2017-07-12
Before she became a political reporter and commentator for ABC News and NPR, Cokie Roberts watched her mother, Lindy Boggs, serve as a member of Congress, first taking Cokie's father's seat after his death, then as the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana. Growing up in politics, Roberts says, "I knew the tremendous influence of the women," and she set out to discover that influence in Revolutionary times, an era we increasingly look to as a guide. The result of Roberts's study is her bestselling book, "Founding Mothers." We talked to her recently about women, politics, and marriage, then and now.

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.

The founding fathers are portrayed as deists who believed God is a remote presence in history, not engaged in men's affairs. Did the women share that view?
No. The Puritan women in Boston, Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren, were deeply religious. Although Abigail had no problem with objecting to what the minister was saying. At one point he called for reconciliation with the British and she refused to pray.

In the South it was less true. It was harder. Many of the elite were spread out on plantations. But in the only letter of Martha Jefferson we have, she is encouraging the women of Virginia to participate in the fundraising drive for the soldiers. That all happened in church. In Philadelphia, the women went door to door, but in Virginia that was totally impractical, so the churches were used for collection.

What was their relationship to God like?
They talk about God a great deal in their letters and religion sustained them through some very tough times-they had all lost babies. At one point, Abigail wrote that when some of the cities fell to the British, she thought God was punishing the colonies for the sin of slavery.

Yet when it comes to the cause of the Revolution, they almost seem fatalistic. They didn't have the notion that God was on their side.
No. I think it was, "Please God, let us live through it." I don't know a lot about Puritanism, but I think there is the sense that faith gets you through. We Catholics have a sense of God up there moving things around, so it's worth lobbying. I mean, that's what the intercession of saints is all about-they're a bunch of lobbyists.

You grew up in a political household. Do women act any differently when they become politicians?
Yes. My mother is actually pretty interesting about the difference between being powerful behind the scenes and in front of the scenes. Part of that has to do with the degree of power of the husband's job. But women in office do tend to be, just like women in any other job, more connected to the home than the men.

But I also think that women bring to office their own life experiences. When my mother went to Congress, she had had the experience of being a widow whose credit was cut off. So they have different life experiences, and bringing that to the table is key. But I also think they do a better job of working across party lines and all that.

Why?
Common sense. [Laughs.] Let's just get it done. Who cares who's on what side? Obviously, there are huge party issues where they are wildly partisan, but when they're working on particularly issues relating to women, children, and families, they will put aside the differences as much as they humanly can and decide to just get it done.



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