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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin

Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin is a survey of women’s role in the American Revolution. The author does a good job of chronicling this underreported aspect of the conflict. As folks who have read my blog in the past know, The American Revolutionary period is of particular interest to me. This work helped to fill in a lot of gaps and enhanced my understanding of The Revolution itself.  I wanted to read a book that centered on women and the Revolution and I had heard that this work, along with Women of the Republic by Linda K. Kerber, were the most respected on the subject. I may read Kerber’s book soon. 

Berkin covers multiple categories of women in this book. One thing that makes it difficult to write about this work is its survey nature.  It covers a lot of fairly unconnected topics concerning women who came from very different backgrounds and cultures. Segments are dedicated to women on the patriot side, loyalist women, black women, Native American women, camp followers, and women who engaged in espionage as well as actual combat. A lot of issues and trends are explored. A few main points involve: patriot women taking on male roles of household and farm management when their husbands went off to the war; persecution of loyalist women and their eventual displacement from their homes; women in actual combat; Native American women who sometimes held leadership roles in their societies; black women who were usually enslaved , many of whom took the opportunity to attempt to flee to the British side as British commanders had promised them freedom. The author tells of many personal accounts and relies heavily on diary entries and letters. 

The book concludes with an examination of the aftermath of the Revolution in regard to women. As a result of the revolutionary spirit and the fact that so many women took on important roles, many Americans, both men and women, argued for equality. The result was a major change in women’s education in America. In most places, girls were provided the same education as boys. Unfortunately, reform stopped there. Berkin explores the reasons for this. 

As I mentioned above, because this book brings up so many points and focuses on so many individual women, it is difficult to pin much down in a single blog post. For instance, there is a lot here about camp followers. Both American and British armies had a groups of thousands of women who followed them around. These consisted of a combination of women that provided laundry and other services, wives of enlisted men, and prostitutes. I had previously known a little bit about camp followers, but this work really dug into the details concerning the many different women who composed this group. Camp followers are just one among several groups that are focused on on in this book. 

Just one fascinating example of the many individuals covered in this work is Molly Brant. Most of the tribes of the Iroquois nation chose to side with the British. Thus, there was heavy and brutal fighting between American and Native American forces in upper New York State. The more I read about the Native Americans in the era when they came into contact with whites, the more I realize that there were a lot of people who fit into and moved between both white and Native American worlds. Brant was such a person. She was a Mohawk from a powerful family.  The Mohawks were one of several Iroquois tribes. Women held more power in Iroquois society as opposed to European and Colonial society. In this area, the Iroquois and some other tribes were more enlightened than the Europeans. Brant in particular held a position of power and influence within the Iroquois confederation.  She also married Sir William Johnson, who was a high British official involved in Native American affairs. Brant was supposedly very comfortable and mixed freely in booth Iroquois and European society.  As an important member of Iroquois leadership, Brant helped guide the tribe into an alliance with The British. Throughout the war, she served as a liaison and supporter of The British cause. Berkin writes,
                                                                                                                    
Throughout the war, the British relied heavily on Molly’s influence with the Mohawks. It was Molly who persuaded the Society of Six Nations Matrons to press their men to fight for the king, and it was Molly who rallied these Indian warriors when they began to question their participation in the war . British officials never underestimated her importance.

This work is filled with similar interesting and important stories. 

This is very good book. Though it is not that long, it covers a lot of ground and shines light into lots of areas. It is full of interesting accounts, and I learned a lot from it.  Berkin is also a very good writer who manages to hold my interest throughout. I recommend this to anyone interested in the American revolutionary era, women’s’ history, or the social history of America.



34 comments:

Stephen said...

I trust Abigail Adams makes an appearance?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - The author does mention her and talk about her a little. But Berkin seems to be emphasizing the untold stories here.

Sandi said...

Very interesting that she was able to be a part of both the British society and the Iroquois!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sandi - It has surprised me that throughout the history of European and Native American relations, many people moved comfortably through both cultures.

James said...

Great review of what sounds like a very interesting book. This is an area of American History with which I am unfamiliar, but would like to explore in the future.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I think that the best introduction to the American Revolution was The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff. I think Thad digging into histories like this adds texture.

Judy Krueger said...

Isn't it great that people do this sort of scholarship and write well too? Of course your interest in the time period brought you to it with a level of curiosity that matched what sounds like a deep interest within the author. I found your review fascinating to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy. I am indeed grateful that there are so many scholars digging into so many aspects of these things. I am also trying to look into the American Revolution from as many angles as possible.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Great review, Brian. This book sounds like something I would really want to read. I will look it up and see if it's in my library before attempting to buy it. (Part of my resolution to be more frugal. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I think that you would like this. I have also gotten a bit frugal with book buying and I go the library route when possible.,

Sue Bursztynski said...

This does sound like a book I would enjoy. I’ll see if it’s in Apple Books. Still reading Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings, which is a very interesting book about African Americans and the Revolution.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, great review and this book sounds very interesting and before reading your review I thought this book would be similar to Founding Mothers and the women profiled would be Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren etc. But the author decided to branch out and include African American women, Native American and not only women who supported the patriot side. Glorious Cause sounds like the book one should read to get a very good grounding on the American Revolutionary period.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I really must read Schama’s book. It is an oversight that I have not gotten to it. I read his book Citizens which I thought was excellent.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - The Glorious Cause is the introductory book on The American Revolution that I introduce to everyone.

Berkin does talk about some of the influential wives of founders like Abigail Adams, but this book is mostly about various groups of women that goes far beyond that group.

CyberKitten said...

Sounds very interesting and pushed quite a few of my buttons. Added to my Amazon Wish List. Thanks for the tip.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten- If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Brian! Yes, Citizens is great! I never knew that about the father of Delacroix, who is a favourite artist of mine... or that elephant in Paris...

Whispering Gums said...

This reminds me a little of a book published here around 2013, historian Clare Wright's The forgotten rebels of Eureka. Eureka was an uprising of miners on the Victorian goldfields in 1854 - against impositions, particularly miners licences and taxes - by the British government. The story has always been told about the male leaders, one Peter Lalor and others, but Wright looked at the role - some very significant - played by women. It's a beautifully written book, without the survey feel that you describe this book has. It has a real sense of narrative. But, she has a strong thesis to argue which is perhaps a bit different from Berkin, perhaps?

Whispering Gums said...

Oops those dashes should not be there!

baili said...

this one sounds important book which must be read dear Brain

i can realize that my passion for reading can't wait but i have to wait for bit leisurely times ahead because i hate being disturbed once i am entered into world that book offer
i am also developing the fondness for history of world and how nations contently fought over pieces of planet earth

i will remember this book indeed because it seems to tell stories i need to know
thank you for excellent blog and brilliant review !

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - The Eureka uprising sounds interesting ion so many ways. Women make top half the population and they are unfortunately underrepresented in historical accounts. That is one reason why books like these are so valuable. The large nature of the American Revolution means the survey nature of a book like this makes it difficulty to pin down specific themes. The women covered in this book cover so many different cultures and places in society.

No worries about grammar and punctuations in comments sections. I look at comments section as closer to conversation then writing.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Bailli - People really have fought over pieces of the Earth for a long time. Hopefully we see some signs that is abating.

Time to read is always a problem.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
This is a very interesting and important book, in many ways. I like that it focuses on numerous individual women, and uses personal accounts, diary entries, and letters, rather than one "objective" source. You mention that this book shows the connection of women leadership to the striving for more equality. Excellent commentary, as usual!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. The fact that the author used so many primary factors added credibility to the book.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity said...

Yikes, this is when I realize how sketchy is my knowledge about early American history. I did not know slaves were promised freedom by the British? I wonder how many were able to get away and what their lives were like there? I enjoy history like this that tells the stories of regular folks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Laurie - Though I do not have the numbers at my fingertips, a lot of slaves escaped to the British side. This book and some others that I have read traces the general disposition. Many settled in Canada. Though they faced a lot of racism there, those that did escape were inevitably better off.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Wow! I thought this cover so powerful. So different from the leather clad, stiletto-heel wearing women we see of so many books (especially those of the Urban Fantasy genre) which do not interest me in the least, I found this one fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity- It is a great cover. Unfortunately I have a different edition of the book. I am trying to figure out if this is based on a painting or if it was an original cover design.

thecuecard said...

I think the personal individual accounts of women & their roles would be fascinating in this book. I read letters from the 1812 era and women seemed very impassioned in the fight & towards their government then. I'm sure this subject fills in an important gap of the historical picture. Glad you highlighted it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I can imagine that collection from the War of 1812 was interesting. It is also interesting that people got so intense about a conflict that has been somewhat forgotten.

The Bookworm said...

Revolutionary Mothers sounds fascinating and I like that the author shares diary entries and letters. The women's stories are really interesting to learn about and they had such an important part. I find people like Molly Brant fascinating in that they moved in between the two cultures like that.

This reminds me of some of the women they highlighted in the Civil War documentary I recently watched.
Great commentary as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The Ken Burns Civil War documentary was great and it used primary sources so well. This book uses them similarly.

Molly Brand and others like her are so interesting and they seem to appear throughout American history.

Paula Vince said...

What an interesting topic. It sounds like those brave ladies definitely deserve their share of the spotlight. It also sounds like a dense (if short) read - but well worth digging into.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Paula - One of the themes here is that these histories have been not been explored enough.