Books — Revolutionary Mothers
Revolutionary Mothers

By Lisa Parsons

The women’s revolution - Forget the founding fathers, these gals kicked butt


Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, by Carol Berkin, Knopf, 2005, 194 pages.

In Revolutionary Mothers, history professor Carol Berkin surveys women’s experiences of the American Revolution. If you are the sort of person who surfs the History Channel or PBS at night, you might recognize Berkin from some television specials; she’s one of those teachers who brings things home with remarks like “In another era John Adams would have needed Prozac” (which she said on The History Channel’s Founding Fathers series).

Revolutionary Mothers benefits from equally lively analysis. No droning lecture or endless footnoting here; Berkin devotes ten short chapters to ten distinct topics and blissfully avoids tangents. I’m not saying that if history’s not your thing this book will bring you around. I’m saying that if you’ve visited the Old North Church lately, or you’ve pondered a colonial stone at the local cemetery or you get goosebumps when some news guy says “founding fathers,” then this is a nice little book for you. Or, for that matter, maybe if you just have a “girl power” sticker on your backpack, this is a nice little book for you.

Pre-war colonial women’s influence came mostly from their control of household purse strings — they boycotted tea and made homespun to eliminate dependence on British goods. As outright war began, women adopted other roles — some actively fighting, some simply caught up in the conflict around them.

Berkin’s chapter on women as fundraisers tells how Ben Franklin’s daughter and Esther DeBerdt Reed, the wife of Pennsylvania’s governor, raised $300,000 in Pennsylvania and spurred more fundraising across the country when Reed wrote “Sentiments of an American Woman” in 1780. Meanwhile, on the battlefront (another chapter), some rebel soldiers’ wives followed the army and acted as helpmates — washing, cooking, bandaging, occasionally taking up arms. And loyalist women (the next chapter) defended their homes against hostile neighbors while their husbands were in battle; Native American women wielded a social power in their own cultures that confounded the patriarchal colonists, and African-American slave women were caught up on all sides of the conflict, many lured to join the British by promises of freedom.

Berkin wraps the book with a discussion of the future of women’s independence — a spinoff, perhaps, of the fight for American independence.

—Lisa Parsons

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH