Who Is An American: 'Ladies of Liberty'

In 1808, women did not have the right to vote or own property. But the wives, sisters, daughters and friends of powerful men were able to exert some influence over the course of American life, politics and culture. NPR's Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Cokie Roberts about her new book, Ladies of Liberty.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

IN 1808, women did not have the right to vote. But the wives, sisters, daughters and friends of powerful men were able to exert some influence over the course of American life, politics and culture. We thought that NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts would be the best person to ask, who was an American woman in the 19th century? Her new book, "Ladies of Liberty," is full of profiles of America's most influential women. She's in the studio. Welcome, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS: Thank you, Liane. It's so nice to be with you.

HANSEN: It's nice to see you. In this time when a woman really couldn't get a formal education - although women were allowed to go into Charles Wilson Peale's Museum and get an informal one - sometimes they didn't even own clothing, a married woman couldn't own property, what kind of influence could a woman have on politics?

ROBERTS: Enormous influence. Dolley Madison was incredibly influential. In fact, she really ran her husband James Madison's campaign for president.

HANSEN: Now, how did she run it? Kind of in the tearoom?

ROBERTS: Yes, the tearoom, the drawing room. They had a house on F Street in Washington which was really a separate powerbase from the executive mansion. After the election was over, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the Federalist candidate, said, I was defeated by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. Had I just run against Mr. Madison, I might have stood a better chance.

HANSEN: What did learning about the women of this time teach you about the men?

ROBERTS: A great deal because of course the founding fathers were very self aware. They knew they were doing something extraordinary. They wrote letters to each other that they knew would be published. And so they were formal and pompous. And the letters they wrote to women were filled with their hopes and dreams and fears and ambitions.

They were much more ambitious in their letters to the women. And the women's letters to each other about them are the best of all because, you know, we think of these men as some sort of stone and bronze deities, and you can be sure their wives did not think of them that way. So we do - we see the founders as much more flesh and blood human beings through the letters of the women.

HANSEN: Today it's possible to instantly see Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, how they behave, how others analyze their behavior, their dress, how they interact with their husbands, their families, the voters. How different is it?

ROBERTS: Not!

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Not at all. Martha Washington, our first first lady, understood that she would be scrutinized in every aspect of her being. When she arrived in New York, came across the Hudson to take up her post as the first first lady, though she loved beautiful silks and fine fabrics, she arrived wearing homespun because she knew that for the wife of the Republican head of state, that she would have to be one of the people. But she also knew she would be watched. She called herself the first state prisoner as first lady because she was so scrutinized in everything she did.

HANSEN: NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts. Her new book is called "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation." Thanks for coming in.

ROBERTS: So good to be with you.

HANSEN: By 1908 the United States was moving into the modern age, and the role of women in American society was changing rapidly. In a little more than a decade, for the first time in American history, women would be allowed to vote. 108-year-old Anna Henderson remembers it well. We recorded a conversation with her and her granddaughter Toby Fischer, who had to repeat our questions because of her grandmother's hearing loss.

Ms. TOBY FISCHER: When women were allowed to vote, how did you feel?

Ms. ANNA HENDERSON: I don't feel no different, because it didn't matter to me one way or the other at that time.

Ms. FISCHER: But wasn't your father proud, you said?

Ms. HENDERSON: Oh yeah, my father…

Ms. FISCHER: Was very proud to be able to vote.

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah.

Ms. FISCHER: So, he was Republican.

Ms. HENDERSON: That's right, he was a Republican.

Ms. FISCHER: Yes. But when you were able to vote, you registered as a Democrat, is that correct?

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah.

Ms. FISCHER: And who was the first president you voted for?

Ms. HENDERSON: Roosevelt.

Ms. FISCHER: Yes.

Ms. HENDERSON: See I remember that 'cos if I had a boy, I'd even name him after Roosevelt.

Ms. FISCHER: Wow.

HANSEN: That was 108-year-old Philadelphia resident Anna Henderson. Next week, we'll hear more from Anna and other local voices from the City of Brotherly Love as we continue our series "Who is an American?" You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News.

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