Women of the Revolution

I’ve been working this last week or so to finalize a syllabus for my fall course on the American Revolution as a way to kick-start my summer, review some literature for my long-dormant book project, and get the book order in before it’s really too late.

To start, I pulled a bunch of books off of my shelves to review as possible orders, and excitedly took a photo to tweet:

Then I looked at the photo. Do you notice anything amiss?

I did, and my heart sank. There was only one female author, and that’s Hannah Arendt, whose On Revolution is probably a little too esoteric for most undergraduate history courses. For a course such as the Revolution, it seems so unnaturally easy to fall into the stereotype of not only telling a story of rich, white men, but doing so through the conduit of historians who are also white and male (not holding my breath, though, about rich historians).

I think that’s a problem for two reasons. First is the issue of representation—a mentor once noted that she aims for a 50/50 gender ratio among book authors, and while I don’t know that I do the same myself I’m certainly conscious of what authors I assign. But it also points to a substantive issue of coverage. It’s partly generational; I like to assign Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, but they’re hardly the only political historians who have anything to say. And it speaks somewhat to the frameworks and issues that are discussed in the course.

So I’ve spent a little while this afternoon with a thought experiment: what would a syllabus for the American Revolution course look like if the only books assigned were authored by women?

Here is my first glance bibliography of books that seem like they might work in an undergraduate course on the American Revolution:

Danielle S. Allen, Our Declaration
Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution
Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word
Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale
Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor
Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock
Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles
Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic
Susan Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions
Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution
Pauline Maier, American Scripture
Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution
Pauline Maier, Ratification
Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters
Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash

That’s a hell of a reading list, if you ask me, and it’s just a start. But you could teach a course with this list: it mixes classics with new, “old-school” political history with newer cultural approaches. And it doesn’t even account for work of a broader time scale (for example, Clare Lyons’ Sex among the Rabble) for which a chapter or two might be appropriate. Because it’s admittedly a quickly prepared list, what would you add?


  1. Great idea, Joseph! One book I thought of might be Serena Zabin’s Dangerous Economies which sets up nicely an updated view of the “Urban Crucible” (esp. the importance of slavery & African American New Yorkers) so that students can understand the longer history of the British imperial war machine & why taxation was such a big deal.

    Marla Miller’s recent bio of Betsy Ross was terrific, although perhaps overly long for an undergraduate syllabus.

  2. Add Tuchman’s “First Salute”? It feels a bit sacrilegious saying this, but maybe there’s a bit too much Maier for one course? Maybe some earlier histories of the Revolution by women to get an overview of the historiography? e.g. Mercy Otis Warren?

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. This was meant as a suggestive bibliography – I couldn’t possibly assign 16 books in an undergrad class! And I stuck with secondary for this post just for clarity; I’d treat Warren as a primary on early memory of the Revolution, and actually used her History in a previous version of the Revolution course.

  3. One of my all time favorite history books was A Place in Time: Middlesex County, by Anita Rutman (and, ok, Darryl). Also Helen Rountree and her series of books on Native Americans in the Chesapeake region. There’s someone else, but the mind is gone.

  4. Fantastic, provocative post, Joseph.

    This is already a fantastic list, and here are two social-history oriented books that work very well at the undergrad level: Judy Van Buskirk’s Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York and Holly Mayer’s Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution. If you want to go comparative, you could use Susan Dunn’s Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light or Leora Auslander’s Cultural Revolutions: The Politics of Everyday Life in Britain, North America and France. And depending upon periodization, one could throw in Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation.

    A side note: I teach a required cultural history course in our American Culture Studies Ph.d program, and try to achieve a gender balance among assigned authors, but I think there might already be more gender balance in the fields of cultural history and American Studies than the study of the American Revolution.

  5. Thanks for all your comments and suggestions. I want to share here a few more suggestions that came up on Twitter and Facebook so that they can be collected in one place. A few of them I would probably use as primary sources (e.g., Warren), and I’m not sure what to do with Ellet, who wrote in the 1840s and 1850s. But that’s the fun!

    Elizabeth Fries Ellet, Domestic History of the American Revolution
    Elizabeth Fries Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution
    Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello
    Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes
    Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom
    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun
    Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution
    Kariann Yokota, Unbecoming British

    Someone also suggested the work of Nancy Shoemaker and Theda Perdue. Neither has written a book explicitly on the Revolution, but they both have great work on Native Americans in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

  6. I think you should put this syllabus together and see if the students notice! What a cool experiment!

  7. Clare Lyons Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia 1730-1830

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.