Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin
Vintage, reprint edition, 2006
Review written March 7, 2023
Last month, deciding to explore an aspect of historical study I feel not only is undervalued but one I’m less familiar with, I ran across a rather valuable contribution. The book Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2007) was written by Carol Berkin, an academic at the City University of New York. Her focus on Women’s and Gender Studies, especially on the role of women in the American Revolution, has led to numerous papers, books, and textbooks. Several of her books, most recently A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2017) have been praised by Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly and the Wall Street Journal. She was the recipient of the Bancroft Dissertation Award in 1972 for her paper “Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an Anglo-American Conservative,” which was published in hardcover by Columbia University Press 2 years later.
The story of why she chose Women’s Studies for her academic odyssey is explained in a 1999 discussion in Philadelphia. She states
When I was going to school, there were no women in American history, except perhaps Martha Washington and Betsy Ross. And, when I went to graduate school, we were expected to write books about men just like the ones we had read. Happily, some of us said no.
In branching off from the old, tired ethic, her studies helped her find that women’s “experiences and their contributions as important to understand as those of their husbands, fathers, and sons” in the struggles against England and the crafting of the new republic.
The goal here will be to discuss my findings within this unique book, give examples of some of the most surprising revelations to me, and leave the reader with an overview of its scope and tone.
The War of Independence which separated England from its Colonies is a concept which evokes common imagery of warriors engaged in war, along with rooms of diplomats arguing and writing. These ideas often bring up images of men doing the shooting, diplomacy and writing of polity. Behind the scenes were the women who were the wives, cooks, farmers, slaves (both free and in servitude) who furthered the causes of independence, most often by supporting the household or business while the males were directly engaged in the effort.
Berkin here supports the idea that not only were women a direct and necessary part of the war effort, they played – in many cases here fully documented – direct engagement efforts as warriors (usually dressed as men), messengers, diplomats and, harrowingly, spies. Throughout, she poses illustrative episodes which brace the idea the War depended upon the heroic women just as much as the men, and that without both the direct and indirect involvement of women, the effort would have failed.
I began reading this work one chilly February night while my wife laid her head in my lap after heaving reactions to a medication. As I gently stroked her hair, I thought about her resolve, her strength. How would she have faced the situations women encountered during the transition from Colony to country? What would have been her strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, failures? With each flip of the page I could only be thankful our lives are shared in the now; the stable American experiment they help bring about.
Berkin artfully sets the stage in the enticing Introduction. Telling us “there is much that is missing in the tales we tell” the long paragraph which follows hints of what is to come; from various home destructions with families shorn, and helpless children crying, to the screaming of women while soldiers violate their bodies. By the end of the first paragraph of the first page, I was enraptured. Her crisp writing in the Introduction (and followed through the entire book) placed me in smelly, blood-soaked makeshift hospitals and the creaking floors of homes with Loyalist meetings where matrons sympathetic to the Resistance quietly risked exposure to slip vital information to the other side.
“[L]ongstanding gender expectations” flew out the window in the less-structured social environs of the Colonies. Adjusting to unexpected and unknowable conditions allotted women roles they would be less likely to have assumed back across the Pond. From environmental plights, thievery, banditry, both hostile and hospitable natives, slavery and the horrors inflicted by English control and retribution, women stepped up to the task. This despite what was often outright misogyny, such as being written about as “disgusting” to their role in the actual armed conflict. Most interesting to me would be her mention of attitudes among male soldiers to women engaging in fighting. One remarkable passage recounts “women whose sex was discovered quickly were more likely to be punished severely, while women who saw combat before their sex was revealed sometimes drew praise.” I do not know what to make of this, other than to chalk it up to the quirks of whimsy.
Other stories of women serving as men in conflict include “[t]he legendary” Deborah Sampson, who was given pension after discovery. Also mentioned is Sally St. Clair, who was half black, and not discovered to be a woman until her death in battle. We are to be grateful for their service.
Most fascinating to me would be two aspects of female involvement. First, she devotes a full chapter to black people and their trials and tribulations, sweeping us through their bravery and changing societal attitudes. Although I feel the role of African Americans were well discussed elsewhere in the book, Chapter Eight, “The Day of Jubilee is Come” took me almost to tears when discussing the brutality, and moved me to elation in knowing the name of several outstanding people whose names – despite thinking I know more than the average person about American History – were new to my eyes. Second, some of the spy tales in Chapter Nine, “It Was I Who Did It” read like CIA spycraft. Lydia Darragh bravely listened in on a planning session being held in her home, and created a ruse to convince the English of her innocence, and Mammy Kate spent weeks washing clothes for Independence soldiers at a British fort before smuggling one of the soldiers in a laundry basket.
I am both surprised and certainly not surprised these stories and more are not part of the crafted Nationalist memory. But perhaps they should be. While reading Berkin’s lucid and artful writing, nearly minimalist in places with expository effluence where needed, I saw in my mind’s eye scenes which should be in our collective media. The Roland Emmerich film The Patriot, for instance, missed out on including these stories in its narrative.
While absolutely happy with my reading experience, I also read 2 reviews. J. M. Opal reviewed the book for The New England Quarterly and pointed out the foundational works of Mary Beth Norton and Linda K. Kerber, who apparently set the groundwork for Revolutionary Mothers. Since Berkin fails to include a bibliography, I can only assume these were referred to within the copious notes, as they are not mentioned in the Index. And since I use a red Pilot G-2 07 pen to mark (some) books while I read them, Opal pointed out a harrowing sentence from p. 134, where I drew a frowning face in reaction. Her reaction, I am certain, was similar to my own.
And teacher Katie Hickey Snyder has a review on the Website for the Urbana School District . It elaborates on the willingness of women to have their names associated with dissatisfaction against England, and how this upset norms of social status. Writing for other teachers, she concentrates on the use of source materials and nontraditional renderings of the histories we teach.
Both reviewers recommend this book. As do I.
The remarkable stories which unfolded helped me appreciate these remarkable women, their courage, resolve and endurance, which created the stable society we – including me and my wife – take for granted each day.
Arguments and Conclusion
If I were to take issue with this work, it would only be borne out of my own nitpickery. In a few places she mentions the famous Midnight Ride of April 18, 1775 to alert Revolutionaries of approaching forces. She mentions Paul Revere plentifully in relation to this, yet fails to tie the other 3 riders, thus cementing inconsistencies and fallacies common in textbooks (and popular media) of the event. While mentioning in another context William Dawes, she fails to mention at all Samuel Prescott or the rider who logged the most miles, Israel Bissell.
I did discover 2 spelling errors, on p. 98 and 141. Yet my major (and only real) problem with the whole fabric of this work (touched upon above) is what the book does not have. There is no bibliography. Consider it a personal quirk of mine that I love just reading a long list of references, yet here the practicality can be pointed. In J. M. Opal’s review, he mentions 2 authors which Berkin updates and elaborates on. Since neither name is in the Index, and since there is no bibliography, I cannot tell if these names (and thus works) were used here. So in taking on the task of investigation discovered both names as footnote 3 of the Introduction, after mentioning within groundbreaking studies.
Oh, me of little faith.
“American History.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, https://www.ushistory.org/us/historians/berkin.asp. Accessed February 22, 2023.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Vintage Books, 2009, p. ix.
Berkin, op. cit., p. xvi.
Berkin, p. 60.
Berkin, p. 61.
Vol “Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for American Independence, by Carol Berkin (Review by J.M.Opal).” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 4, Dec. 2005, pp. 651–653., https://doi.org/10.1162/tneq.2008.81.issue-3. Accessed February 22, 2023.
American History Teachers’ Collaborative Book Review: Revolutionary Mothers, http://www.usd116.org/ProfDev/AHTC/resources/Reviews/KatieHickeySnyder.htm.
Accessed February 22, 2023.