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Women And American Independence


As we celebrate this Independence Day, we are asking Cokie about the role that women played in the fight for American independence. Commentator Cokie Roberts joins us now. Cokie, thanks for being here.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good to talk to you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Happy Fourth of July.

ROBERTS: Same to you.

MARTIN: So we often hear about the men of the revolution, right? Obviously...

ROBERTS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: ...George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Paul Revere - the list goes on and on and on.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But our listeners want to know what women were doing in the lead-up to July 4, 1776. And here's our first question.

LEIGH: Hi, this is Leigh in Atlanta. Please tell us everything and anything because, per my 1980s AP U.S. History class, the only woman who did anything during the Revolutionary War was Betsy Ross. And we were told constantly that all she did was sew a flag.

MARTIN: Now, we should just note Betsy Ross and the Betsy Ross flag is in the news because of this Nike controversy. But that has nothing to do with her role in the war. Cokie, explain.

ROBERTS: Well, I certainly know what Lee is saying. It was my frustration as well to know what women were doing. That's why I wrote a whole book about it. But they were doing everything.

Martha Washington went to camp every year to boost troop morale. Mercy Otis Warren was a propagandist who spurred on the revolution. Women served as soldiers and spies. And Betsy Ross, though many histories have debunked her, I found close to a contemporary record written by the niece of Rebecca Sherman, the wife of a signer of the declaration. She remembered her aunt visiting the Ross upholstery shop and her excitement at seeing the flag. So I believe it's true.

MARTIN: Our next listener wants to know if there are any stories about women in the revolution that were so clearly eclipsed by men.

SARA PHILLIPS: This is Sara Phillips, and I'm from Medina, Ohio. Who should we know about but don't due to being overshadowed by the men, like, how Sybil Ludington rode farther and longer than Paul Revere but didn't get a poem written about her?

ROBERTS: While Henry Wadsworth Longfellow certainly didn't write a poem about it, there have been some really bad ones written.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: The problem is her story might not be based 100% on the facts. The way her story goes is, at the age of 16, she rode 40 miles on horseback - and I love the mental image - her hair streaming behind her - to warn the local militia in Connecticut that the British were coming.

Here's the problem with this story, as with so many others when you're trying to write women's history. There's often no official documentation to guide you.

MARTIN: OK. One listener wanted to know if there were any women who disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers. This is true, right?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. The most famous was Deborah Sampson, who enlisted as Robert Shurtleff, and she fought bravely until she got sick and was found out. With her, thank heaven, there are plenty of records, including a survivor's benefit granted to her husband by Congress for sustaining her through the hardships she endured in defense of the country.

MARTIN: All right. Here's another question about a woman on the battlefield.

MICAH ENGBER: Micah Engber here from Portland, Maine. When driving down Route 95 in New Jersey, I often pass or sometimes stop at the Molly Pitcher rest stop. I'm wondering who Molly Pitcher was and what role she played during the American Revolution.

ROBERTS: Well, women went with their husbands to war. Where else were they going to go? Molly is supposed to have seen her husband shot at Monmouth and taken over his cannon. She might be an amalgam for all the women using pitchers for water on the battlefield, or she might be a real woman - Mary Hayes, who was on the battlefield at Monmouth.

Another woman who took over her husband's position, this time at Fort Washington, was Margaret Corbin. She was given the honor of a burial plot at West Point.

MARTIN: Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #askcokie. Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Always happy to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.