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As much as history argues about the Revolutionary and Founding Fathers, it often fails to mention the companions of these mighty men. Carol Berkin’s “Revolutionary Mothers” brings back to life the forgotten and disregarded image of women during the times of the American Revolution.
The author enlightens the reader about the true and fictional stories of that time, points out the stereotypes and realities. “Revolutionary Mothers” by Berkin demonstrates the silent, yet fierce power of women during the revolution, their strong impact, and their genuine opposition to the war and all the destruction it brought.
The American Revolution is the period in the country’s history that the American society is used to romanticize. The admiration and excitement the people of the United States experience talking and thinking of the Revolutionary times as the beginning of the national unity appear due to a wide misrepresentation of the historical facts by authors and filmmakers.
Frequently, the American Revolution is depicted as a time of the national unity and wholeness, where the heroes of all walks of life joined their efforts in the fight for liberty and equality. Yet, in reality the American Revolution is referred to as a war for a reason, and “there is much that is missing in the tales we tell”.1
It was a cause of massive and omnipresent destruction, but due to the romantic stories (often artificially created), the modern American society knows very little about the damage the Revolution was, the imperfect society it built, and overall chaos that occurred afterwards and affected the weakest groups of population among which there were women.
Women happened to be among the unprotected community of that time (along with other minorities) as “the eighteenth century embrace of freedom, liberty and equality was not wide enough to encompass women, men without property, African Americans, or Indians”.2 Their vulnerability only started to be discussed recently, when women’s movements gained power and popularity. The modern Americans remember the historical figures related to the time, the majority of whom are men.
In her book called “Revolutionary Mothers” Carol Berkin notes that the discussion of the role of the women during the Revolutionary times is often connected to three names – Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, and Molly Pitcher.3 The latter turns out to be a fictional character, whereas the other two were proved to be nothing like their romanticized images.
Berkin calls the nation’s ignorance towards the other active female participators of the Revolution “the gender amnesia” and presents a collection of stories of the female heroes of the Revolutionary times viewing the historical events through their perspective and showing that even though women did not occupy any formal positions, they made a huge impact on the course of the history.4
The theme of obedience is frequently raised by Berkin throughout her book. The author reminds the readers about the old attitudes towards gender roles that positioned a woman as a man’s helpmate. Berkin notes that according to those old beliefs women were naturally inclined to “obedience, fidelity, industriousness, and frugality”, and that their natural purpose was to bear children and tend to the family.5
These beliefs were widely promoted and popularized through the literature, religious, and social studies. Some said it was the law of nature that made a woman obedient and secondary to a man, some were convinced that God created his kind of hierarchy.6
Due to this arrangement, during the Revolutionary times women without any personal male leaders (fathers or husbands) were especially powerless, whereas women who had men in their lives were forced to give up their properties and rights in the men’s favor. Even though eventually, the change of image for women occurred, their roles were still viewed as absolutely different from those of men.
The women’s image was different depending on their social status: while rural women were to work hard, tend to the house, the land, the husband and children, the wealthy ladies of the cities developed a fondness of fashion, home decoration, and turned into “pretty gentlewomen”.7 The clash of identity emerged very soon, and many women were to fulfill both roles at the same time. This paradox is very similar to the one of the contemporary women who are torn apart between motherhood, housewifery, and career making.
As clear as the roles of women were outlined by the priests and behavior code writers, the breach of these “fixed truths about the capacities of men and women” was a normal happening in the American society of the 17th and 18th centuries.8 Many women were known to disregard the stereotypes applied to them and often committed adultery, used physical violence against their husbands or children, and were known to take part in various criminal activities. As the war began, the social instability aggravated and resulted in more frequent cases of stereotype breach.
A great example of such phenomenon was the women’s boycott when they refused to purchase the British goods such as tea and cloth during the revolution.9 This protest represents the opposite of the traditional stereotypical behavior of women, their disobedience. Technically, such protest made a larger impact than a series of formal negotiations and diplomatic conversations. This way, the women who were politically voiceless, found a practical way to express their opinion.
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Anonymity is one of the features all the female protestors shared back then. Nameless and faceless, women continued to participate in social and political protests during the revolutionary times. Anonymity was the source of the women’s protection and power at the same time. Due to anonymity, their reputations of genteel ladies were preserved. With their voices sounding as loud as those of the well-known male radicals, women managed to still fit into the traditional image of fragile, humble, and innocent creatures.
Reaction to War
In “Revolutionary Mothers”, Berkin describes how differently the American men and women felt about the upcoming war. While men were eager to take part in it and volunteered to join the troops, the women burst into tears from the mere sound of the word “war”. It seems to be a demonstration that some traditional beliefs about the gender roles of men and women are true. Females, as the natural creators of life, feared war, whereas males prone to destruction and driven by physical power were more accepting about the approaching conflict.
Berkin writes, “What seemed to sadden the women the most was the loss of life”.10 As a result, the overall idea of war and unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people made the American women resent patriotic feeling as it was associated with abandonment, danger, pain, and horror of the war. Women of that time, especially the poorer ones, were not powerful enough to stop the war or to survive without their men. Moreover, none of the wives, mothers, and daughters wanted to lose their husbands, sons, and fathers.
The reaction to war of the American women reminds of that of the women of Liberia, who opposed the violence and death and joined their efforts to stop the war in a peaceful way, using their female power, persistence, and love as the only weapon. Unfortunately, the women of America were not as powerful and even their united force would not have been able to stop the war or solve the conflict in a peaceful way without the loss of life.
Women, just like nature, always have been something men were proud to conquer and tame. During the revolutionary times, men got to experience the natural power of women breaking out of their cages and crossing the boundaries established for them by the male-dominated society.
Women, loyal and devoted to their duties and roles were also loyal to their country, and this was the force that united them in the wave of patriotic rebellions and protests that often clashed with their traditional image of modest and gentle gender. At the same time, they loyalty of women to their men cultivated by the generations of social built and fixed gender role promotion clashed with the idea of war associated with separation from their families, unnecessary loss of life, and destruction of homes and properties.
Berkin, Carol, Christopher L. Miller, Robert Cherny, and James L. Gormly, Making America. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2013.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
1 Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 5.
2 Ibid, 6.
4 Ibid, 7.
5 Ibid, 13.
6 Ibid, 14
7 Ibid, 16
8 Ibid, 6
9 Carol Berkin, Christopher L. Miller, Robert Cherny, and James L. Gormly, Making America (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2013), 119
10 Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 33