The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s pioneering women get their due in Cokie Roberts’ ‘Founding Mothers’

Illustrator Diane Goode used antique pens and watercolor to depict the women featured in “Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies.”
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You can count on kids to tell you the unvarnished truth. That’s what Cokie Roberts found out while reading her new children’s book, “Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies,” to 8-year-old granddaughter Cecilia. As they were nearing the end, Cecilia said, “It’s getting kind of long, Grandma,” Roberts says. “But she hung in there, and the next morning she said to her mother, ‘Come on, I want to read you Cokie’s book.’ ”

Cecilia particularly loved the story of Lydia Darragh, who eavesdropped on British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and passed along the intelligence by sewing coded messages behind coat buttons.

If you’ve never heard of this ballsy Colonial spy, you’re not alone: Darragh is one of America’s many founding mothers who have been overlooked by historians, says Roberts, 70.

Part of the problem is that letters written by men such as Benjamin Franklin were carefully preserved for posterity, while those written by women were considered historically unimportant and thrown away.

For instance, Ben Franklin gets all the credit for being America’s first postmaster general, but it was actually his wife, Deborah Read Franklin, who did the day-to-day work.

“Ben wasn’t even in the country; he was in England,” Roberts says. “So Deborah was left to run the postal service, and she did a great job.”

Just because the founding mothers were unappreciated in their own time doesn’t mean we have to continue the trend. Here are just a few of the early American patriots featured in Roberts’ book who are worth telling your kids about.

Deborah Sampson

Known for: Dressing as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.

One Daring Dame: Sampson was a particularly valiant soldier. According to an 1898 New York Times article, “On scouting parties she would usually ride forward, a little nearer the enemy than any of her comrades dared.”

DIY Surgery: After being wounded in a skirmish, Sampson removed a musket ball from her own thigh to avoid being found out. A doctor finally discovered her secret when Sampson nearly died from fever, and she quietly left the Army after her recovery.

Thanks, Uncle Sam: Congress later voted to give her a soldier’s pension and some land in recognition of her service. After she died, her husband received survivors benefits.

Phillis Wheatley

Known for: Writing an acclaimed book of poetry, even though she was a slave.

Stolen Childhood: After being kidnapped from Africa, Wheatley was sold to a Boston family at age 7 or 8. She later wrote, “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/ Was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat: What pangs excruciating must molest/ What sorrow labor in my parents’ breast.”

Prodigy in Chains: Wheatley began writing poetry around age 12. Her works were published in local newspapers and compiled into a book.

Patriotism Through Poetry: Wheatley argued passionately for American independence, and she said that her urge for the Colonies to escape England’s shackles stemmed from her experience as a slave. She was freed after her owner’s death.

Deborah Read Franklin

Known for: Being Benjamin Franklin’s wife. That didn’t entail spending a whole lot of time with her husband, who preferred to cavort around Europe with other women.

A Brilliant Businesswoman: Deborah ran a chain of successful printshops and made additional money through savvy real-estate dealing, all while raising a daughter and Ben’s illegitimate son.

Do Not Trample Her Begonias: While Ben was representing Pennsylvania in England, colonists mistakenly believed he supported the much-hated Stamp Act. An angry mob stormed the Franklins’ Philadelphia home, and Deborah stood them down with a shotgun in her hand.

One No-Good Husband: Ben skipped his daughter’s wedding and didn’t even return to America when his wife suffered a disabling stroke. After Deborah died, Ben dreamed that he tried to renew their marriage in heaven and his long-suffering wife flatly refused.

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