Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin
The American Revolution was a fight for independence from Britain fought by many people, specifically men, that students learn about today. What many do not know, is that women also played a role in this war. Whether these women were fighting with the British or with the Americans, they still helped during the revolution in various ways including aiding wounded soldiers or by being spies. The book “Revolutionary Mothers” by Carol Berkin is filled with stories of many brave women who helped their husbands or their countries throughout this era. Berkin informs her readers that this book bluntly tells the stories of women who got caught up in the conflict between the Americans and the British without sugarcoating it. She stays true to this purpose by being able to communicate the brave things women did without romanticizing it or making it seem like women played a central role. Additionally, she uses the diaries and stories of many women, not just one or a few.
When the war broke out, husbands and sons were sent out to fight. This left women alone in the house with their young children doing their usual household chores. Although most women did not join the military to fight, it was extremely hard for them to avoid the harsh realities of what the war. Berkin tells the story of Frederika von Riedesel, the wife of a general whom she accompanied with their children. The author writes about how Frederika was near one of the battles of Saratoga and was faced with challenges such as a wounded officer eventually dying while she tried to comfort him (85). Berkin explains that “in the next few days, the baroness saw more death and suffering” (86), a sad truth that some of the generals’ wives would soon realize when they joined their husbands at the military camps. Berkin is further able to inform her readers about women having to face the struggles of war in chapter three. She writes that “both Patriot and British forces committed conscious acts of fierce brutality” when they would occupy a woman’s home (38). Women would be in fear of what soldiers could do to them or their children. Furthermore, Berkin explains that husbands’ political choices would threaten their wives back home, making them victims of violence (97). These examples are just some of the terrible things women had to deal with during the American Revolution, and Berkin effectively wrote about them without sugarcoating them.
Carol Berkin does not romanticize the stories of these women. Although some were wives of powerful men, she does not discredit what they did for their country by adding a romantic love story. It is true that women believed that they were just following their feminine duties of being obedient wives, but Berkin prefers to focus on their actions rather than their reasonings. For example, on page 110 Berkin writes “Together, Molly and William became the most powerful political force in the Mohawk Valley” but continues to write about what Molly Brant did for her people and for the British since she was a loyalist. Of course, she was a loyalist because of her husband, but she believed that she could bring peace between the Indian and the white societies and tried to use her influence of being part of two worlds to achieve it. Another example is when Berkin writes about Frederika von Riedesel, wife of Fritz Riedesel. During the war, they were both miserable without each other and did not like that they were separated (81). Berkin continues to tell her readers about their relationship but does not make it her main focus. In fact, she focuses more on what Frederika did during her time away from her husband Fritz. When Frederika’s carriage was mistakenly attacked by American soldiers, Berkin says that she began to take charge (87). The author continues to provide more information on what exactly Frederika did, which was moving people into the cellar and comforting them. She was worried about her husband, but it did not stop her from helping other people who were in need. Berkin does not erase or try to devalue what these two women did. She makes sure that their stories are told with respect without turning them into love stories.
Berkin did keep her word when she said that she was not going to only tell the story of one woman but instead tell the stories of several. Throughout the book, Berkin quotes the women’s diaries to further explain the situations, what they were going through and what they were feeling. An example of this is when Berkin writes about inflation in the third chapter. She uses a quote from a woman named Mary Donnelly where Mary expresses her fear of hearing her young child cry but cannot feed him because she does not have any food (33). During this time, there was no money and families were lacking resources and food. By the use of this quote, readers can imagine how desperate women were feeling because they could not do anything. A few pages later, Berkin writes about how Eliza Wilkinson “captured the feelings of many women, left alone to face brutality and violence of war” (36) and continues to quote her. Eliza’s quote from her diary describes the horrible things she saw people do to each other when they had different political opinions. Furthermore, the use of quotes throughout the book helps readers understand what was going on during the revolutionary era. Not only is this time in history told by one woman, but it is also told by multiple women who shared their experiences in the pages of their diaries and Berkin executes this so perfectly.
Carol Berkin is able to prove her thesis by actually writing “Revolutionary Mothers” the way she told her audience that she was going to do it. She does not sugarcoat it nor romanticize it and she gives voices to many women, not just one. It is a well-written book that effectively informs readers about the struggles that countless women faced during the revolutionary era and what many other women did to help throughout the war.
- Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Knopf, 2005.