No matter what you know about the role of women in the Revolutionary War, prepare to discard it when you read “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation,” which is overflowing with information about some of the outstanding women who fought the war in so many different ways.
As Washington wrote in a letter to Annis Stockton after he left the presidency: “For indeed, I think you ladies are in the number of the best patriots America can boast.” His wife, Martha, was one of the most engaged in helping the soldiers and their families, often at great risk to herself.
We all know something, not nearly enough, about Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison and Martha Washington, but may not know about Sally Jay or the lively, flirtatious Kitty Greene, or about the women spies, or the women who repelled rampaging British soldiers, or the woman who burned New York City to protect Washington, and more. The book – an appropriate read to acknowledge Mother’s Day – details the relationships among all of the well-known Revolutionary War men and the women they married or loved, overtly or covertly. The historical context is lush with accounts of the battles, on and off the field, and with diplomatic efforts as well as the some of the despicable betrayals.
In all of this intrigue and death and confusion, there appeared a beacon of sanity and determination fueled by some of the bravest, most intelligent, most loyal women you have ever met. Most of the women were left to care for children and the property for long periods of time while their famous husbands were off to war or on a diplomatic mission. Mail took months, so that uncertainty and impending dread hung over most households. Some women and their children were able to follow their husbands to areas near the battlefields to attend parties during winter breaks from battle. Also attending were some of the camp followers, looking for husbands among the officers. But many women did not go out for fear that the British would destroy their homes and property, or for fear of rape or of Indian attacks. They made do with the barest minimum of food and security, maintaining their families with ingenuity and fearlessness.
Deborah Franklin was the most devastated, the most rudely treated wife of all. Ben was gone for 16 of the last 17 years of their married life, gaining a reputation politically and as a rake. She remained deeply in love with him and faithful until she could take no more. Late in her life she gave up hope of ever having him home. She died as she had lived for so long: alone and unloved.
The women were very well-informed about the politics of the years just before the war, during the war, and just after. They were involved every step of the way and tolerated unbearable losses but remained loyal supporters of the cause, encouraging their husbands and sons to persevere in the struggle for freedom from British control no matter the sacrifices they were suffering and would continue to suffer. Such love and sacrifice have rarely, if ever, been matched.
The letters are a vivid a portrayal of their daily lives amid the chaos and terror of war that was right on their doorsteps, literally and figuratively. Roberts, from a political family herself, does justice to the period and to the men and women who made the country free, but she does occasionally snipe a bit by adding a short snide comment that bespeaks her own feminism. This is minimal and does not affect the overall effect of the stories she is telling so dramatically.
Women of all ages should read this book to learn a more complete account of the roles these women played in a time of such danger and brutality, long before women were given the respect they deserved by the men they supported. They did not wait for independence, they helped to create it. If there had been a Nobel Prize then, these women would have earned it, many times over.