When Cokie Roberts read Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies to her granddaughter for the first time, the 8-year-old kept asking the same question.
Though some might expect the granddaughter of a prolific and distinguished political commentator to be an American history whiz, Roberts was actually grateful that her young progeny needed clarification.
“I have a place [in the book] where women went to war because they were too poor to stay home,” says Roberts. “They couldn’t work.”
“Why couldn’t they work?” the young girl wanted to know.
Apparently, kids who were born in the 21st century have a hard time fathoming a world where women couldn’t do things like vote, acquire a paying job or hold public office. It’s understandable why that concept might be particularly confusing to Roberts’ offspring. The daughter of a former Democratic congresswoman, the late Lindy Boggs, Roberts is probably best known as an award-winning broadcast journalist and pundit who is a regular on NPR and ABC News. Her late sister, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was once the mayor of Princeton, N.J. Given that Lindy was born before the 19th Amendment was passed, you might say that the Roberts women are “Exhibit A” for how much difference 100 years can make. Not that Roberts has anything to prove.
“I don’t want to come across as [tendering] some feminist creed,” says Roberts. “It’s not. It’s just telling the story.”
The story she’s referring to is the collective experience of colonial women and the roles they played in America’s founding. Her 2004 book, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, explores the lives of women who were indirectly involved in the events that led to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies, Roberts has adapted the 2004 volume for children ages 8-12. Caldecott Honoree Deborah Goode provides illustrations for the project.
The book gives voice to the lives of colonial women who significantly helped shape America yet have not often populated the text of traditional history books. For example, Roberts believes John Adams was “basically supportive of women” but that one substantial reason for that was his wife, Abigail.
“John Adams did write very explicitly that he thought that when you found a man of accomplishment, that you almost always found by his side an accomplished or worthy wife or mother,” says Roberts. “But he would [also] say something really stupid, like, ‘Here I am in France! The women here are really beautiful and accomplished.’ Abigail was at home trying desperately to make ends meet while he’s off on diplomatic missions, and she would write back instantly and say, ‘Well, we’d all be accomplished too if we had better education.’ So she was always on the case.”
The subtitle of the book comes from Abigail’s request that her husband, the second president of the United States, “remember the ladies.” And many would agree that’s something colonial history at large has done a poor job of. Roberts explains that in part, that’s due to a shortage of primary sources; women weren’t considered important, and thus, their letters and diaries were often discarded or stashed in obscure places. Still, just because the women haven’t gotten much contemporary airtime doesn’t mean they were passive or absent in the founding process.
“Esther DeBerdt Reed organized this incredible fundraising drive at a time when morale could not have been worse,” Roberts explains. “It was 1780; the British were winning and the French hadn’t arrived yet. The soldiers didn’t have any pay, shelter or sufficient clothing.”
Reed, whose husband was the governor of Pennsylvania, raised more than $300,000, the bulk of which was ultimately used to buy linen shirts for the soldiers.
Roberts tells a number of similar stories in the book. Mercy Otis Warren wrote plays and poems that criticized the loyalist governor of Massachusetts; Deborah Read Franklin ran the U.S. Postal Service; and Eliza Lucas Pinckney managed three plantations and is largely credited for the commercial success of indigo, which became South Carolina’s most profitable crop before the Revolution. Quite often, women inherited their “jobs” from husbands or fathers who were busy fighting, lawmaking or on diplomatic missions. Did the men ever take credit for what the women around them accomplished?
“I’m sure that they did,” surmises Roberts. “It’s even possible that Eli Whitney stole the cotton gin from Catharine Littlefield Greene. I don’t know enough to weigh in on that, but MIT has an inventions website where they give her credit.”
Goode’s drawings present soft, playful cameos of the women who often buoyed the Founding Fathers; Roberts’ meticulous research and lively storytelling paint a long-overdue portrait of colonial women who were strong, courageous and had healthy senses of humor. Reading about their lives raises the question of how today’s female politicians might be perceived in a couple of centuries.
“I think people will be surprised that it’s taken us so long to elect a woman president,” Roberts reflects. “When my daughter said that to her sons when they were younger, they said, ‘Oh, get outta here.’ They didn’t believe her. But I also think that to the degree that people learn about something below the level of president—which is unusual—they will be impressed with the women who are serving now, particularly the women who have been secretary of state.”
Today, only about 20 percent of the members of Congress are female. But Roberts is grateful for the progress that has been made.
“For most of my life and [while] covering Congress, there were never more than two women in the Senate. So that’s a big change.”
When asked how the men in Washington view their female counterparts today, Roberts says she believes that “the politicians, by and large, are the most modern of men.” Given that we live in an age of greater gender equality, does she lend any credence to the old adage, “Behind every great man is a great woman”?
She pauses, as if formulating a stately answer.
“Well, it sure helps!”
Laura Jenkins is a writer and photojournalist.