Most books on the American Revolution tell very little about the war’s impact on and contributions by women. Carol Berkin wrote Revolutionary Mothers to address this oversight, which she says is a recent phenomenon. During and right after the war there was much praise of women recorded in broadsides and proclaimed at Independence Day speeches. Some communities even commissioned statues of women who fought or tended the wounded or raised funds to support the troops. As the nineteenth century passed the histories of the war became more focused on just the men who led, leaving only local histories with the stories of women. During the Women’s Movement of the 1960s, historians (often women) began to recollect these stories and republish them.
Berkin says that the real war does not resemble the sanitized story often presented in books, films, and art. With men off fighting, women were left to maintain farms or small businesses, raise the families, and cope with many shortages of food and other goods. Conditions were worse for the women in battle zones. Many lost their homes, goods, crops, and livestock to requisitioning British troops, bands of loyalists, or American patriot volunteers. Because the conflict was a civil war with neighbors fighting neighbors, there were no safe places and many women and children died. Separate chapters focus on African-American and Native American women who suffered greatly during the war. Berkin also tells about the women who followed the patriot and British troops as nurses, cooks, washerwomen, seamstresses, and “camp wives.” Military operations depended on these women and literally thousands of them moved with the armies.
Revolutionary Mothers finishes with a chapter on the rights of women, which were expanded temporarily. Women of property in New Jersey were even allowed to vote from 1776 to 1807, when the right was rescinded. The only improvement that lasted was the right of women in upper and middle classes to be educated.
Revolutionary Mothers is a moderately short book, 161 pages of text followed by 22 pages of bibliographic citations and an index. Readers will enjoy the many stories of Martha Washington, the Baroness Frederika von Riedesel, Abigail Adams, and many less famous women. All public libraries should add this book.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence. New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 1400041635