'I Talked Him Quite Silent'
Cokie Roberts on her book, 'Founding Women' and recovering the opinions of the women of the American Revolution
Historians have mostly ignored the women you've written about, Esther Edwards Burr, Deborah Read Franklin and the others. Why?
Women's roles are diminished for obvious reasons. It's the men whose names are on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and who were generals and soldiers. I'm not complaining about that. But at the time historians started writing about women, they had become fascinated with ordinary people. We went straight from no women to lots of wonderful scholarly works on the ordinary lives of 18th century women, like "A Midwives Tale"--which is a wonderful book. But in the rush to describe the lives of "regular people," we never got to these women-with rare exceptions, Abigail Adams being the main one.
Were those historians put off perhaps by how "submissive and patient" these women were, in Abigail Adams phrase?
It's very possible. The fact that they could not turn them into raving feminists might have made them difficult, though the founding women certainly had strong sensibilities about women's rights and women's virtues. They acted as women, but they also acted outside their normal sphere. They talk a lot about the domestic sphere and how they have left it because they had no choice. They knew that they were doing something extraordinary for women, but they also knew it had to be done.
You catch them playing with the notion that they're not supposed to be outspoken or knowledgeable.
Sally Jay, while her husband was minister to Spain, wrote to her sisters about everything going on politically in Europe and why America is better. Then she says, "But whither my pen are you taking me? Am I not a lady and writing to women? Come quick ye fashions to my sisters."
There's a great scene described by Esther Edwards Burr, the daughter of Jonathan Edwards and mother of Aaron Burr, when she lowers the boom on a male chauvinist.