Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence
by Carol Berkin A Book Review by Cheryl Barringer
In her book, REVOLUTIONARY MOTHERS, Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, Carol Berkin makes the argument that the Revolutionary War is a story of both women and men. Women played an active and vital role in the war; although history books have often greatly minimized or completely left out the contributions of women in the creation of our nation, or greatly romanticized their role. Ms. Berkin proves that women played a great part in the Revolution by writing a social history that focuses on women of the time; Colonial white women, Native Americans, and African-Americans. She focuses on women of both high and low social classes; as well as women who supported the Patriot and Loyalist causes during the long period of struggle between England and her North American colonies. In short, she has written a book that tells realistic tales of how ordinary women and famous women were involved in and affected by the Revolutionary War, and does not romanticize their roles.
To prove her thesis, Ms. Berkin uses extensive footnotes; there are 211 footnotes in the 180 pages of the book. These footnotes refer to many different sources. Primary sources cited in this book include letters of correspondence, memoirs, and personal diaries of individuals from the Revolutionary War period. Legal opinions, records from colonial assemblies, law books, and newspaper articles from the time of the Revolution are also cited. Quotations are taken from books written in the 1600s and 1700s. Secondary sources include historical books focusing on women and their roles in society during the colonial period, the legal rights of women in the colonies, biographies of individuals who lived during the Revolutionary War, and Native American and African-American women during the 1700s. Most of these books were published in the last twenty-five years or so, but also include books published in the 1800s up through the early- and mid-1900s. Sources are included that illustrate the lives and viewpoints of women who lived in New England, the middle colonies, and the southern colonies; which serves to address the various viewpoints and lifestyles of colonists throughout the entire thirteen colonies and not just in one region. The many sources cited serve to authenticate Revolutionary Mothers as an accurate and scholarly work about the roles of women in the American Revolution.
Revolutionary Mothers is organized in a topical fashion. This is a good way to accomplish the author’s goal of explaining the impact that women had on the outcome of the Revolutionary War because while women did not enjoy the rights and equality that women have today, they were still quite a diverse group in the 1700s due to the hierarchical social class system that existed then.
Ms. Berkin begins with an introduction that explains her thesis and purpose for writing the book. She explains that she wishes to show the important role that women played in the Revolution and also to erase the notion that it was a “quaint and harmless war” (p. ix). Instead, it was a brutal home-front war that killed many, left numerous others permanently disabled, and caused many colonists to become refugees. Many atrocities were committed against women and against neighbors during the course of the war. The author wants to show the realities of the effect of women on the war, and the effect of the war on women.
Chapter One is titled “The Easy Task of Obeying” and it focuses on the role of women in colonial society of the 1600s and 1700s. Women focused on the sphere of their households and families, and left the intellectual issues of the time and education to the men. Legally, women had almost no rights and were at the mercy of their husbands if married, and fathers or other male relatives if single. Women were seen as helpmates to their husbands in order to make the family be successful. However, by the mid-1700s, wealthy women were no longer having to complete all household tasks themselves; they just had to supervise servants as they completed the tasks. This allowed them to take on the role of a “pretty gentlewoman” (p. 8) which required women to be charming companions to their husbands and to devote themselves to pleasing their men.
Chapter Two is called “They say it is tea that caused it” and focuses on the rise of women’s political action. While women weren’t given any voice in politics, their first political act was to say “No” by participating in boycotts to protest British policies (p. 13). From there some women chose to issue manifestos about things such refusing to use British tea. These manifestos were printed in newspapers and the idea of women’s names being in print was a new and daring move, with social consequences. However, for the most part it was positively received, especially when it supported the same causes that their husbands supported. Women then moved onto spinning wool and collecting money for the benefit of soldiers. Women became much more aware that their daily actions could be seen as political acts and became concerned about their civic duties.
Chapter Three focuses on the challenges of a home-front war. As war breaks out, the lives of women change. Shortages of goods and food, and inflation affected everyone. As men went off to fight, women were left at home to run farms and businesses and protect children on their own, something they had not had to do before the war. As fighting approached, there were no safe havens. Women were subject to being killed or raped due to the political views they and their families held. Armies confiscated crops and livestock, leaving families without food. The destruction of homes and property was a real concern. Sometimes women destroyed their own property in order to keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy. Even in areas where military battles did not occur, the Loyalist and Patriot viewpoints held by colonists caused the Revolution to be a civil war, with hard feelings and violent actions. As the war dragged on for almost a decade, wives faced the loss of spouses and children in the war, and many faced financial hardship or ruin.
The author does a very nice job of contrasting the attitudes towards upper- and lower-class women and their roles in the war. Chapter Four focuses on camp followers and Chapter Five focuses on the wives of generals.
Camp followers were lower-class women who cooked or did the laundry for the soldiers of both armies. Others served as nurses for injured soldiers. Some came in order to be near their husbands, and others came because they were alone and didn’t have any other options for food or shelter. Camp followers often brought their children along with them because they had no one else to care for the children. Many soldiers’ sexual needs were serviced by camp followers as well; some women were prostitutes and others were “camp wives,” pairing up with one soldier for the duration of the war. The life of women who were camp followers was very hard, and they often were dressed in rags and were not adequately fed or dressed for the weather. As a result, they soon became hardened to the realities of war. They were often seen roaming battlefields and removing clothing, weapons, and valuables from dead or dying soldiers. Camp followers were a part of both the British and Continental armies. They were seen as disgusting and despicable women by the public, officers, and enlisted men. This is quite interesting because without camp followers, the armies would not have been able to function.
The wives of generals often went to stay with their husbands during the winters, when fighting usually did not occur. These women were seen as being very patriotic and as building up the morale of the soldiers. It was not seemly for the women to be housed at the army camp, so housing was found nearby, often at the finest accommodations in the area. The wives then focused on diverting the attention of their officer husbands from the war by planning a “season” of balls and dinner parties. Some wives found the opportunity to be near their husbands and other officers to be exciting while others saw it as a sense of duty even though they’d rather be at home. Martha Washington felt this way. However, she felt it was her duty to abide by her husband’s wishes and to serve him in this way; a common attitude of women serving in the helpmate role. It is interesting to note that high-ranking British officers often had “camp wives,” but the women were usually the actual wives of lower-ranking officers that were serving with them. Overall, officers’ wives were held in high-esteem and their actions were seen as noble, even though they did little to help the general welfare of the armies. Not all officers’ wives were concerned with such light-hearted concerns. The Baroness von Riedesel was the wife of a Hessian officer. She followed her husband to America, traveling from her German home with three daughters, aged 4, 2, and 10 weeks. She traveled up and down the colonies with the army, and was not afraid to speak to British General Burgoyne when he was putting his need to spend time with his mistress ahead of the well-being of his troops. She and her family were captured and were kept as prisoners of war. She also served as full-time nurse to her husband when he suffered serious, disabling health issues while a prisoner of war. Ultimately, she was able to take her family home to Germany.
One chapter is devoted to Loyalist women, and how their choice to side with the British, ultimately cost them the opportunity to live in their homeland. These women suffered and lost much because they or their husbands sided with the losing side. They often left behind life in the American colonies and went to England, or traveled through the wilderness in order to form new communities in Canada. They did this because it was so miserable to live among their Patriot neighbors. Loyalists that remained here often faced financial ruin and were ostracized by their community.
The plight of Native American women is addressed in Chapter Seven. The lives of Molly Brant, a Mohawk Indian married to an Englishman; Nanyehi, a Cherokee warrior and diplomat; and Queen Esther Montour, a Munsee Delaware are profiled. In Native American society, women enjoyed a much more powerful role than in white society. However, they were misunderstood by white colonists. Many tribes aligned themselves with the British because they felt the British offered them the best opportunity to preserve their way of life. However, an American victory ensured their way of life was coming to an end. The roles of Native American women in politics and societal influences were minimized, becoming much the same as it was for white women.
Chapter Eight examines the plight of African-American women. Free blacks and slaves had difficult lives prior to the Revolution, and the War only made things worse for them. Many traveled with the British army in hopes of protection and freedom, and after the surrender of Cornwallis in 1782, some were sent to New York, and eventually sailed to freedom in Canada. However, the majority of African-Americans remained slaves and their plight did not improve.
Chapter Nine is devoted to women who served at spies or couriers. Women served adeptly in these roles, both to help the British and the Patriots. One notable spy is Mammy Kate, a slave who traveled 50 miles to rescue her master, a Patriot. She went to the British fort and offered to work as a washerwoman. She eventually smuggled her master out in her laundry basket, saving him from execution. In return, she was given her freedom and lived near her former master and his family for the rest of her life.
The book ends with the final chapter, “There is no Sex in Soul,” which focuses on the legacy of the American Revolution. Women had proven themselves very adept at handling many things during the war that previously had been a part of the “male” domain. However, after the war, things went back to the way they were before the war. Several reasons for this are examined. One thought is that although the intellectual capacity of women was no longer questioned, their role in shaping their children was seen as invaluable. In our new nation, it was extremely important that children be educated and raised in a way that guaranteed the next generation of patriots. To accomplish this, women needed to be educated in government, politics, and other subjects in order to educate their children. Thus, while the education of women was now seen as necessary, motherhood must be the ultimate ideal to which women should aspire. Another thought is that when families were reunited, they wanted to return to the normalcy that existed before the war, and because of that, women were willing to forget all of the freedoms they had during the war. The war had been a difficult and unhappy time, and women were willing to return to a subordinate position in order to have an easier and happier life. A third thought was that women had risen to the occasion in the extraordinary circumstances of war, but really could not function and did not need to function that way when life returned to normal. Whatever the reason, the result was that the economic and legal status of women remained unchanged after the Revolutionary War. It would be over sixty-five years before women would begin their fight for equal rights and the right to vote at Seneca Falls in 1848.
REVOLUTIONARY MOTHERS has helped to contribute to my background knowledge of the Boston area due to the importance of Boston in the Revolutionary War. Boston is the location of the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the first battles of the war were fought nearby at Lexington and Concord. This book helps to let me know how women played a part in the events leading up to the war, and how warfare impacted the lives of the women in the Boston area.
My ability to teach about the Revolutionary War has been influenced greatly by this book. While I have always been interested in the lives of women in the past, it has not always been easy to get information about their lives. I now have many specific situations that I can share with my students. I also have learned information about women of various social classes and races, so I can share information about a diverse group of women with my students.
In conclusion, I would enthusiastically recommend the book, REVOLUTIONARY MOTHERS, Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin. It is a well-written and strongly-referenced book that tells the story of women in the American Revolution—all women—Loyalist or Patriot, rich or poor, Native American or White or African-American. It shows that women played a major role in the founding of our nation, no matter on what side of the conflict they found themselves. Through this book, Carol Berkin allows us a glimpse of what it would have been like for us, ordinary women, had we lived during this exciting, tumultuous, and influential time in our country’s history.