Book Review – Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts

Our nation’s Founding Fathers are a consistent part of our everyday lives as their images grace our currency and the tales they feature in, both factual and mythical, are retold on any number of national holidays and is classrooms around the country. But what about their wives? What about their mothers, their sisters, their daughters? In Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, Cokie Roberts takes a look at the women who played a crucial role in those tumultuous years leading up to, during, and just after the American Revolution.

Though the books chapters cover different stages of our nation’s early years including declaring independence and the formation of the Constitution, the book might be better broken up by woman. It is hard to keep them straight at times considering so many of them were related and named after one another. There is a key at the back of the book but I’m sure how much it really helps as Roberts style tends towards the familiar and she often reverts to first names (or even nick-names) for these historic figures. When one woman crosses paths with another, the reader is given that next woman’s personal history, as well as that of her often more famous husband.

It is clear that the availability of sources played a huge role in the direction Roberts took. The letters between Abigail and John Adams are plentiful when compared to those of other couples and so the book at times feels like it should be called Founding Mother: Abigail Adams and a Few of Her Friends. The extensive quoting from so many letters belonging to so many women do help to distinguish between them and provide a much more intimate feel than a history relying primarily on statistics does (having read another history of the role of women in the American Revolution years ago in high school, the letters make for a much more reader-friendly book).

The way that Roberts jumps about from one woman to the next with flashes forward and backward in individuals’ timelines was more than a little distracting, especially as they increase in the last two chapters. The section on the generals’ wives in which she switched between Martha Washington, Lucy Knox, and Kitty Greene alternated so much I had to read it a few times because it was reaching a point where I was starting to confuse who was married to whom. I almost wish that Roberts had stayed truer to a chronological timeline and greater distinction between the women’s lives (so what if many of their lives were following similar paths).

Though Roberts’ relaxed style was meant to engage the reader, I think it might have hurt more than it helped. In addition to the confusion over names, the side commentary on the Capitol’s politics today felt like it was meant to distract the reader from what Roberts was saying. Also, her reiterating the connections between the different women and highlighting how confusing it could be was less than helpful. It was almost as though she expected the reader to pick up and put down the book many times before finally forcing him or herself to finish it.

Perhaps the most lasting impression of Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation is the alternative view of the Founding Fathers provided through their wives’ perspectives. Roberts book shows that no one can be completely understood, completely seen when they’re presented alone. Putting the portraits of the Founding Mothers beside those of the Founding Fathers changes the way we perceive them, providing a more dynamic history than before.

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