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Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence explores this very idea of women’s strength revealing itself under trials. Berkin begins the book by giving the reader a brief overview of a typical woman’s life before the Revolutionary War. She notes the lack of information in general history regarding women’s roles in different historical events, particularly the Revolutionary War. Defining this concept as “gender amnesia,” Berkin discusses how generally “the war for independence is portrayed as an exclusively male event” and how that has altered modern thoughts about history. Throughout the book, she uses short character sketches to illustrate different perspectives of women in that time period, grouping them by race, social status, and economic class. In the end, she ties all the stories together with one final chapter that discusses how all women, no matter what their perspective, experienced a change in their definition of “normal life” after the war. While there are some faults in this book, overall, it serves as a good foundational read for anyone interested in women’s history, specifically during America’s early years.
To account for a general lack of knowledge about women’s roles in early America – or as Berkin calls it, “gender amnesia” – Berkin’s introduction and first chapter give the reader foundational background information on women before and during the Revolutionary War. Dispelling some popular myths, she sets a clean slate to eliminate bias and preconceived notions. For example, she notes, “Only three women seem to be readily associated with the war for independence,” and one of them, Molly Pitcher, “simply did not exist” but instead symbolized the many unknown women who played a part in the revolution. Berkin challenges traditional stereotypes in order to open the reader’s mind to her work, a particularly important step considering the foundational nature of the book. For instance, she introduces the widely known idea of the woman being a helpmate for her husband but ends the first chapter by challenging its traditional definition. She asserts, “When wives stepped into their husbands’ shoes, performing male duties…radical though their actions might be, these women were fulfilling their obligations as helpmate”. By introducing this idea of a change in the definition of “helpmate” at the beginning of the book, she allows the reader to meditate on how women’s traditional roles changed and stayed the same as the stories of different women unfold.
After the first chapter, Berkin systematically works her way through a series of different groups of women and describes their duties and feelings before, during, and after the war. One overarching theme is that each group, no matter their differences, faced challenges and difficulties during the war. Categorizing the women of the time into different racial groups, she notes that each group overcame different obstacles. Native American women’s lives changed as colonists “imposed their gender roles upon Indians who remained within their boundaries” and thus limited the amount of influence they had even within their own tribes. On the other hand, African American women appeared at first to find a glimmer of hope in the war; however, it often yielded no actual freedom. The British offered freedom to a number of patriot-owned slaves if they would join the army, but often, the British did not fulfill their promises. Female slaves faced a unique situation, as they often faced the difficult decision of whether or not to leave because of their children’s dependence upon them. Whether they stayed or fled, they rarely found relief from the rigors of slavery and even more rarely found true freedom. Berkin notes, “In the end, there would be no winning side for…the many nameless African American women who died of starvation and enemy attack. Many African American women who won their freedom lost it again…”.
In addition to race, Berkin distinguishes the experience between colonists with different social status. While one might assume that those with higher social status faced fewer problems than those with lower social status, Berkin disputes this claim by giving examples of elite women such as Caty Greene and Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow who moved their entire lives because of the war. Grouping the women by race, social status, and even sides of the war, Berkin appears to cover all her bases. However, as Martha Saxton notes, Berkin leaves out a “central ingredient in the mixed legacy of the Revolution: Religion.” Because religion had such an influence on every aspect of most colonists’ lives, women responded differently both during and after the war because of their beliefs. In omitting this, Berkin misses a major opportunity to distinguish the reactions of different groups of people.
While this oversight might lead to questions on Berkin’s reliability, her background firmly establishes her credibility on the subject. Berkin currently serves as Presidential Professor of History, Emerita for Baruch College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, a title given only to people who publish outstanding research and show extraordinary experience in their fields. She has written a number of other books on early America and even received a Bancroft Dissertation Award from Columbia University for her work in pursuing her Ph.D.
Though Berkin possesses a wealth of high-level academic knowledge on early America, she chooses to keep Revolutionary Mothers more elementary. Overall, the book offers a masterful overview of different ways in which women helped the Revolutionary War efforts. As Susan Klepp noted in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, “Revolutionary Mothers is an easy read, a good quick introduction to some of the prominent women activists, writers, and American and British patriots of the late eighteenth century.” Instead of using all relatively obscure examples, such as the nameless girls who would “chew and swallow documents rather than have them discovered by the enemy,” Berkin also includes stories about many well-known women. Showing how even prominent women faced disruptions in their everyday lives, she tells how Martha Washington followed George Washington to Valley Forge and served the soldiers through the frigid winters before ultimately having to return home because of illness. By mixing both familiar and obscure examples, Berkin indisputably argues that the social effects of the Revolutionary War reached all women, no matter their class, and also appeals to those with less general knowledge of specific figures in American history.
However, the choice to include a number of familiar examples resulted in mixed reviews. Some, like Susan Klepp, contend that Berkin “draws primarily on the standard secondary literature” and therefore, most historians who have read other books on the topic already know about most of the women in the book. Nevertheless, for readers with less knowledge of women in the war, such as students in introductory level history classes, these “standard” examples help lay a solid foundation on the subject. As J.M. Opal noted in her review of the book, because Berkin wrote her book later than many better known sources, “Berkin is able to take the significance of the topic as a given” which gives her more freedom to write “a carefully nuanced and elegantly written account of a chaotic time and the women who lived through it.” Acknowledging the many writers who came before her, Berkin notes that many historians, particularly Elizabeth Ellet, who wrote the first major character sketch book about women in the Revolution, shaped her book. Giving credit to many who came before her and discovered countless stories of well-known heroines and unknown housewives, Berkin notes, “One hundred and fifty-four years after Elizabeth Ellet’s Women of the Revolution, this book retells the story of women’s role in creating a new nation…through the words and actions of individual women…”. Berkin realizes her book does not reveal unknown truths but instead retells the story of the American Revolution by tying together various perspectives in a new way. Joan Gunderson, who wrote her own book on women in the revolution prior to Revolutionary Mothers, admired the “interesting comparison of Martha Washington and Catherine Greene” as a “less familiar profile” and a new way of examining the similar experiences between women in this time period.
In conclusion, Revolutionary Mothers is a quick read that allows its readers to put themselves into the shoes of a number of different women during a turbulent time in the history of the United States. While some scholars have criticized Berkin for her simplistic style and redundant examples, these things, when applied to the proper audience, make for an informative story that enlightens and piques the interest of those who might not have as much knowledge of the subject. Taking advantage of previously completed works, Berkin organizes her book uniquely to appeal to a broader audience. Even though this might not provide very much new information to people like historians or those with vast knowledge about Revolutionary War history, it still serves an important purpose for those who might not have a broad understanding of women’s roles in the history of America. Overall, as Catherine Kaplan noted, “The strengths of Revolutionary Mothers clearly more than outweigh its occasional weaknesses.”
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