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Book Lauds Women's Role in Founding of Nation

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Book Lauds Women's Role in Founding of Nation

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Book Lauds Women's Role in Founding of Nation

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We hear from Cokie Roberts most Mondays to get the inside story about politics. It's a world she was born into. Her father was a powerful congressman from Louisiana. After his death, her mother won his seat and was elected to Congress eight more times.

Cokie has had a close-up view of the role women have played in politics. Until recently, mostly behind the scenes. Her newest book, "Ladies of Liberty," takes up the story, as she puts it, of the women who shaped our nation in its earliest years - from the inauguration of the second president, John Adams, to the inauguration of the sixth president, his son, John Quincy Adams.

And Cokie joins us to talk about it.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Many of the women you talk about were very political but, in fact, they couldn't vote. They couldn't hold office. We're talking right as the country is born. So they had to find another way.

ROBERTS: That's true. They not only couldn't vote, couldn't hold office, married women couldn't own any property. The jewelry on their bodies belonged to their husbands. And yet they were so involved in the politics of the country.

MONTAGNE: You give an example of Dolley Madison. She's actually a good place to start in this sort of history. James Madison's war was unpopular. But as you describe it, she kept those around him coming together.

ROBERTS: That's right. She was entertaining all the time. She had the Federalists and the Republicans coming together to the White House, even though it was at least as fiercely as partisan a time as it is now. And she just kept everybody from getting so furious with each other that they would just decamp completely. Because, you know, look, we're talking about a very fragile time in the country. The common enemy of the British - although at this point we're talking about right now, there was another war with Britain going on. But it was a tough time to keep the country together. And she did a terrific job of it.

Madison's opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, said, I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance if I had faced Mr. Madison alone.

MONTAGNE: You know, the first ladies - you read some of the accounts in this book, and they sound similar to what has happened or characters that have walked across the political stage in our own lifetimes.

ROBERTS: Well, sure. There is this myth abroad in the land that first ladies just sat around tending to their tea and tatting until Eleanor Roosevelt came along. And that's just simply not the case. You start right in with Abigail Adams just lobbying like crazy for the Alien and Sedition Acts because she thought that the press was just too terrible to her husband. And she says at one point, I wish the laws of our country were competent to punish the stirrer-up of sedition, the writer and printer of base and unfounded calumny.

MONTAGNE: Well, her war - Abigail Adams' war with the press, what was that founded on?

ROBERTS: You know, it's interesting. Her political savvy was terrific until her husband was elected president. And I think that happens a lot in the executive mansion. There's an opposition party, and there's a press that is always after them, and that just makes them crazy. And that hasn't changed. And, of course, the press at the time was considerably more vicious and less responsible than the press of today. They just basically made it up.

For instance, in his second campaign against Jefferson, John Adams had as a running mate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. And the press said that Pinckney had procured women in London for the two of them. He had gotten four women - two for Adams, two for Pinckney. And Adams joked, if it's true, I got cheated out of my two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Which I presume saved him. A good repost at the right time…

ROBERTS: Right.

MONTAGNE: …kept him in the running. There is a quite funny story about some of this bad behavior that you discovered in a letter. And it happened in the wake of one especially long congressional session.

ROBERTS: You know, one of the great delights in doing a book like this is that you're doing all of this original research. These are letters and journals of the women that I write about. And one of them is Louisa Katherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams. And she wrote - because she was away from her family, she wrote lots of letters home.

So I was just reading away right before coming upstairs to cook dinner one night. And I read this letter, and I couldn't believe what it said. But what had happened was that Congress had stayed in session much longer than usual the year of the Missouri Compromise, because they had to hammer out the compromise.

And so they finally adjourned, and she goes to a meeting of the trustees of the orphan asylum. And she walked in, and she says in her letter that one of the trustees had warned that more space for orphans would soon be needed. Quote, "Congress, having left many females in such difficulties as to make it probable, they would beg our assistance."

And she asked why that would be true. And she was told the session had been very long. The fathers of the nation had left 40 cases to be provided for by the public, and that our institution was the most likely to be called upon to maintain this illicit progeny.

MONTAGNE: Now, that's a quote.

ROBERTS: Forty women were - that's a quote. That's a quote. Forty women were pregnant in the wake of this Congress, and they went home to their wives.

And so she says, I recommended a petition to Congress next session for that great and moral body to establish a foundling institution, and should certainly move that the two additional dollars a day which they have given themselves as an increase in pay may be appropriated as a fund toward the support of the institution.

MONTAGNE: I guess it wasn't funny in its day, but it's so…

ROBERTS: Well, except she's being quite ironic in her writing about it. The great and moral fathers.

MONTAGNE: That is a find.

ROBERTS: All of these quotations are quite wonderful. You really get a sense of these women's personalities. They talk about politics. They talk about war. They talk about pregnancy. They talk about death, because they are too surrounded by death. They lose their children often and are devastated. But they talk about fashion, and they gossip about each other. And all of that can all be in the same letter. So they're total delights to read.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, it's been fascinating.

ROBERTS: They're great ladies, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Cokie Roberts, whose new book is out today, "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation." And they cooked, too. You'll find recipes for preserving pears and cabbage pudding at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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