As adults, many of us know the detailed history of the American Revolution. We’ve heard the tale of Paul Revere’s ride, of the Founding Fathers, and of Nathan Hale’s last words. Not much, however, is told about the role of women in the fight for independence. With this in mind, I decided to review Cokie Roberts’ book Founding Mothers. Roberts is the daughter of two prominent former members of Congress and is a well-respected news anchor. Two versions of her book were created: one for children and a more in-depth one for adults. I have addressed both in this review.
Each book opens with Deborah Reed, the wife of Benjamin Franklin. In both versions, we discover that Deborah and Franklin met while they were still in their late teens, fell out of touch but reconnected years later. In the expanded adult version, we discover that Franklin was sent away on business and quickly forgot about Deborah. As a result, her mother married her off to another man who eventually disappeared in the West Indies. Later, after Franklin and Reed reconnect, they are unable to legally marry due to the fact that her first husband’s death cannot be proven. The relationship was well accepted however, so Deborah took the name Franklin and became recognized as his wife.
In the children’s version, we are told that Benjamin was appointed as Postmaster and required to travel extensively, leaving Deborah to run the Post Office in his stead. Roberts expands on this in the adult version, and we find out that Franklin traveled to England for an extended period, setting up household with another woman while his wife ran a sundry shop and maintained the post office. In addition, Deborah later kept the books for Benjamin’s print shop and invested in real estate, opening some of the first franchises in the country.
After traveling back and forth, Franklin returned to England promising to be back within seven months. He did not return until after Deborah’s death more than ten years later.
Both of Roberts’ books give us glimpses into some of the lesser known women of the Revolution. A brief quote from The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Ellet tells of a Mrs. Pond who fed more than 100 Patriot soldiers the morning after the Battle of Lexington.
Other less famous women include Emily Geiger who carried a message through British territory for General Greene. She was detained by British soldiers who called in a woman to search her. During the delay, Emily could memorize the message and swallow the paper evidence. Finding no justification in keeping her, the British freed her, and she rode on to deliver the message.
Margaret Corbin’s husband, John, was killed at Fort Washington, New York. Afterwards, she took up his artillery position and was wounded three times. Unable to work after the war, Corbin petitioned Congress for a retired soldier’s pension. They agreed, making her the first woman in United States history to receive a military pension. She was re-buried at West Point in 1926 and is one of two Revolutionary War veterans interred there.
One amusing mention in Roberts’ book is of Mary Lindley Murray. After defeating the Patriots at Kips Bay in 1776, British General Howe and his soldiers stopped at Mary’s house for dinner. Mary was quite generous with the wine and managed to distract Howe and his men long enough for the American soldiers to escape.
Another notable woman of the Revolution was Deborah Sampson. In the children’s version of her book, Roberts’ tells us that Deborah made herself a suit of men’s clothing and joined the army as Robert Shurtleff. After serving for more than three years and being wounded twice, Deborah eventually fell ill and was discovered by the doctor treating her. She was then forced to leave the army and after the war had ended was granted a soldier’s retirement pay and recognized by Congress for her service.
In the adult version of this tale, Roberts fills in a few more details. Deborah Sampson did indeed serve as Robert Shurtleff for more than three years. Ironically, the men she served alongside nicknamed her “Molly” due to her inability to grow a beard, never realizing that “he” was indeed “she”. The doctor who discovered her secret kept it hidden and sent her on a mission to deliver a letter to General Washington who immediately granted her an honorable discharge and enough money to get home. Years later, after several petitions to Congress, she was granted a retirement pension of $76.80 per year and some land to live on.
Roberts delves into the histories and services of many other women of the Revolution. The Daughters of Liberty began a boycott of merchants that sold British goods and created “spinning bees” where they spun cloth to provide clothing for the Patriot army. Eliza Lucas Pinckney at the age of 19 decided to grow indigo for the soldier’s uniforms and eventually created one of the largest agricultural businesses in South Carolina.
Roberts also tells us about the women of whom we all have heard, such as Martha Washington. Martha is credited as being one of the first people to receive the smallpox inoculation, thus encouraging the soldiers by example. The inoculation is now considered to have given the American army a major advantage over the British. In addition, the reader is told about Abigail Adams who ran her husband’s farm while overseeing the education of their young children, wrote letters favoring the abolition of slavery, and spent much of her life advocating women’s equality.
Both books do an excellent job of keeping the subject matter fresh and interesting. In the children’s version of Founding Mothers, Roberts manages to present the subject matter in a way that is easily accessible but is not dumbed-down.
In the adult version, she gives more detailed anecdotes of the women’s lives and the roles they played in shaping the early days of our country, but does not bore the reader with irrelevant trivia.
I enjoyed both books immensely and recommend them to readers interested in learning more about the women of the American Revolution.