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Women of Influence

A Conversation with Cokie Roberts

HUMANITIES, January/February 2006 | Volume 27, Number 1

Bruce Cole: I'm very interested in the role of women in politics. In your book, Founding Mothers, you bring a particular perspective to the importance of women in our political history. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Roberts: Growing up in Washington in the 1940s and 1950s I saw the influence of women like my mother--married to Hale Boggs, my father, who had come to Congress when he was twenty-six and she was twenty-four back in 1941--and then the women that she associated with, Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, Mrs. Albert Gore, and Mrs. Gerald Ford. They were very influential in the community of Washington itself, working alongside the African American women who were here, and extremely influential in their husbands' campaigns and careers.

Then, when I became a journalist covering politics, my mother ended up running for office and serving nine terms in Congress. I became interested in what happened when a woman went from being behind the scenes to the person in power. Women in politics has been a very important subject over the last twenty years. The women's vote has been determinative in many elections. What it's based on and what it's not based on have been subjects that I have spent a lot of time writing about.

Cole: So, not only do you have this up close and personal, but you also witnessed a very important period in which women became important players on their own in the political scene.

Roberts: When you think about women and politics in this country, the official period of time when women have participated in politics is still unbelievably short. We're talking about eighty-five years. My mother was born before women had the right to vote. I have wonderful pictures of her aunts and grandmothers well-dressed and in big hats standing behind the governor as he was signing the bill allowing them to vote. So it has been a very short time in American political history, but a very interesting time. By the 1960s you started to see the changes in the laws that made it possible for women to move ahead in other spheres of work. That directly affected me. I graduated from college in 1964 when it was legal to say-as everybody you went to have an interview with did say-"we don't hire women to do that." People forget the "help wanted" ads were male, female, white, and colored. The 1964 civil rights bill added two little words that said that you could not discriminate in employment on the basis of race, nation of origin, creed--or sex.

It was intended to kill the bill, but a Democratic woman in the House and a Republican woman in the Senate kept it in through the President's signature. That is how it became illegal to discriminate against women in employment. That started the whole movement of women of my generation into the work force in huge numbers. The whole landscape changed and made it more possible for women to become elected politicians.

Cole: Did you hear stories about the role women played in politics when you were a little kid?

Roberts: I didn't hear anywhere near enough about it. Now I certainly heard stories, growing up, about Congress in general and about women in my family. I mean I grew up in a southern oral tradition.

Cole: How many women members of the House were there when your mother was first elected?

Roberts: When my mother was first elected there were sixteen women members in the House of Representatives. That was March of 1973. Then for years the highest number we got to was about twenty-seven. After the 1992 election, and in subsequent elections there have been more elected.

Cole: It's true, it's a very small sliver of time in our political history.

Roberts: A tiny sliver of time that women have had the right to vote. Of course, as you know, dealing with this in the humanities, our whole political history is a very short period of time.

Cole: I remember when I went to graduate school to get my PhD, sitting in the first seminar, the professor coming in and asking--there were six or eight of us--asking everyone if they were married. If the women said they were married, he rolled his eyes and he would then ask about kids. He was even upset with the men who were married.

Roberts: Other distractions.

Cole: Other distractions. You have to be monastic.

So for years and years and years in history women did not occupy much space other than decorative. In the 1960s, that began to change. When historians would mention the role of women, they looked not to the wives of presidents or senators, but to what we might call ordinary women.

Roberts: It is my understanding that in the post-World War II period, as the GI bill brought a lot of people into academics, that the whole emphasis of writing about ordinary people became much more part of what historians did.

With the exception of biographies here and there, mainly of Abigail Adams, what no one had done was to go back and say, okay, if women were as influential in the era before they held political office in large numbers, what was their political influence at the most dramatic time of our history? I was just stunned to learn that nobody had really done that.

Of course, there have been wonderful books written about ordinary life in the eighteenth century or books such as A Midwife's Tale that really give you a slice of the hardship and the courage of women of that period. I guess it was because there was kind of this gap that when women really came into history in large numbers it was at a time when the people were writing more about the everyday life.

Cole: They fell through the cracks. I guess part of that is because people were suddenly not interested in heroes and heroines anymore.

Roberts: Elites.

Cole: Elites.

Roberts: Then, of course, as you well know because the NEH has been so involved in it, the Founding Fathers' papers created the possibility for new biographies of the Founding Fathers to be written: David McCullough's books or Walter Isaacson's on Benjamin Franklin or the Alexander Hamilton books, the wonderful Madison books. It's been this fabulous cornucopia of information on the men of the era based on their papers. Interest has revived, but the women, again, got short shrift.

Cole: Why should we study the founding mothers?

Roberts: If we don't know what the women were up to at the time of the fight for independence and the founding of our country, we're missing half our history. Not only are we missing half of our history, we are leaving out a part of history that is incredibly inspiring to girls and young women.

Cole: Exactly.

Roberts: At any given time in our history, the most influential woman in the country is the first lady. That's certainly true right now. What I was not as aware of when I went back to do the research on these earlier women was how blatantly political they were. They not only wrote about politics and felt strongly about politics, they were very involved in the political discussions with the men.

Cole: Why did you decide to write on them?

Roberts: When you cover Congress and politics as long as I have, you go back and read the debates on the right to bear arms, freedom of religion, those kinds of things, all the time. That period of history becomes a part of your everyday life.

My ignorance of the women of the era astounded me. What do little girls learn in elementary school? Molly Pitcher on the battlefield or Martha Washington at Valley Forge, Dolley Madison saving George Washington's portrait, Betsy Ross and the flag. That's about it. So my ignorance was appalling.

Then my husband Steve and I wrote a book on marriage called From This Day Forward, and included a chapter on John and Abigail Adams's marriage. I went back and started reading those letters, which are blessedly available, and I couldn't get over it. I couldn't get over her involvement in politics. I couldn't get over her influence on him and on other founders and I couldn't get over how alone she was for long periods of time and how brave she had to be and how, as she put it, how un-selfinterested a patriot she was. As she said, "I'm suffering all the hardships, making all the sacrifices for the cause, and I'm not going to get anything for it. I won't even be able to vote, but I am able to do this."

Cole: A wise man once said to me, if you want to find out something, write a book about it.

Roberts: And nobody else had. That was the other thing that just undid me. There are lots of young readers' books on these individual women, but pulling them together, taking their letters seriously and seeing where they influenced the men or each other's thinking at various times, seeing where the philosophers like Mercy Otis Warren fit into the picture, or the writers later, Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Sargent Murray. All of that had not been woven together in a serious manner. It was astounding.

Cole: As you mentioned, there has been now, Founding Father chic--best-selling book after book on the Founding Fathers. And they are wonderful. But very few of them are written by professional historians. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Roberts: I expected to get a certain amount of grief--who is she writing a book like this?--so I was meticulous in terms of documentation. I did that for two reasons: one, so that people would understand I had worked very hard to find original sources and have it right, and secondly, I wanted other people to be able to go to my footnotes and be able to get to the material.

I had not written a footnote for years, though. It was daunting. It's a lot easier with computers than it used to be in the old days.

Cole: The sources must have been much more difficult to get to.

Roberts: My friend Ann Charnley and I basically just plowed the libraries. She worked on my other books with me and is a history teacher by trade. The Library of Congress was very helpful, their manuscript division. We would look in the footnotes of other books, including some of the everyday lives books, and trace back and call historical societies and see which ones were worth visiting.

It was detective work. What you would find was that the historical societies, even if they have these women's letters, often had never transcribed them or had them in a box in a basement. It involved cajoling them into unearthing them and then paying somebody to transcribe them. One society, which shall remain nameless, had a journal for a period of time in 1793, when it was going to be very useful. So I called and they had it, yes. Could I see it? Yes. They would send a copy to me. Great. So I got faxed copies of eighteenth-century handwriting that was not readable. Then somebody did transcribe the material that I needed and it turned out to be fascinating. It was an important period in Philadelphia and it was a woman writing about it. There were things like that that happened all along the way.

Fortunately, some of the descendants of these women wrote books in the nineteenth century. There was one woman in the mid-nineteenth century, a woman named Elizabeth F. Ellet, who understood that the stories of the women of Revolutionary times were about to be lost, the people who had heard the stories were beginning to die out. She went around and did interviews and collected letters and published a two-volume work in 1849 about the women of the Revolution.

Cole: This book really has a purpose, which is to call attention to the importance of these women and also to furnish a ground base for further research for them.

Roberts: Right.

Cole: As you were talking, I was thinking, how many papers must be out there?

Roberts: Absolutely. One of the things that I'm very eager to do is to set up a Founding Mothers digital edition and have it available not only for scholars working in universities, but also for teachers to do lesson plans and make it broadly available. The first phase of that is to issue a call for the letters. People have them in their attics and basements.

Cole: Right. You've just got to find them. There are others we need to get, too. From the beginning there have been, as you know, important congressmen who have shaped policies.

Roberts: David McCullough spoke at the bicentennial of Congress and asked, "Where are the biographies of the speakers?"

Cole: What we at the NEH are going to do is put some money towards the identification of these papers and then the digitization of them.

Roberts: That's very much what we need to do.

Let me just say one other thing about the sourcing. Martha Washington destroyed all of her correspondence, which you could kill her for. Thomas Jefferson destroyed his correspondence and Martha Jefferson's correspondence with him. So we were missing two huge caches of papers. The Ladies' Association of Mount Vernon has collected whatever extant letters of Martha Washington there are.

Cole: What's the biggest surprise that you found about the women of the Revolution?

Roberts: They are twofold. One was how very alone they were. The Revolution went on for eight years and then there were diplomatic issues to be settled. The men were not getting paid for all this activity. These women were on their own and they were having to support the family. It was quite striking to see how they managed.

The other was how explicitly political they were. I had not been prepared for women other than Abigail Adams to be writing letters about the politics of the time. What's so wonderful about women's letters as opposed to men's letters is what they talked about: "I sat up last night with my sister-in-law; she was having a baby." "Your dear mother has passed away."

It's filled with what their everyday lives were like and then moves on to a conversation about what the taxes should be in the new government. Sally Jay, for instance, John Jay's wife, went off to Spain with Jay. Her letters home to her Livingston family have been kept and she wrote all about politics and then would joke about it and say, "What am I doing? A woman writing to other women about politics." I think that the degree of involvement of politics is fascinating.

Cole: In politics when you talk about presidential wives, one of the first topics is the role that they play getting their husband elected or making it possible.

Roberts: Martha Washington was very aware of what we would today call PR. All the way up from Mount Vernon to New York after her husband's inaugural, she was hailed by bystanders. She gave a little speech off the back of her carriage outside of Philadelphia thanking everyone for turning out. Then the barge that had taken Washington into New York a couple of months before brought her into New York with an incredible amount of fanfare. She, who loved her silks and satins, for that occasion was in homespun. (Laughter.)

She understood what the politics of the situation were and that this was a republican court and that that would be what she would be presiding over. She had to do a balancing act. It was up to her much more than the men to figure out what kind of executive mansion to operate: it had to be sophisticated enough and formal enough for Europe to take it seriously, but not imperial--informal enough to meet with republican standards. It was a difficult balancing act that she didn't always achieve, and the rules kept changing.

Cole: They had to invent it all.

Roberts: They had to invent it all and they were aware of that. There were cabinet meetings about what her role would be and what her restrictions would be and whether she could go to private people's houses for dinner or whether that would seem like favoritism. She wrote home to a niece saying, "You know, they call me First Lady, but I'm the first state prisoner."

Cole: I remember reading in the Washington papers about the second inaugural. Washington writes to his cabinet asking what to do. They think about it and they write back to him, well, you have to take the oath of office, you should have some kind of statement, and you're preceded back and forth by someone carrying a mace.

Roberts: They had to make it up as they went along. That was true of the diplomats who went abroad to the royal courts and, of course, for the American diplomats in London. They had to pay their homage to the king and queen and at the same time expect to take a good deal of abuse because they had just beaten them. It was very tricky. In fact, when Adams introduced Jefferson to the king, the king turned his back on Jefferson.

Cole: And in this period we get the beginning of the evolution of the role of first lady.

Roberts: Absolutely, the first First Lady Martha Washington was highly, highly aware of it. She was very conscious of the fact that she was setting an example for some time to come. And, while she was doing this, she was raising little children. She had two grandchildren--they were eight and ten when she got to New York--living with her. She had to find schools for them; she had to run a household.

The number of jobs she had to take on was huge. But she was always aware of her role as a prominent man's wife. The reason she went to the encampment at Cambridge right after George Washington had taken over the army, was because there were stories in the papers that she was a Loyalist and that was why she wasn't joining him. So she said, "I'd better go join him." That was a complete PR stunt. Then he discovered that it was unbelievably useful to have her at camp and so he kept begging her to come to camp every winter.

In David McCullough's new book, 1776, he says that Washington's real genius was keeping the American army together. Washington gave Martha an enormous amount of credit for that. There were times when the morale was so low that had she not shown up on the scene you could have had desertions by regiments.

Cole: He also points out in that book how young everybody was.

Roberts: The women were even younger. When John Jay married Sally Livingston, she was sixteen or seventeen.

One of the women turned out to be a great surprise to me and a wonderful story-a woman named Esther Reed who had written The Sentiments of An American Woman, which came out in the middle of the war when things were looking really bleak. She organized a fund-raising drive to keep the army together. It was all the ladies of Philadelphia going door to door fund-raising. Her husband was what they called president of Pennsylvania-governor-and she wrote to the other governors' wives asking them, as first ladies, to become involved in this drive. The only extant letter of Martha Jefferson's that we have is calling on the women of Virginia to participate in the drive. They raised three hundred thousand dollars in a period of just a few weeks.

Cole: That's incredible.

Roberts: Esther Reed and Washington got into a fight about how the money would be spent. Esther had been an English patriot. She had come over from England in 1775 to marry her husband and turned into this wonderful American patriot. She's just unbelievably inspiring. Then, in the middle of her fight with Washington over how to spend the money, she died.

We lost them all so young and from so many diseases that they were battling, as well as battling the British.

Cole: Let's talk for a minute about those who survived their husbands. Abigail predeceased John, and Martha Jefferson predeceased Tom. The men outlived the women for the most part in that early grouping.

Roberts: Martha Washington did live a few years longer than George Washington. Some of the earliest congressional legislation involved continuing the frank for Martha Washington so that she could continue her correspondence with the people of America. She was very popular with the soldiers, particularly the veterans, because she had been in camp, and she had lobbied for veterans' benefits in the first Congress. This notion that first ladies just started doing this recently is, of course, absurd. So she stayed in a position of some prominence even though she had retired to Mount Vernon. The person who really became the grand dame was Dolley Madison.

Cole: Dolley Madison, yes.

Roberts: She reigned supreme through much of the nineteenth century. She had been here for Jefferson and Madison; besides, nobody liked Elizabeth Monroe much.

Cole: Dolley Madison didn't move very far from the White House either.

Roberts: She just moved across the street and ran a salon and was considered a great American icon. Miniatures of her were everywhere. She was a celebrity.

Cole: Did she ever go back to Montpelier?

Roberts: She went back to Montpelier.

Cole: But her principal residence was here in Washington.

I wanted to ask you about someone else who interested me, Mercy Otis Warren. I didn't know about her.

Roberts: That became kind of a litmus test for me on the book. I would say to friends and colleagues, have you ever heard of Mercy Otis Warren? Hardly anybody had. She was one of those people that I think historians think is very well known and she is just not.

She was highly influential as a philosopher of the Revolution. Both John and Sam Adams asked her to write plays and poems to stir up the masses, and she did that. Then she wrote a definitive history of the Revolution.

Cole: How long did her reputation last?

Roberts: At the time of the ratification of the Constitution there was concern about her. She, along with Sam Adams and some others, were called the Old Republicans, who were opposed to a strong central government. People were worried about her influence there.

Cole: Were there any women you didn't react to well?

Roberts: Actually, I wasn't crazy about Mercy Otis Warren. To the degree that the men were able to do what they were able to do because the women made it possible for them by taking over everything at home, she refused to do that. James Warren should have been in Philadelphia with Adams and Hancock and the other Massachusetts men and she just wouldn't let him go, partly because she really couldn't manage on her own. She was the exception to the rule.

When Abigail, who was young and had all these little children, was upset that John was about to go off to Europe and it would be years before she saw him again, Mercy Warren had the nerve to write her a letter saying, "What are you talking about? It's your duty as a patriot to have him go." So she was not, you know, a lot of fun.

The other person who I just didn't warm up to, but felt terribly sorry for, was Esther Edwards Burr, Aaron Burr's mother. She was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards, and spent her young life as a minister's wife in moral agony over whether she was doing the right thing, whether her mortal soul was in danger, all of these things. She was trying to manage a household with a couple of little kids and her family far away; he was president of Princeton and she had to do all that entertaining. I felt terrible for her, but again, she wasn't exactly fun and games.

Cole: When you talk about the women, you talk about their beliefs and their religious beliefs, and you get a different perspective. This is an important part of their lives.

Roberts: With so many tragedies in women's lives, I think most of them just could not possibly have gotten through it without their faith. At the same time that they were fending off the British or being turned into refugees, they were burying babies. They were dealing with horrible sicknesses and the fear of their and their children's deaths, and they had to support the family. They were enduring incredible hardships.

Cole: And they weren't sure how it would all turn out.

Roberts: They had no idea how it was going to turn out. That was my point about Abigail. She said, "If we win, it will be great for you guys. You will be held in high acclaim." But they didn't know whether they would win. You had the Franklin family where William Franklin, Benjamin's illegitimate son, was the Loyalist governor of New Jersey. The family was divided amongst itself. That happened in so many families.

Cole: You said that Franklin was mean to his daughter.

Roberts: He was gone for a lot of her life. His wife just kept begging him to come home and there were lots of times he could have come home and just didn't, including when his daughter Sally got married. All he did was write home and say, "Keep the wedding cheap." When the British took Philadelphia, and Sally was a refugee, he had written her a letter, don't do anything, basically, because anything you do will be held against me. Meanwhile, he's off in Paris having the time of his life, right?

Sally then had to escape and wrote to him saying, you know, don't worry, I got your papers out, I got your books out, and then I took the baby and ran. When the Americans came back to Philadelphia and they were having a celebration, Sally wanted some finery for the ball, and she wrote to her father and said she wanted some lace cuffs and some feathers for her hair. He said, "If you wear your cambric ruffles, as I do, then take care not to mend the holes, they will come in time to be lace."

"And the feathers, my dear girl, may be had from any cock's tail in America."

Franklin finally did come home and moved in with Sally-she was living in his house. She had all these children but at the same time she had to entertain constantly because he was a great man. It was going to be her time with him, and then he brought over from England the daughter of the woman he had lived with in England and set her up at his daughter Sally's house.

Cole: Maybe he was doing her a favor by not being there.

Roberts: I think that's probably true.

Cole: What's next?

Roberts: A sequel. I was originally going to take this book to the election of Jackson, which is the next era, but it was just getting way too big. I am now researching the book that goes from this book into the election of Jackson.

Cole: Well, I wish you well with the new project. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Roberts: The pleasure was mine.