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Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence. By Carol Berkin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 224 pages. $24.00 ($13.95 paper).

In General Orders, 28 June 1776, General George Washington lamented "the unhappy Fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for Mutiny, Sedition, and Treachery." It was "lewd Women," Washington claimed, "who ... first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious Death." Washington's rebuke of the ladies who plied their trade in New York City's red light district, mischievously named "the holy ground" for its proximity to St. Paul's cathedral, neatly captures one stereotype of women's association with war. After Trenton, Washington admonished his troops to show "humanity and tenderness to women and children." Such behavior toward war's victims would "distinguish brave Americans ... from infamous mercenary ravagers." General Nathanael Greene depicted yet a third stereotype of women as helpless innocents when he requested his brother's assistance with "Katy," Greene's headstrong young wife, during Greene's absence. "She is without Father, without Brother, with[out] Husband to apply to for assistance," Greene wrote; "Counsel her in all matters that respect her Interest or Reputation." Eighteenth-century wisdom held that women were sinners, victims, or naive innocents when it came to war.

Carol Berkin goes beyond the whore, victim, and madonna archetypes in Revolutionary Mothers to broaden our understanding of the roles women played in the War for Independence. The general audience, for whom the American Revolution is unfamiliar territory, will gain much from this book. Similarly, those who have not previously considered the effects of war on the home front will find much to ponder in several of the chapters. The book, however, has its flaws.

Berkin does too much with too little. Her arguments are so concise that they often lack sufficient weight of evidence. Disparate as they are, her anecdotes rarely make the point--women played an active role beyond the home front in the Revolution--that she seeks to prove. Unfortunately, her stories reinforce the image she strives to overturn, the exceptional nature of women's heroism in this era.

In ten concise chapters Berkin explores "a war that continually blurred the lines between battlefield and home front ... through the eyes of the women who found themselves, willingly and unwillingly, at the center of a long and violent conflict." She begins by introducing her readers to 18th-century American gender roles. "Chief among a woman's truths," Berkin notes of this era, "was that God created her to be a helpmate to man." Women often assumed male duties, managing the family assets and operating the family farm or shop while their husbands were away, but this temporary alteration did not change women's subordinate role in a hierarchical society. The War for Independence, however, "stretched to its limits this notion of woman as helpmate and surrogate husband." Revolutionary Mothers probes the several ways that women's roles temporarily expanded during the Revolution and how afterwards, like an overstretched rubber band, things did not fully contract back to the status quo ante bellum.

The expansion of women's roles did not take them, at least at first, beyond familiar territory. Colonial women were not considered political actors, but when the American boycott of British goods made shopping in the early 1770s a political act, "women became crucial participants in the first organized opposition to British policy." Domestic duties became political weapons.

The Revolution was a bloody civil war, fought as much on the home front as on the battlefield. Berkin highlights "the families torn apart by political choices ... the screams of women raped by soldiers, [and] the weariness of a war-tom country." The author paints vivid pictures of the choices that widows and wives of soldiers gone to war (Patriot or Loyalist) faced amidst "cruelty, bloodshed, and oppression" when "lawless power ranged at large." She brings to life the wretched image of the camp follower, and she explains the difficulties women experienced when Patriot mobs drove Loyalists from their homes--across "not simply a physical wilderness but a social one"--and into exile.

Where the Revolution expanded the role of white women, it had a different effect on black slave and Native American women. Berkin addresses these two cases in separate chapters to "avoid treating them as detours or deviations" and to "ensure their perceptions of events are not portrayed as a misunderstanding." This intellectually honest approach highlights cultural differences in gender roles. "The authority and autonomy that women enjoyed in their Indian societies," Berkin notes, "stood in stark contrast to the accepted subordination and economic dependency of colonial farmwives or urban mothers." Doubly damned by their race and their gender, black women could rarely take advantage of the opportunities for freedom that British commanders offered to slaves who would fight for His Majesty.

Berkin's chapter on "Spies, Saboteurs, Couriers and Other Heroines" illuminates the book's greatest strength, and its biggest weakness. Drawing on multiple accounts, Berkin reveals how women "played on gender expectations" to deceive the enemy, how they "demonstrated the steely determination" of mothers, sisters, and daughters protecting their families, and how "women became veterans of the struggle." Although persuasive, there just isn't enough evidence presented to convince.

A mile wide but an inch deep, Revolutionary Mothers is largely a synopsis of other historians' work. For those with a firmer grasp of the American Revolutionary Era, there are other more appropriate, albeit lengthier books. Among them are Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800; Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America; and Laurel Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth.

Reviewed by Major Jason N. Palmer, Instructor of Military History, US Military Academy.
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Author:Palmer, Jason N.
Publication:Parameters
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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