Book Review: Ladies of Liberty

This book is a follow-on to Founding Mothers, also by Cokie Roberts, which I apparently read in 2010. If I did, either Roberts didn’t include as much about Martha Washington as Ladies of Liberty suggests, or I don’t remember Founding Mothers very well (which is possible). Either way, I found Ladies of Liberty to be a lot more enjoyable and informative than my memory of Founding Mothers.

Anecdote: In graduate school, we had a visiting scholar (an old white guy) come to my Early American Literature class to tell us about a shocking discovery he’d made. Rather than sitting home, minding the farm and rocking their cradles during the founding of the United States, American wives had been DOING SOMETHING! Gasp! They had been organizing their husbands’ social lives, networking among their lady friends, and READING! He was so excited as he described his discovery. I’m afraid he was terribly disappointed at the class’s response — a class that was primarily composed of married working women. Where was the excitement? The shock? The thrill of validation that women were, in fact, capable of participating in public affairs in spite of the barriers to our sex?

I’m afraid our attitude was, “What the hell did you think women were doing during that time?”

Ladies of Liberty illustrates that old professor’s point in a much more compassionate, matter of fact manner. Roberts uses letters and diaries to share the perspectives of a wide cast of characters with a range of political opinions. She recounts the stories of philanthropists who were the first to see and care for the women and children who had been left destitute by the turbulent times and the efforts they made to protect their organizations from the disadvantageous laws that impacted women. She recounts the challenges that women faced when their husbands succeeded in public service — Louisa Catherine Adams, wife to John Quincy Adams being the star example of how a woman could make or break her husband’s career without history ever knowing who she was.

The book covers the period 1797-1825, with observations and conclusions about the early American political process that might surprise readers in their familiarity. Readers who may have dismissed the War of 1812 as unimportant might be surprised to learn more about its origins and consequences.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone interested in early American history, and especially anyone whose main idea of history is the headline version of leaders, dates, and important events. Especially during our turbulent twenty-first century, understanding how similar our concerns today are to those of our early leaders might help us to be more creative and compassionate in our attempts to solve them.