- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

America’s War for Independence is chock-full of daring husband-and-wife duos: John and

Abigail Adams, Nathanael and Caty Greene, George and Martha Washington.

But Americans today don’t hear the stories of the brave wives of the common soldiers or loyalist exiles, says Carol Berkin. A professor at City University of New York, Ms. Berkin is author of a new book, “Revolutionary Mothers,” which explores women’s roles in that era of history.

The following are excerpts from a phone interview with Ms. Berkin:

Question: How difficult was your research for this book?

Answer: I’ve been sort of working on this for 20 years on and off. … A lot of the information is not difficult to find but very hard to verify, because so many of the stories of ordinary women are passed down through generations of family or local antiquarians. And like that old game of telephone you play, some of the stories become quite exaggerated. In some ways, the hardest part was preserving the kernel of truth in the story.

The pieces [in the book] that have to do with really marginalized people like African-American women involved sometimes just sheer serendipity. You’ll be going through records and, lo and behold, there will be something that you want.

Some of it is like shopping in a discount dress store. You have to go through the racks hundreds of times before you find a gem. A lot of it involves more persistence than brilliance. You have to keep working and tracing things down. I think it’s so much easier when you write about “dead white men”

whohave tremendous amounts of material about them circulating.

To a great extent, it tests your detective work much more than when you write about Martha Washington or Abigail Adams. It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle and you search and search for a piece and slowly the picture emerges.

Q: Few books focus on the plight of loyalist settlers, much less their wives and families. And yet, as you said in the book, they underwent suffering and hardships more than comparable to the patriots’. Why don’t we hear more of them?

A: My interest in them comes out of the fact that the first book I ever did was a biography of [loyalist] Jonathan Sewall. He essentially blamed [his wife] for the Revolution and made her life a living hell until he died. I thought, “Here she is playing nursemaid to a lunatic in Nova Scotia after being exiled from her home in America. Who tells this story on July Fourth?” That is when I realized that not only the man’s story had not been told but his wife’s had not.

Americans [today] are pretty committed to the idea that everyone in the country supported independence. I think that the existence of the loyalists in the numbers they existed makes people, for some reason, think that because the war was contested there is something less glorious about it.

Q: How did women’s roles during the War for Independence change their standing in society afterward?

A: It’s a complicated question and depends a great deal on how far after the Revolution you go. A lot of people think that if something doesn’t change within the next 20 minutes it had no impact. I think the impact was over several decades.

If you went into a home in 1784 and the same home in 1884 you would see not a lot of change. Women still had the same designated work and there was still a hierarchy that made men head of the family.

What was different and mattered was something that was changing anyway. … The enlightenment that was happening taught this amazing thing which said that women were capable of rational thought. It was really a revolutionary idea. It meant that women could make ethical judgments. This got hothoused in the Revolution. It was legitimized and solidified by the role [women] played [during the war].

The biggest change this prompted was the change in women’s education, and that had long-term effects. These young ladies’ academies that came out of it led directly to the rise of the women’s movement.

Q: Because of popular books and movies such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Cold Mountain,” we hear a lot about women during the Civil War. Why don’t we hear similar stories about women during the Revolution?

A: For one thing, it’s easier to talk about the Civil War because they have photographs. The American Revolution is always harder to do. The American Revolution right now is enjoying this incredible popularity a lot in the literary world. It’s extremely popular but it does not seem to have really sunk into the American consciousness.

I think nobody yet has successfully managed to produce material that allows us to empathize with those in the Revolution. Mel Gibson tried it in “The Patriot,” which, for a historian, was a nightmare. He took Revolutionary characters and made them act and think like us. …

Q: What intrigues you most about this subject?

A: I originally got into women’s history when I had a daughter. I didn’t want her to look in the past and just see men. I wanted her to see women, too. I’ve found studying women and the kinds of gender ideals and gender roles that have evolved over time give me, in some ways, a better sense of how I came to be where I am in the sense of time. I’m very much aware that gender roles change and that they’re constructed and that women have played a strong part in changing them. That is endlessly fascinating to me.

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