- Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World ed. by Barbara B. Oberg
Women in the American Revolution revisits the persistent question, "What did the American Revolution mean to—and for—women?" (1). Emerging from the 2014 Annual Conference of the Sons of the American Revolution, this volume's essays undertake vivid case studies and rich social histories in order to interrogate women's experiences during the revolutionary era.
The volume's introduction and conclusion, authored respectively by Rosemarie Zagarri and Shelia Skemp, helpfully survey relevant historiography and its omissions. Essays highlight women's responses to wartime challenges including violence, economic instability, shifting political loyalties, and disruptions to families and households. Many contributions are well-suited for inclusion in undergraduate course syllabi and furnish [End Page 546] vivid examples for lecture content. In addition, several essays offer previews of what promise to be path-breaking monographs in women's history by junior and senior scholars alike. As a whole, this thought provoking collection invites new questions and syntheses regarding revolutionary-era gender relations.
This volume necessarily engages with two enduring touchstones on women and the Revolution, Linda K. Kerber's Women of the Republic and Mary Beth Norton's Liberty's Daughters. Kerber and Norton similarly characterize the colonial household as "a woman's domain" and "private realm," a "feminine, domestic circle" with "little connection with the public world of politics and economics." They concur that the imperial crisis and war opened new forms of political and economic influence for women, and that ideals of republican motherhood, while according heightened political significance to women's household and family roles, ultimately foreclosed the Revolution's possibilities.1
Women in the American Revolution refreshingly suggests that, four decades after the publication of Kerber's and Norton's books, archival digging still yields fresh insights. Through painstaking research in church and city records, for instance, Serena Zabin identified forty probable marriages between British soldiers and Boston women and over one hundred baptisms of British soldiers' children in local churches between 1768 and 1772 (198, 205). Insisting upon the centrality of women to the British occupation of Boston, Zabin contends that declaring independence could be at once personal and political.
Other essays likewise mine recalcitrant manuscript records. Combing Virginia plantation records, Sara Collini demonstrates that enslaved midwives played a crucial role in reproducing Virginia's unfree population and demanded and received pay for their skilled labor. In their respective essays on Williamsburg milliners and Philadelphia apothecaries, Kaylan M. Stevenson and Susan Hanket Brandt use correspondence and account books to reconstruct the challenges and strategies of female entrepreneurs. C. Dallett Hemphill's engaging essay probes Deborah Logan's personal writings, including their silences and strikethroughs, to [End Page 547] investigate how "one of the smartest wives of the revolutionary era" tolerated "the gender limitations of [her] time" (241).
In summarizing the volume, Zagarri and Skemp characterize the Revolution's consequences differently. According to Zagarri, studying women redirects our attention from political transformation to "people, their diverse choices, and the human costs of war" (13). Skemp, by contrast, pessimistically notes that "rights-bearing women were increasingly marginalized and distained" by 1800 and that "the women of the era would not live to enjoy the true promise of the Revolution" (254).
The collection's essays also suggest syntheses beyond those proposed by Zagarri and Skemp. As a whole, the volume challenges characterizations of eighteenth-century households as private, domestic arenas. Invoking the frameworks of Kerber's and Norton's germinal analyses, the subtitle of Women in the American Revolution references "politics" and "the domestic world" as seemingly separate categories. Yet, like much recent scholarship on the early modern Atlantic world, virtually all of the collection's essays trouble this distinction. Similarly, while the text is neatly divided into three parts, one could relocate each essay into a different, equally logical place within the subheadings of "Economic Relationships," "Political Identities," and "Marriage and the Family." To observe the interrelatedness of such categories is...