acted as a “surrogate husband” by taking care of financial and household affairs while her husband fought in the war (p. 80-87).
To tell the stories of women who did not leave behind written letters and diaries, Berkin considers an extensive volume of secondary literature on the role of women in colonial America and the Revolution. She frequently refers to Elizabeth Ellet’s Women of the American Revolution, which served as the principal source for information about women’s roles during the Revolution for the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (p. xii). In addition, she relies on secondary literature to provide evidence of the roles of Native American and slave women during the Revolution, many of whom did not leave behind a written record of their efforts (p. 175-79).
The many examples of women’s exploits that Berkin weaves through Revolutionary Mothers form the strength of her book. Through these stories, she provides sufficient evidence to prove several of her main arguments. She illustrates the bravery of Revolutionary women through the actions of housewives like Lydia Darragh, who risked her safety to travel out of British-occupied Philadelphia and relay intelligence to Washington’s army, enabling Washington to be prepared for the oncoming British forces (p. 139-41). Through the actions of loyalist women like Grace Galloway, who resisted the attempts of the American army to confiscate her husband’s property, Berkin shows how women acted as “surrogate husbands” who tended to the family farm and property while the men were taking part in the war (p. 94-96). Berkin uses the example of Esther deBerdt Reed and Sarah Bache to illustrate the political participation of women during the Revolution. Angered that the American troops did not have enough clothing and supplies, Reed and Bache argued that women must be “useful” and formed the Ladies Association to raise funds from Pennsylvania women for the war effort (p. 44-45). Berkin notes, however, that these women did not remain the political sphere beyond their coordination of the Ladies Association. Instead, they were honored as seamstresses who made clothing for the soldiers during the war, thus showing their return to a traditional female role (p. 48-49). Finally, Berkin uses the last chapter of her book to provide examples of changes in women’s roles due to the Revolution. Despite the fact that most women returned to traditional roles after the war, women like Abigail Adams and Judith Sargent Murray began to push for enhanced property rights and political participation for women. While Berkin concludes that these women were largely concerned with extending their role as housewife to a national stage, she notes that their efforts left open the possibility for female political leaders to arise in the future (p. 159).
The evidence that Berkin provides to defend her assertion that the actions of women during the Revolution merely extended their role as “eternal helpmates” to men is less convincing. In the first chapter, she argues that the Revolution “stretched to its limits” the idea that women served as helpmates to their husbands but ultimately did not mark a change in women’s roles. Some of the evidence that Berkin provides throughout the book, however, does not match this assertion. Rather, many of her chosen examples illustrate women who blurred the line between men’s and women’s roles for their own benefit and not for their husband’s.
An example of a woman who served as more than just a helpmate can be seen in the trials encountered by the Baroness von Riedesel on her journey to join her husband in America. Circumstances that she faced along the journey required her to take control of her household to provide for her children and to wounded and starving soldiers. Even after she rejoined her husband, his poor health required her to move beyond her role as a helpmate and oversee family affairs (p. 90-91). Other women, like Rebecca Motte, found themselves in situations that required them make split-second decisions in the absence of their husbands. When British forces moved toward Motte’s house, she quickly instructed American troops to set it on fire to prevent the British from taking hold (p. 144). In the chapter on Native American women, Berkin argues that the outcome of the Revolution was of great importance to Indian women because an American victory would result in a drastic reduction of their social power (p. 107). These women, like Molly Brant, navigated between white and Indian culture to persuade Native Americans to fight on behalf of Britain and negotiate agreements between Indian nations and the two warring sides. Berkin depicts Brant as a woman who served not as a helpmate to male soldiers and leaders, but as a leader herself among the Mohawk and other Indian communities (p. 110-13). In the presence of this evidence, it is difficult to assert, as Berkin does, that all women served as nothing more than helpmates to men, as many women, including those in non-white cultures, constantly blurred the line between traditional male and female roles.
In the end, Revolutionary Mothers is a worthwhile book for historians, educators, and the general public to read due to the multitude of examples that Berkin provides about the roles of women during the Revolution. The presence of evidence that contrasts with one of her central arguments does not depreciate the value of her work. Berkin’s book provides a concise companion to the traditional, male-centered historiographical record of the Revolution, and her research brings to light the important roles that women played in the war for independence without casting them as the central focus of the war. Through Revolutionary Mothers, readers can appreciate the efforts of women that were necessary for the United States to achieve independence, and they can also see the building blocks that were laid for future expansions of women’s right and roles. If, as Berkin asserts, women served primarily as helpmates to men before, during, and after the Revolution, then Revolutionary Mothers enables readers to understand the starting point from which American women moved toward greater participation outside the home in the centuries after the war ended.
1 Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York City: Vintage Books, 2005), xi. All further citations will be included in the text.