How the Revolution helped liberate women; Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, by Mary Beth Norton. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $15
the role of womenin America before, during, and after the revolution, challenging some widely held assumptions in the process. Taking issue with influential histories -- and indeed, the pictures she finds in most books on Colonial and post-Revolutionary America -- this professor of history at Cornell combats the idea that Colonial women shared a halcyon era of equality with men before sinking into second-class citizenship and the Victorian vapors of the 19th century.
Prior to the revolution, she protests, they were not relatively equal partners in the home, didn't take part in business affairs, had rigidly defined gender roles, and lacked, a feeling of self-worth. The historians who perpetuate the opposite picture evidently neglegted to find out how the Colonial women themselves viewed their status, she contends.
Professor Norton went to original sources, studying the private papers of more than 450 American families -- urban and rural black and white, Northern and Southern, rich, and poor. She found overwhelming evidence that most of the women, regardless of social or economic status, demonstrated pitiably low self-esteem, extremely limited concepts of their capabilities, and a chronic tendency to downgrade their own sex.
The life of a Colonial woman was circumscribed by menial domestic labor, Norton finds, and by repeated childbearing, which shortened her life expectancy. Yet a woman had no real alternative to marriage and no legal recourse if her husband chose to abuse or abandon his family. Significantly, one woman referred to marriage as "the important crisis upon which our fate depends."
But the American Revolution changed all that. Norton asserts. Even before the outbreak of war, women were caught up in the fervor. Though they didn't yet dare to have political opinions much less speak them aloud, they could express their patriotism by boycotting English tea and other goods taxed by the Townsend Act of 1767.
After the shooting began, wmen's participation deepened. As more men went off to fight, women were thrust into new roles. Though ill-prepared, they found that they couldm do what was needed. They managed farms, estates, and businesses , and kept home and family together in the face of deprivation, disease, and sometimes brutal encounters with the enemy.
They also began to organize additional war-support efforts themselves and even to write political tracts. When the war ended, their proud sense of involvement in public affairs continued unabated -- to the discomfiture of most men.
Though Thomas Jefferson would urge women to be "too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics" but rather "to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning ruffled from political debate," the women were now willing to challenge such sentiments, openly, citing the participation of French women in political affairs and the respect accorded them.
There was no going back to the pre-revolutionary "mindset," professor norton argues. In the aftermath of the revolution bothm men and women began to rethink their ideas of womanhood, launching a journey toward equality not yet completed. But we can thank them for their part in the deepening realization that failure to recognize human wholeness retards our society. Norton's lively and informative book is a valuable contribution to progress in this direction.