A Historian’s Guide to Summer: Independence Day Reading Edition

A Historian’s Guide to Summer: Independence Day Reading Edition

Via Book Riot, where Derek Attig reminds us that “In a very real way, the Fourth of July is a huge, national holiday celebrating a piece of paper and a scribble of ink. Yes, the celebration is for what that paper and that ink did—ideologically and politically, if not practically or militarily, separate the colonies from Britain—but it’s still, at heart, a celebration of paper and ink.”

Attig carries on the revolutionary spirit by listing four revisionist looks at the American Revolution:

The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America by Gary Nash  

The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History by Jill Lepore 

Fourth of July Books: Frederick DouglassThe Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” by Frederick Douglass

The Coquette by Hanna Webster Foster 

I was pleased to see that Attig included two books by female authors and one by an African American author.  This led me to think of other ideas for Independence Day reading about women’s history.

Of course, I immediately came up with the two books I was assigned OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin my graduate women’s history seminar, taught by Mary Beth Norton at Cornell University  (right). Naturally, Norton assigned her own book, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. She paired this with Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. It was interesting to see how two books on the same topic could take such different approaches.  It was also great to hear about how Norton met Kerber in an archive while doing research in the same topic.

Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in graduate school, and my field is 20th-century history, so I went to Google books to find what else had been published since the 1980s.  My first hits were not recent books,ellet but two from the 1840s that I had never seen before: Women of the American Revolution and Domestic History of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Ellet (right). These were published in the mid-nineteenth century as part of Applewood’s Series on the American Revolution.

revolutionarymothersIn her book Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for American Independence, Carol Berkin describes how Ellet’s work, and that of other “amateur” historians, were forgotten in the late nineteenth century. By the 1880s, Berkin argues, “the writing of history had become a profession rather than a hobby or passion, and it required credentials few women could attain. The new professional historians turned their attention to the great men and formal politics, to generals and diplomats, to public figures and political institutions. The canvas they painted was too grand to include the small heroisms that Ellet had so carefully portrayed, and thus it was that a gendered amnesia befell the study of the nation’s war for independence.” Nevertheless, “amateur” local historians and antiquarians created an “Ellet underground” that kept her work alive. According to Berkin, “Women may have been absent from the formal narratives of the Revolution, but their stories were preserved.”

During the 1970s, as Title IX fully opened the doors of higher education to women, universities began producing female Ph.Ds in history, and many of these newly-minted scholars became historians of women.  As Berkin writes, “They set about the task of reconstructing women’s experiences, confident that since Clio, the muse of history, was a woman, she would watch over her own kind. By the 1980s, the painstaking but often exhilarating task of restoring women to the canvas of American history had begun to reap rewards.”

Yet these historians also emulated the professional snobbery of their male counterparts.  They still considered Ellet a “mere” amateur. Moreover, because Ellet didn’t use women’s experiences during the Revolutionary war to advance women’s rights (i.e. she wasn’t a feminist or even a proto-feminist), her work wasn’t considered worthy of serious attention. Ellet’s books were aimed at a popular audience. During graduate school, I  learned that these books were not “scholarly” and therefore should be avoided except perhaps for gathering basic biographical details.

Ellet’s books are worth reconsidering for two reasons: first, it’s remarkable that a mid-nineteenth-century publisher found the subject of women’s history worthy of inclusion in a series on the American Revolution (although Ellet’s books only included white women). Second, although Ellet was not a “professional” historian (in fact, the academic field of history didn’t exist yet), she used the same historical methods that today’s professional historians consider to be essential to solid historical scholarship.  In order to get as complete a history as possible, Ellet looked for private, unpublished letters and diaries; and interviewed descendants of Revolutionary-era women.  She was the first historian of the American revolution to engage in such methodical research.  So much for the difference between “amateurs” and “professionals”!  Perhaps Ellet should be considered the “mother” of women’s history?  Just a thought.

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.