Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for Independence provides a multi-faceted perspective of how women influenced and were influenced by the eighteenth century Revolutionary War. Berkin incorporates viewpoints of female loyalists and patriots, wives of generals, African American and Indian women, and women who did camp duties, among others. In the introduction, Berkin mentions that when it comes to the war, the efforts of three women namely Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, and Molly Pitcher were highly discussed. Nevertheless, as the author explains, beyond these three personalities, there were a number of forgotten women who performed significant roles during the war as caretakers, military cohorts, organizers of political movements, and even as soldiers.
Berkin has divided the book into ten chapters with each of them exploring how women were not “passive observers” and instead, were “partners with their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons” during the entirety of the war. Women’s role began in the pre-war period with the public demonstrations against policies of the British and boycott of British products. Patriot women along with their husbands conducted large-scale protests and that is the regarded as “the first political act of American women” where they said “No” (Berkin 13). Despite these initiatives, according to Berkin, women stayed within their homes and performed the traditional roles of wives and mothers. However, when the war commenced, they extended their roles and became “helpmates” and “surrogate husbands”. To be precise, after the men went to the battlefront, women took responsibility of the economics of managing a household even while doing their conventional domestic chores.
However, another group of women became distressed due to poverty and wanted their husbands to return. Berkin focuses on the mindset of those women by providing vivid examples. For instance, the author quotes from the letter of an anxious woman who begged her husband to come home. “I am without bread…the children will starve, or if they do not, they must freeze, we have no wood, neither can we get any—Pray Come Home”( Berkin 33). Hence, Berkin begins the book with an examination of how women had to go beyond their traditional roles.
In the subsequent chapters, the author discusses how terrified and poverty-stricken women followed their husbands to the warfront and performed supportive functions in military units. For instance, in the camps, they cooked and maintained hygiene. Although they did those duties along with her husbands, in certain scenarios, they were also paid modest salaries. Berkin captivatingly contrasts these functions of soldiers’ wives with the activities done by the wives of generals and other senior officers. As part of their social status, the latter did not contribute to the day-to-day routines and instead, executed social gatherings and other constructive activities to keep the morale of the troops high. Berkin then acknowledges the effectual supportive role played by two women, Esther deBerdt Reed and Sarah Bache, who formed a Ladies association and generated funds for the war effort, particularly to make clothes for the soldiers. Since the author wants to provide a comprehensive view of the war, she also includes the instances of how African American women fled to British war camps. When the British through the Philipsburg Proclamation announced that “every Negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard would be provided full security to follow within these Lines,” many black women joined them. Through this example, Berkin demonstrates that not all American women were patriots, as their personal interests decided their loyalties.
Berkin in the remainder of the book explores how a handful of women played more proactive military and political roles. As far as their war actions, she mentions the example of Deborah Sampson who disguised as a man and fought in the patriot forces. The first “Molly Pitcher,” Margaret Corbin organized and carried water to cool the cannons. The author also includes the crucial intelligence work done by Lydia Darragh who risked her life and relayed strategic information to Washington’s army, which enabled them to fortify their defenses against the incoming British army. Berkin’s incorporation of such valiant efforts by women during the war adds strength to the book. Additionally, it proves the bravery of women who just a period earlier were functioning as traditional housewives. Through their exploits in the war, women no longer considered “morally and mentally inferior to men,” and that gave them confidence to assume political roles. (Berkin 151). For instance, Abigail Adams and Judith Sargent Murray attempted to get enhanced property rights as well as increase political participation for the female population through political machinations. Although those efforts did not bear immediate results, they contributed to eventual bestowing of more freedom and rights to women.
In sum, Berkin in her book has recorded and analyzed the role of women in the Revolutionary War. She has utilized a number of creditable sources to reflect the life of women during the war. Although one might get a feeling that she provided more examples and discussions of the women patriots, the fact is that she attempted to provide a multi-faceted viewpoint. Hence, the readers are able to see the war not as a fight between good and the bad, but in a balanced way. This book is a good counterpart to the dominant male-centric historiographical records of the war.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers – Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007.