STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For generations, this country has honored its Founding Fathers. The historian Joseph J. Ellison, in a memorable book, called them the Founding Brothers. But our image of the women who helped to found this country has been a little bit more obscure, until recently. Cokie Roberts, a longtime NPR contributor is the author of "Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies," which has just been turned into an illustrated children's' book.
Cokie reminds us that these women were pretty hard core. Take Martha Washington, for instance, who was not nearly as matronly as you may think.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Every single winter of the Revolution, she went to camp with him and he begged her to come to camp, because she was so important. She and the other officers' wives were so important for troop morale. And Martha Washington would come roaring into camp in her carriage and people would cheer her into camp: Lady Washington is here. And then she would sew for the soldiers and cook for the soldiers, and pray with the soldiers and nurse the soldiers. They adored her.
INSKEEP: Now, when they're in winter quarters, of course, that's not when they're campaigning. But when Washington's army would go out and fight the British or move around, weren't their women with it as well?
ROBERTS: Yes, there are women who went to the soldiers as camp followers. These were generally poor women who couldn't afford to stay home because, of course, there were no jobs for women. And they would cook for the soldiers and do some jobs and they got a tiny bit of pay to help out with the Army. And then, of course, there were women who were on the battlefield doing things like watering the cannons, and then the men would get hit and they'd take over the cannon.
INSKEEP: So you have women accompanying men during the Revolutionary War in the Continental Army. But you also write of women who stand in for their husbands. I'm particularly thinking of Benjamin Franklin's wife, Deborah.
ROBERTS: Well, yes. That is so interesting because, of course, as children we all learned that Benjamin Franklin was the first post master general of the United States. What we don't learn is that he wasn't in the United States.
ROBERTS: He was in England and he was for years and years and years. And Deborah Franklin ran the postal service. She ran the printing shops, which were essentially franchises that went out to the frontier, which was Pittsburgh; and she ran all of his businesses. And he thought she did a grand job of it.
INSKEEP: Wow. Cokie, do these stories suggest that women's roles in this historic period were a little different than we imagine them to be?
ROBERTS: Totally, I think that we think women were sitting around tending to the tatting or pouring tea and it's our view of first ladies too - and it's all wrong. These were very, very politically passionate women. Their letters are full of politics and they were utterly devoted to the patriot cause.
Abigail Adams, at one point, wrote to John Adams: You know, we women are really better patriots than you men are, because we are suffering all of the hardships and making all of the sacrifices for the cause. And if we win, you men will be held in high acclaim and hold office, and we won't even be able to vote. So we're better patriots. And John had sense enough to agree with her.
INSKEEP: Well, of course, he would. Of course, he would. He agreed with her lot in that correspondence.
ROBERTS: Well, except when she told him to remember the ladies; probably the most famous whine of American patriot women.
INSKEEP: What was she referring to?
ROBERTS: They were considering a Declaration of Independence, something that she thought they were way too timid about. She had been militating for a year for them to declare independency from Britain. And when they were finally mulling it, she said: I suppose that we will have to have a new code of laws for our new government, and when you write it, remember the ladies. And she was saying that men would be tyrants if they could.
Of course, at the time, married women could not own property; of course women couldn't vote. Women had no legal or political rights. And so, she was trying to argue for those rights and John just laughed at her.
INSKEEP: Now, as you try to tell their stories, boil down their stories for kids, Cokie Roberts, did you struggle with the complexities of their lives? I'm particularly thinking of the fact that quite a few of the women who would be the Founding Mothers were also slave-owners, just like the men.
ROBERTS: Well, sure. And, of course, slavery has been the issue and the sin that hovered over this great American experiment from the beginning. I do feature Phyllis Wheatley, a slave girl from New England, who became a renowned poet. But I think that in itself is quite interesting because I think that a lot of people have no notion that slavery was in all the colonies at that point. And it took some brave people to eliminate it in the Northern colonies before the country became country.
INSKEEP: What made you want to tell these stories for kids?
ROBERTS: Well, I feel strongly that when you recognize people in history that history is more relevant to you. And our little girls have a hard time recognizing people in the great story of America. And at the National Archives are the closest thing we have to a cathedral of the country. There are these fabulous murals up on the walls above the Constitution, the Declaration and the Bill of Rights. And they're all white men in white wigs with tights, and I don't think they're recognizable to a lot of Americans.
But they weren't the only people who did it. They were incredibly important. I'm not taking anything away from our Founding Fathers, but they didn't do it alone
INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts is heard on this program most Mondays, and is also the author of "Founding Mothers," which is now a children's book. Cokie, thanks very much.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: You can get a look at some of the illustrations in that book and read some excerpts, by going to NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.