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Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation [Paperback]

Cokie Roberts
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

ABC News political commentator and NPR news analyst Roberts didn't intend this as a general history of women's lives in early America-she just wanted to collect some great "stories of the women who influenced the Founding Fathers." For while we know the names of at least some of these women (Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Eliza Pinckney), we know little about their roles in the Revolutionary War, the writing of the Constitution, or the politics of our early republic. In rough chronological order, Roberts introduces a variety of women, mostly wives, sisters or mothers of key men, exploring how they used their wit, wealth or connections to influence the men who made policy. As high-profile players married into each other's families, as wives died in childbirth and husbands remarried, it seems as if early America-or at least its upper crust-was indeed a very small world. Roberts's style is delightfully intimate and confiding: on the debate over Mrs. Benedict Arnold's infamy, she proclaims, "Peggy was in it from the beginning." Roberts also has an ear for juicy quotes; she recounts Aaron Burr's mother, Esther, bemoaning that when talking to a man with "mean thoughts of women," her tongue "hangs pretty loose," so she "talked him quite silent." In addition to telling wonderful stories, Roberts also presents a very readable, serviceable account of politics-male and female-in early America. If only our standard history textbooks were written with such flair! 7 illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Focusing mainly on the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of the Founding Fathers, this lively and engaging title chronicles the adventures and contributions of numerous women of the era between 1740 and 1797. Roberts includes a surprising amount of original writings, but uses modern language and spellings to enable readers to enjoy fully the wit and wisdom of these remarkable individuals. While their men were away serving as soldiers, statesmen, or ambassadors, the women's lives were fraught with difficulty and danger. They managed property, and raised their children and often those of deceased relatives, while trying to make their own contributions to the cause of liberty. They acted as spies, coordinated boycotts, and raised funds for the army. Through it all, they corresponded with their husbands, friends, and even like-minded women in England. Readers will enjoy seeing how many of these individuals showed their mettle when they were still in their teens. Black-and-white photographs of portraits, a small selection of recipes, and a cast of characters are included.–Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Political correspondent Roberts has deep roots in American political families--her mother was a U.S. congresswoman from Louisiana, and an ancestor, William Claiborne, was a U.S. congressman from Tennessee in the 1790s. Here she offers a look at the women--mostly wives and mothers--who supported the men credited with creating the U.S. Lamenting the dearth of history about these women, Roberts primarily draws on letters and diaries to document their significant contributions. Among her subjects is Deborah Read Franklin, who was virtually abandoned for 16 of the last 17 years of her marriage to Benjamin, who held a post in England and left her to manage the home and businesses. She was forced to protect their home from a mob angry at her husband's position on the Stamp Act. Also among those profiled are Martha Washington, who used her considerable wealth to help finance the revolution; Abigail Adams, whose famous remark to her husband, John, to "remember the ladies" was thought to be a reference to women's rights; and Phyllis Wheatley, a former slave who earned the admiration of George Washington with her poetry. Roberts offers a much-needed look at the unheralded sacrifices and heroism of colonial women. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Roberts has uncovered hundreds of personal anecdotes and woven them together in a single, suspenseful narrative with great skill.” (Washington Post Book World)

About the Author

Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and NPR. She has won countless awards, and in 2008 she was named a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress. She is the author of the number one New York Times bestseller We Are Our Mothers' Daughters. Her other books, Founding Mothers, Ladies of Liberty, and From This Day Forward (written with her husband, journalist Steven V. Roberts), also spent weeks on the bestseller list. She and her husband have also collaborated on Our Haggadah. Roberts is the mother of two and grandmother of six.

From The Washington Post

Celebratory history is making a big comeback. Cokie Roberts joins a steady stream of authors stoking the fires of patriotism. To the "Let us now praise famous men" refrain, she has countered with praise for their wives, sisters and daughters.

Most professional historians during the past four decades have turned from lauding the great events and men in the American past to reconstructing the neglected lives of ordinary people. There's a story behind this shift that helps explain the current outpouring of tributes to the country's Revolutionary leaders.

After World War II, American universities opened wide their doors to veterans whose education was funded by the G.I. Bill. African Americans and descendants of the immigrants from Italy, Greece, Poland, the Balkans and Germany who flooded into the United States at the turn of the 20th century entered college, usually the first in their families to do so. Many went on to get advanced degrees in history, as did lots of women.

These newcomers to higher education brought fresh questions to their calling. They wanted to know about ordinary people and sought to locate their own forbears in the American past, rather than study the WASP gentlemen and Midwestern radicals whose exploits filled the history books. Their rallying cry became "History from the bottom up."

Historical inquiries "from the bottom up" couldn't be answered in the traditional way. Ordinary people by definition didn't sit in Congress or the Oval Office, didn't lead armies or head diplomatic missions. So these newly minted historians turned to long-term data in local records offices and used computers and social scientific hypotheses to analyze their findings.

Those who wrote dissertations in the 1960s and '70s churned out questions about undistinguished Americans with great gusto, investigating such topics as their average age at marriage; the mortality and fertility rates that determined the growth and decline of population; the workday routines of the immigrant, the slave, the laboring man and woman; and patterns of inheritance and mobility. Not the stuff of celebratory history, but vastly important to understanding how past generations have dealt with the challenges and limitations they found in the United States. In 1960 there were only a handful of books on African Americans or women; today the volumes number in the tens of thousands.

Since these studies were often quite dry, with tables and graphs gracing pages that earlier would have contained evocative photos and pictures of paintings, the public knew little about this work. Not until parents discovered Harriet Tubman in their children's textbooks did they tumble to the fact that fife-and-drum history had been replaced by tales of hard times, disappointments, even failures experienced by those at the bottom. Rather than respond positively, many people labeled the new history "revisionism," a pejorative term that suggested the manipulation of sources rather than the acquisition of new knowledge.

Recent grumblings about the neglect of "dead white men" have prompted some non-academic historians and professional writers to go back to the heroes of the revolutionary era. One of the most popular books -- David McCullough's John Adams -- has sold almost 2 million copies, an unheard-of record for a work of history. Now every season brings still more publications on the founding era.

With Founding Mothers, Roberts fills a gap in our coverage of the era without straying far from the familiar story of colonial resistance, the struggle for independence and the climactic writing of the U.S. Constitution. We don't lose sight of the white male titans who built the nation; we just see them from the vantage point of the women they wooed and the families they worried about -- usually at a distance -- during America's longest war.

Husbands were separated from wives, sisters and brothers from each other, parents from their children. Almost all the relatives in this select, upper-class group bridged their separations by writing long letters filled with pithy descriptions of troop movements, laments about deaths and pleadings for reunions. Roberts has uncovered hundreds of personal anecdotes and woven them together in a single, suspenseful narrative with great skill. While she's out to demonstrate that the wives of America's heroes were a mighty force for independence, her storyteller's instincts generally win out over patriotic endorsements.

Founding Mothers has something of the tone of a book for young adults with its chatty commentary and references to the present. Many of Roberts's heroines are familiar to us. We find Eliza Pinckney, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Mercy Warren and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in these pages, but Roberts's exhaustive canvassing of the correspondence of these notable wives introduces us to dozens of new people.

These doyennes of American society kept running into each other during the war and its aftermath. Many of them were related, and others became so as the war expanded their social circle. Roberts artfully stitches together their separate and overlapping experiences, reminding us that in war as in peace, men and women go on courting, conceiving children, consoling the sick and mourning the dead. These domestic details quicken our sympathy for a cohort of women who faced a relentless succession of pregnancies -- each one a risk -- as well as virulent diseases that threatened their lives and those of their husbands and children.

Describing the trauma of a war fought close to home, Roberts details how Gen. Nathaniel Greene kept his wife informed of atrocities committed by the British Army. "Even the spirited Kitty was understandably terrified when the British landed in Newport, Rhode Island, and took the town without a struggle," Roberts reports. "She was pregnant again and afraid she had nowhere to hide." The reading public obviously craves stories of bravery, sacrifice and wisdom and rightly turns to the nation-building decades for models of conduct. But celebration has its pitfalls. In earlier times, the discounted story of Jessica Lynch raining bullets on her Iraqi attackers might have lived on -- as did the tale of Davy Crockett fighting to his last breath at the Alamo, when in fact he was overpowered and captured and then summarily executed by Santa Anna's men. Roberts, like those earlier historians, chooses to take the inspiring tales she tells at face value.

Celebratory histories give debunkers their work just as scholarly tomes create an appetite for suspenseful narratives. Rather than try to reconcile these differing stances towards the past, it's probably better to accept that our past is a rich reservoir for reconstructing structures, processes and patterns as well as mythic sagas. Where a professional historian would have analyzed the accounts Roberts gleaned from her research, she has invited us to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy her skill as a chronicler.

Reviewed by Joyce Appleby


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From AudioFile

Finally, an account of the essential roles American Colonial women played as 13 British colonies became the United States of America. The author's unique political background and her political reporting expertise--her mother and father were members of Congress, and her sister was mayor of Princeton, New Jersey--serve her well. Combining new and invaluable historical information with wry asides (no one conveys more with a one-word commentary), Roberts makes historical figures become real people, sometimes flawed but immensely heroic. Abigail Adams stars, and Martha Washington shines as an admirable woman whose financial and emotional support of her husband just may have made all the difference. While the Colonial music at each CD's beginning becomes annoying, this audiobook delights as it increases our historical knowledge of this crucially important era. L.C. © AudioFile 2004, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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