'I Talked Him Quite Silent'
Cokie Roberts on her book, 'Founding Women' and recovering the opinions of the women of the American Revolution
BY: Interview by Paul O'Donnell
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.
Right, she was in an argument with a gentlemen in Princeton over the Stockton family. She wrote in her letters, "I've had a smart combat with Mr. Ewing about our sex. He is a man of good parts and learning but has mean thoughts of women." She says, "Mr. Ewing says, 'She and the Stocktons are full of talk about friendship and society . I ask what he would have them talk about, whether he choose they should talk about fashions and dress? He said, things that they understood. He did not think women knew what friendship was. They were hardly capable of anything so cool and rational as friendship. My tongue you know hangs pretty loose. . You may guess what a large field this speech opened for me. I retorted several severe things about him before he had time to speak again. He blushed and seemed confused. We carried on the dispute for an hour. I talked him quite silent." Now that's pretty fabulous.
On the other hand, they bore huge deprivation. Their husbands, for one thing, were rarely home. Was marriage different in those days?
There were different expectations about what men would bring to the marriage--but then there are different expectations between my marriage and my children's marriages. Times do keep changing--thank God. These people, by and large, were quite devoted to each other, and had a tremendous appreciation for each other. Even if you weren't talking about some passionate love affair, you certainly get the sense that the partners were valuable to each other-I'm thinking here particularly of Martha Washington, where George clearly valued her contributions to the army. And of course, John Adams was very explicit about it. He wrote over and over, "Behind every great man, there's a great woman"--since he was determined to be great. Even Franklin, whose marriage was awful as far as I could tell had an appreciation for Deborah's business sense and ability to manage everything.