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Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence Hardcover – February 1, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Confronting "the gender amnesia that surrounds the American Revolution," historian Berkin (A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution) offers a lively account of women's various roles in the long, bloody conflict. Early forms of resistance included boycotting British cloth--and thus dusting off retired spinning wheels--and tea as women used "their purchasing power as a political weapon." As the conflict became a war in city streets and the neighboring countryside, houses became war zones; ordinary women often served as spies, saboteurs and couriers. Camp followers (often soldiers' wives) provided logistical support (cooking, washing, sewing, nursing, finding supplies) and occasionally even fought; prostitutes kept up soldiers' sexual (and social) morale. Generals' wives, "admired while the ordinary camp followers were often scorned," accompanied their husbands in different style; they boosted morale with dinner parties and dancing. Berkin reaches beyond white "American" women to chart the experiences of Loyalist women ("targets of Revolutionary governments eager to confiscate the property of... traitors"), Native American women (for whom "an American victory would have... tragic consequences") and African-American women (whose "loyalties were to their own future, not to Congress or to king"). First-person accounts lend immediacy and freshness to a lucidly written, well-researched account that is neither a romantic version of "a quaint and harmless war" nor "an effort to stand traditional history on its head." Agent, Dan Green. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Historian Berkin begins with the premise that American women's participation in the struggle for independence was not restricted to such celebrated figures as Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, and the apocryphal Molly Pitcher. Although conventional histories have traditionally been limited to chronicling the heroic exploits of a handful of women as opposed to masses of men, in truth the creation of a new nation required the active involvement of countless numbers of females. The author has subdivided these many stories into chapters recounting the experiences of women who protested against English policy, women who toiled on the homefront, women who followed the army, generals' wives, Loyalist women, Native American women, and African American women. What eventually emerges is a splendid overview of the remarkable contributions made by a cultural cross section of women during the course of the American Revolution. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
Berkin, a history professor at Baruch College and the City University of New York, has sought out the stories of lesser-known but more authentic women --- people like Esther Reed, who organized a fund-raising drive among the women of Philadelphia in support of the Continental Army; Catharine Greene, who endured the rigors of Valley Forge in company with her husband, General Nathanael Greene; and Molly Brant, a Mohawk Indian and British sympathizer who performed skillfully in delicate diplomatic negotiations during the war.
Martha Washington too wins an honorable place in Berkin's female pantheon for her annual trips to be with her husband and his troops even during the war's darkest days.
Berkin is even-handed, devoting space to the activities of Loyalist women as well as American patriots, and not neglecting the lives of black and Indian women. In fact, the single most arresting story in her book is that of Frederika von Riedesel, the wife of a Hessian general who was present at the pivotal battle of Saratoga (where her husband commanded his men on the British side), later endured captivity and long, harsh, forced travels with her husband and small children, was befriended by Thomas Jefferson during a stay in Virginia, and eventually returned to Europe, seemingly with the good will of major players on both sides of the conflict.
Frederika was lucky, of course; her husband's high rank ensured her treatment far better than that accorded to prisoners of lesser rank. But she obviously was a woman of grit and resourcefulness who managed at several key junctures in her American years to turn misfortune to her and her family's advantage.
Berkin gives the reader quick and necessarily somewhat superficial summaries of the active role of women as organizers of pre-war boycotts of British goods, as "camp followers" who did laundry, cooking and sewing for troops on both sides of the fight, and as couriers, spies and other such covert operatives. She is honest enough to admit that some of the stories she tells are based on flimsy evidence --- the perhaps embellished recollections of participants or stories that may have become distorted as they were passed down through familial generations. But the common thread that runs through her narrative is clear --- women were active participants in the great events of 1775-1783, not stay-at-homes. It is a corner of American history worth illuminating.
Berkin's tone is popular rather than scholarly. She does not trumpet the feminist angle vehemently, preferring to let her well-written narrative make its obvious point.
She begins with a survey of the subservient position occupied by women in pre-Revolutionary America, and ends by considering how the wartime activities of women altered post-war male perceptions and led to changes for the better. Her last paragraph leaves the definite impression that there is more to come from Carol Berkin on the subsequent course of American women's emergence from the long shadows of their husbands. In this slim but deftly executed book, she has made a good start on what easily could become a long story.
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn