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Cokie Roberts’ Ladies of Liberty

The women behind the rise of America

May. 26, 2008
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More than two centuries after the birth of America, our nation’s founders still transfix us, says broadcaster and author Cokie Roberts.

  “They are so much part of our fabric as a people that I was dying to know more about them,” says Roberts, who was named one of the 50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting by the American Women in Radio and Television. The results are found in Ladies of Liberty (Morrow), the follow-up to Roberts’ best-selling book, Founding Mothers (2004), in which she examines the lives and times of some of the women who helped shape America.

  The author says that even though women were central to the survival of the country, female contributions have been overshadowed by the Founding Fathers. Without the patriotism of women on the home front, Roberts says, the colonies could well have lost the Revolutionary War.

  “[Historian] David McCullough wrote that [George] Washington’s greatest strength was keeping the Army together and that Martha Washington and the other generals’ wives were essential to that, with their morale-boosting and care and literal feeding of the soldiers,” she says.

  Other women on the home front played a vital role as well. “They were the people supporting the family,” Roberts notes. “Their men were off to war or on a diplomatic or governmental mission, where they weren’t making any money. They were fending off the British in their own front yard. It was quite remarkable what these women were doing.”

  At times, the Revolutionary War appeared lost. “1780 was a bleak, bleak year,” Roberts explains. “The women held a fund-raising drive for the soldiers and they raised an unbelievable $300,000 in the space of a few weeks. It boosted morale incredibly and kept things going until the French arrived.”

  Ladies of Liberty continues the story told in Founding Mothers, taking the reader from the election of John Adams in 1796 to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828.

  “This period of time was a lot less dramatic in a way, but I think a lot harder,” Roberts says. “They were not talking about the nitty-gritty of government, nor the glory of defeating the oppressor. It was about the nitty-gritty of these desperate states. When people referred to ‘my country,’ they meant their state. There was not that real sense of union.”

  Roberts says that her two history books resonate with readers because “fundamentally, they are really interesting women we don’t know about.” There was a need for the books, she suggests, “because when I went out to find this information, it hadn’t been written.”

  Drawing on personal correspondences of the time, private journals and other primary sources, and filled with what she saw as entertaining gossip from the early days of the capital, Roberts tries to bring these women alive through their experiences.

  “I chose these women because we did have their own words,” she says.

  Roberts says she hopes readers see how essential women were to the development of our country. “And I can even make the case we might not have survived without women making men behave better,” she concludes. “Because the partisanship was so fierce, and the press so irresponsible and the country so fragile and young, without women providing social spaces where men could come together and break bread and behave together, fractiousness could [have ruled].”


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