Cokie Roberts on women of the Revolution

Most of us have heard of Paul Revere’s ride, the Founding Fathers, and Nathan Hale’s last words. Not much, however, is told about women in the fight for independence.


Cokie Roberts is the daughter of two prominent former members of Congress and is a well-respected news anchor. Two versions of her book were published—one for children, Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies (Harper, 2014), and a more in-depth one for adults, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (Harper, 2004).


Each book opens with Deborah Reed, the wife of Benjamin Franklin. They met in their late teens, fell out of touch, but reconnected years later.  


In the expanded adult version, we discover that Franklin was sent away on business and quickly forgot about Reed. As a result, her mother married her off to another man who eventually disappeared in the West Indies.  


After Franklin and Reed reconnect, they are unable to legally marry because her first husband’s death cannot be proven. The relationship was well accepted, however, so Deborah took the name Franklin and became recognized as his wife.


In the children’s version, Benjamin was appointed Postmaster and required to travel extensively, leaving Deborah to run the Post Office in his stead.


In the adult version, we find out he travelled to England, setting up a household with another woman while his wife ran a sundry shop and maintained the Post Office.


Deborah later kept the books for Benjamin’s print shop and invested in real estate, opening some of the first franchises in the country.


After traveling back and forth, Benjamin returned to England, promising to be back within seven months. He did not return until after Deborah’s death more than ten years later.


A brief quote from The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Ellet, tells of a Mrs. Pond, who fed more than 100 Patriot soldiers the morning after the Battle of Lexington.


Other less famous women include Emily Geiger, who carried a message through British territory for General Greene. She was detained by the British who called in a woman to search her. During the delay, Emily memorized the message and swallowed the paper. Finding no justification to keep her, the British freed her and she rode on to deliver the message.


Margaret Corbin’s husband, John, was killed at Fort Washington, New York. Afterwards, she took up his artillery position and was wounded three times. Unable to work after the war, she petitioned Congress for a soldier’s pension, making her the first woman in US history to receive a military pension. She was re-buried at West Point in 1926 and is one of two Revolutionary War veterans interred there.


One amusing story is of Mary Lindley Murray. After defeating the Patriots at Kips Bay in 1776, British General Howe and his soldiers stopped at Mary’s house for dinner. Mary was quite generous with the wine and managed to distract Howe and his men long enough for the American soldiers to escape.


Another notable woman of the Revolution was Deborah Sampson. In the children’s version, Roberts tells us that Deborah made herself a suit of men’s clothing and joined the army as Robert Shurtleff.  


After serving more than three years and being wounded twice, Deborah fell ill and was discovered by her doctor. She was forced to leave the army and, after the war, was granted a soldier’s retirement and recognized by Congress for her service.


In the adult version, Roberts fills in a few more details. Sampson did, indeed, serve as Robert Shurtleff for more than three years. Ironically, the men she served alongside nicknamed her “Molly,” due to her inability to grow a beard.  


The doctor who discovered her secret kept it hidden and sent her on a mission to deliver a letter to General Washington, who immediately granted her an honorable discharge and enough money to get home. Years later, after several petitions to Congress, she was granted a retirement pension and some land.


Roberts delves into the histories and service of other women of the Revolution. The Daughters of Liberty boycotted merchants that sold British goods and created “spinning bees,” where they spun cloth to provide clothing for the Patriot army.  


Eliza Lucas Pinckney, at the age of 19, grew indigo for the soldiers’ uniforms, eventually creating one of the largest agricultural businesses in South Carolina.


Roberts also tells us about women we’ve heard of, such as Martha Washington. Martha is credited as the first to receive the smallpox inoculation, thus encouraging the soldiers by example. The inoculation is now considered to have given the American army an advantage over the British.  


Abigail Adams ran her husband’s farm while overseeing the education of their young children. She wrote letters favoring the abolition of slavery, and spent most of her life advocating women’s equality.


Both books keep the subject matter fresh and interesting. In the children’s version, Roberts manages to present the subject matter in a way that is easily accessible but not dumbed-down.  

In the adult version, she gives more detailed anecdotes about the women’s lives and the roles they played in shaping the early days of our country, while avoiding irrelevant trivia. I enjoyed both books immensely. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at

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