A simple question has inspired Cokie Roberts to research and write a stack of history books, some for children, some for adults: “What were the women doing?”
As a journalist based in Washington, Roberts reported on government and politics for years before she started to write about the early days of the United States.
“During my regular work, I was constantly going back and reading what the Founding Fathers said about a balanced budget, or the right to bear arms, or religion in the public square, or why you have to be born in America to be president,” Roberts said recently, speaking by phone from her home in Bethesda, Md. “The founders are cited all the time – and almost always incorrectly – so I felt that I had to know what the truth was. . . . And then I started getting curious. I thought, ‘Now I know what the men were thinking and doing. What were the women doing?’ ”
In Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, Roberts’s latest book for kids, women are doing everything, including creating orphanages and schools and helping explore the American frontier. As with her previous kids book, “Founding Mothers,” Roberts gets much of her information from diaries, letters and other original documents.
One of Roberts’s favorite parts of researching Ladies of Liberty was reading women’s letters from two centuries ago.
“The men’s letters are studied and stilted, as if they were written to be published. The women’s letters are funny and frank and cover a much broader swath of American life,” she said. “They were writing about who is having babies and all too often who is losing them. Some disease would come through and you would lose your 10-year-old and your 3-year-old in the same week. One of the things that strikes you when you read this history is how hard it was to get through a day.”
Roberts admits to feeling frustrated that historians have dismissed many of her subjects. Sacagawea, for instance. The Native American trekked through the wilderness with her baby while serving as an interpreter for English-speaking explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis on their 1806 journey to the Pacific Ocean.
“A lot can make you crazy about women’s history, such as historians who say, ‘Oh, she wasn’t really that important,’ ” Roberts said. “Everything I know about her is from Lewis and Clark’s journals. As they went on this remarkable trip, the men came to admire her more and more. And she also became much more willing to stand up for herself. Anybody who says she’s not important has chosen not to read what Lewis and Clark wrote.”
Most of the women featured in Ladies of Liberty, which is handsomely illustrated by Diane Goode, lived in the 13 colonies that declared their independence from England in 1776. After the Revolutionary War was won, Roberts says, there was “a sense that anything was possible as the country moved west.” Amid the excitement, however, “people were being left behind, people who were poor, particularly widows and children. Many of the women I write about looked around and said, ‘We have to do something about that.’ ”
Roberts makes it clear that women achieved what they did despite difficult circumstances.
“Without any political or legal rights, they went into the public sphere, they lobbied legislatures, they made speeches, they went to newspapers, they raised funds,” Roberts said.
“I think it’s important for children to know that women soldiered on despite being ridiculed and told they couldn’t do it.”