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Book Lauds Women's Role in Founding of Nation

NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts' new book explores the women who helped in the founding of America.
NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts' new book explores the women who helped in the founding of America.
Roberts' new book recounts the part women played in helping to create the nation.
Roberts' new book recounts the part women played in helping to create the nation.

Even though they were unable to vote or hold office, women found pivotal ways to help found our nation, NPR commentator Cokie Roberts says in her new book, Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Country.

"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," Roberts tells Renee Montagne.

Roberts turned to letters and other correspondence to get to know the women profiled in her book. Their personalities rose to the surface in their writing, she says.

"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," Roberts says.

Because women were virtually shut out of the political process, they found other ways to be involved. Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, used her hostess skills to bring members of the rival Federalists and Republicans together at the White House.

"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," Roberts says. "Madison's opponent ... said, 'I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance if I had faced Mr. Madison alone.'"

In her book, Roberts dispels the myth that "first ladies just sat around tending to their tea and tatting" until Eleanor Roosevelt took up residence in the White House. Abigail Adams, for instance, lobbied fiercely for the Alien and Sedition Acts because "she thought that the press was just too terrible to her husband." The four bills, passed in 1798, limited criticism of the government and tightened restrictions on foreign-born residents.

But much of Adams' political savvy eroded during her battles with the press after her husband was elected president.

"There's a press that's always after them and that just makes them crazy, and that hasn't changed," Roberts says. "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."

One such report during John Adams' second campaign for office claimed that Adams' running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, had "procured" women in London for the two of them.

"He had gotten four women — two for Adams, two for Pinckney," Roberts says. "And Adams joked, 'If it's true, I got cheated out of my two.'"

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Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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