Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! A member of a Monstrous Regiment of Women pipes up a tune & smokes it.

Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), by John Singleton Copley, 1763.  In her correspondence with Abigail Smith Adams and John Adams, Warren called herself “Marcia,” and Adams signed herself “Portia.”

Do women historians exist?  If we exist, do men historians know it?  Going by the antics of the editors of the Journal of the American Revolution, the answer to both questions is an entirely nonsensical no! Which you must admit is pretty hilarious, especially considering that the very first historian of the American Revolution (yes, that one!) was, in fact, a lady!  It’s true!  Mercy Otis Warren’s Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (3 vols., 1805) is widely recognized as the first, and for probably more than a century the only authoritative history of the American Revolution.

For a historical subfield invented by a woman, you’d think there would be a little more remembering of the ladies happening in this list of the “100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time.”  You’d think that, but you’d be so very wrong.  Tragically wrong, in fact.  Of the 114 separate books they list, there are only 11 by women, and one co-authored by a woman.  And of those 11 single-authored books by women, fully three are by the great Pauline Maier, so the list includes only ten women historians in all.  TEN women, and eleven and a half books.  Take that, Marcia!  

I tweeted some thoughts about this last night as I was packing up to leave the office, but in the meantime I’ve had a chance to examine the list in a little more detail.  Here are the books by women included in the list, broken down in their original categories as assigned by the editors of the JAR:

All-in-one books (that is, magisterial surveys of the Revolution):  13 single-authored titles, none by women.  Not even a token shout-out to the great Marcia, and the author of the first book of its kind.

Origins:  11 in all; one and a half books by women.  Please note the publication dates on the titles listed below–nothing “original” by women published in the past 44 years, I guess:

People:  There are 41 titles in this category, seven of which were written by women (17%).  This is as good as it gets in terms of numbers of books by women as well as in familiarity with more recent titles:

Politics:  There are eleven titles in this section, three of which are by women, but once again Pauline Maier is representing heavily here.  This category is the most integrated of the whole list, with 27% of the books by women.  (But consider that 2/3 of those books were written by the same woman.)

And finally, Conflict & War:  A massive list with 38 titles, all by men.  Because we all know that women don’t write about the “big issues” in history or about wars and warfare, amirite? What the heck do we know?

Catharine Macaulay by Robert Edge Pine, ca. 1775, kitted out like a Roman matron. She was another of Warren’s pen pals and the author of The History of England from the Accession of James I to the Revolution (1763-83)

As my colleague Janice Liedl wrote in response to my original tweet last night, “I’m getting too old for this BS.”  Yes!  Aren’t we all?  The Canadian and American historical professions, after a century of desperately trying to distance itself from the “unprofessional” but popular histories written by women in the nineteenth century, grudgingly permitted women to enter “professional” graduate training in more than token numbers in the 1960s and 1970s.  Now we exist as grad students, faculty, and writers–but our work is systematically undervalued or ignored entirely.  It seems like nothing we do matters or changes anything.  For the full rundown, please see Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History:  Men, Women, and Historical Practice (1998; 2000) which argues that the professionalization of history was premised and constructed specifically on the formal exclusion of women as historical subjects and writers, even as male historians exploited and profited from the intellectual labor of their sisters, wives, lovers, and daughters.

You’d think in a “Top 100” list that had room for books by BOTH of the Arthur Schlesingers (Sr. AND Jr., published in 1917 and 1958, respectively) as well as a recent title that has credibly been accused of being derivative in extremis of a book published more than fifty years ago, there might be room for a few more books written by women in the past half-century or so.  What about Elizabeth Fenn’s quirky, fascinating Pox Americana:  The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82? How did they miss Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British:  How Revolutionary America Became a Post-Colonial Nation?  And my favorite book about the American Revolution published in the past decade, Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions:  Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820?

The Whig of Illusory Progress goes to:  the North American historical profession!

Is history the study of change over time?  Then why doesn’t history itself change in historical time instead of geological time?  Mercy Otis Warren has been dead for more than two centuries.  I’m afraid I’m going to go to my grave piping the same tune.  All I want is more Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!  Don’t remember the ladies only when we’re shut up in our graves–read our books NOW, assign them to your students NOW, and give us the credit due to us, Brutus.

I’ve sworn on a stack of old Ms. Magazines and my 1984 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves never to write about the American Revolution, because it has seemed to me to be a pretty dead field since the U.S. Bicentennial outpouring of New Left scholarship reformed the consensus on which most of us are still picking.  But maybe I need to make some declarations of my own.

25 thoughts on “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! A member of a Monstrous Regiment of Women pipes up a tune & smokes it.

  1. Oh, I did not know about Marcia & Portia. What fabulous noms de plume. (noms du guerre?) Again, isn’t is disheartening how easily women slide off of the radar when it comes time to assembling “greatest” lists? And it’s not like they’re a) not publishing and b) not widely esteemed. But it’s a sidelining to the “greatest women historians” category or “greatest histories about women which means the time we talk about books by women” and that chaps my chaps, if you know what I mean. (I own a pair of chaps, folks, and I’m not above zipping them on and riding in to administer a little rough justice, so watch out.)

    Next Monday I will teach our majors about gender history in European history and I take that as an invitation not just to tackle the analytic field but to analyze the field. One of the first things that I’ll do is ask them to think back and give me the name of one woman historian whose work they’ve read. Even though we have eight women on the course syllabus, chances are they won’t remember any of them. Few will remember the name of a woman historian they’ve read for another course, yet they can usually rattle off a couple of male historians’ names without pause. Why is that? (Although, in their defense, a couple of them were happily geeking out about their other experiences with gender history during our Thursday morning religious history seminar so maybe I’ll be surprised on Monday.)

    Back the class prep – I’ve got my copy of “History Matters” in hand and you can sure bet that it’s shaping my plan for the day. But I might have to look a bit more at your Marcia after that. She sounds amazing!

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    • TBH, I haven’t seriously looked at MOW’s history since college (except to mine it for the choice parts that so honked off John Adams), but I think I’ll put it on my summer reading list. Or maybe my spring break reading list?

      A snappy, thorough biography of Mercy Otis Warren is the one published in 1995 by Rosemarie Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma: MOW & the Am Rev. I highly recommend it.

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      • Thanks for that biographical link. I’ll probably find that a better entree into her world and work. Then I can dig up her history and give it a read. I’m intrigued!

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  2. I recently heard Prof Cynthia Burek (a geologist) speak about her research into public perception of “famous female scientists”. We had a few minutes to complete a survey before the lecture: list as many famous female scientists as you can. I was disappointed in myself to only come up with 9 in 5 minutes and I missed off some really obvious women, like Ada Lovelace and Maria Montessori (at least my list extended beyond the UK and former colonies).

    Anyway, a version of the talk is posted here. Marie Curie is the one and only super star. Dian Fossey is up there too (probably because a movie was made about her).

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    • Wow–I’m surprised even you couldn’t come up with more names, as I know you’ve published on women in your field, Truffula.

      Visibility of women’s intellectual labor is surely an issue in all academic disciplines.

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    • As I wrote here earlier this winter:

      The claim that “women weren’t important in what I study” is an ideologically motivated fiction. If you believe women are human, you look for them in what you study, teach, and write. If you don’t, then you don’t believe women are human, full stop.

      I stand by this. If you think women are important historians and historical subjects, then you look for them and you feature them in lists like this. If you don’t, you don’t, and it never occurs to you until some Professional Feminist gets up in your grill. Even then, you may not care.

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  3. Agreed on all counts. The list is weak on categorization itself (People?) , weak in reliance on go-to popular pot-boilers, and, although it almost seems a distraction from the important problems addressed here, weak on basic editorial control. From the publication dates of books (Gross, _Minutemen and Their World_, 1981?) to the actual titles of books (Ruddiman, _Becoming Men of {Some} Consequence_). There were others as well, but it’s late here in the East, and I’ve been on the road. I was kind of disappointed not to have been on the shootemup final sublist,, “Conflict and War.” Not that I think mine is one of the 100 best of “all time,” but it surely beats out a few of them. But maybe more relieved now not to have added to the imbalance.

    I didn’t know about the Marcia part, but Mercy Otis Warren was the first actual people discussed in my own Am. Rev. course this semester.

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    • The Marcia/Portia correspondence is one of my fave stories about the 1770s! Although MOW was less committed to signing herself “Marcia” than ASA was to “Portia,” according to Rosemarie Zagarri.

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  4. Great post, Historiann! At the end of a list like that, they ought to do a pie chart and see if one of the slivers of color is, you know, not like the others. That’d at least show them that they have a problem–if indeed they believe it is a problem, which is depressing to contemplate.

    Is one of those “after a century of desperately trying to distance itself from the “unprofessional” but popular histories written by women in the nineteenth century” bios maybe Gertrude Atherton’s The Conqueror about A.Ham? You need to do a post on “what NOT to read” and why the 19c. bios are bad (though I can certainly guess), for those of us who are non-historians. Maybe call it “Not Drunk History, but it should have been.”

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    • I don’t know that book–but maybe I should!?! Hilarious.

      There is incredible work from the 19th C by women–they were the leaders of the Colonial Revival & of the antiquarian movement in New England. I’ve been reading J. Semaine Lockwood’s Archives of Desire on this. Of course, both of my books are utterly indebted to the work of C. Alice Baker and Emma Lewis Coleman, and my next one will be indebted to Alice Morse Earle, the creative and unbelievably energetic historian of early American material culture.

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  5. Absolutely spot on.

    Among other notable omissions, the list almost entirely excludes works on culture and society. As a result, it leaves out major works dealing with those topics. Where, for example are Sarah Knott’s _Sensibility and the American Revolution_ or Nicole Eustace’s _Passion is the Gale_? Similarly, a strong case could be made for Laurel Ulrich’s _Age of Homespun_. The list undoubtedly recognizes many classic works, but a depressingly narrow perspective really limits its value as a bibliography for both scholars and enthusiasts.

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    • On Twitter yesterday, someone (was it Peter Shulman?) made the argument for Age of Homespun very strongly–I hadn’t considered it, but completely agree now upon your (and his) recommendation. And of course, Knott and Eustace! 2008 was a big year for sensibility, no?

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  6. Not to diminish Warren’s contribution, but, as someone working on history culture and the American Revolution, I feel compelled to point out that the first general history of the Revolution was not published by Mercy Otis Warren but by William Gordon in 1788 followed by David Ramsay in 1790, as well as maybe half a dozen others before Warren. And that’s not including a number of other works that could be considered histories of the Revolution, such as John Marshall’s biography of George Washington, histories of the Revolution in individual states, or histories of North and South America that included the recent Revolution. I also do not point this fact out to refute or diminish your argument regarding the recognition (or lack thereof) afforded to contemporary female historians, especially by the popular, non-academic audience represented (and catered to) by allthingsliberty.com.

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    • I stand corrected–thanks! I just looked up both Ramsay’s and Gordon’s books & found them on Early American Imprints. I don’t know if you’ve got a 2-paragraph answer for this question, but I’d be curious to hear how you see their work as comparing to Warren’s.

      I appreciate you noting that allthingsliberty.com is oriented more towards a popular audience, but I don’t think you’ll find all that much difference in the citation politics of most bibliographies or syllabi by professional historians. The imbalance might not be nearly as bad, but it will still be there in full force. The professor whose syllabus I reference in this post, for example, is a historian at an eastern university teaching in the year 2017.

      Also, take for example the bibliography in Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions (2016), which I assigned in my 18th C America course this term. It’s a lively synthesis of the New Left’s 40-year old vision of the Am Rev., plus the extra skepticism about populism & thuggery that has emerged from the recent revival of interest in the Loyalists. But it’s a very dudebro book.

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      • I suspect you’re right about there likely not being much difference in the gender balance of allthingsliberty’s list and general academics’ citations. In fact, we touched on this point in the comments on a post I did last year at The Junto about The Open Syllabus Project, where the ratio of men-to-women authors in the most-assigned texts was shocking (though, as you note, not unpredictable).

        As for the difference between her and Ramsay/Gordon… though her work was published just a decade-and-a-half later than theirs, the political and cultural contexts they wrote in were very different. There was a time between the end of the war and the late 1790s where the vast majority of individuals engaged in historical cultural production were cultural nationalists. They’re often referred to as Federalists but they were only so by default because they supported the new Constitution and federal government. They wrote their histories in this period before the first party system had taken shape with the primary goal of fostering national identity through a shared national past. And they got to do that largely uncontested because antifederalists and early Republicans were not yet thinking on the same national scale (either politically or historically).

        The histories of Warren and Marshall (both published in 1805) represent the end of that “honeymoon period” as their histories are both decidedly partisan, having been produced after the first party system had been established (i.e., Warren’s was a Republican history of the Revolution and Marshall’s was a decidedly Federalist version). My own work, which begins around 1750, largely ends with the end of that “honeymoon period.” That said, since the period in which Ramsay and Gordon wrote was so short-lived and since partisan historical writing of the Revolution subsequently became the norm, one could certainly argue that Warren’s work (not Ramsay or Gordon’s) more represented the beginnings of the development of modern American historical writing than Ramsay or Gordon.

        For anyone looking to learn more about her, I highly recommend Rosie Zagarri’s book, “A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution,” and Kate Davies, “Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren: The Revolutionary Atlantic and the Politics of Gender.” Also, Mary Kelley has done amazing work uncovering the historical writing of women in the decades after Warren’s history was published in “Learning to Stand and Speak.”

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this post Historiann! I am going to be teaching historiography and research methods for undergrads this fall. I will be asking them to take a look at your post and the books you recommend. I might even have them read parts of Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History.

    Liked by 1 person

    • & per Janice’s suggestion above, Judith Bennett’s History Matters is also brilliant on women, gender, and history’s problem with both. Her work will probably be more accessible than Bonnie Smith’s book, TBH–even grad students have a hard time with that one, but some of the later chapters will work better than the earlier ones.

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    • A great question. I know of only one on that list, Annette Gordon-Reed, but I’m not so familiar with all of the writers on that list to make a declaration without me putting way more work into this than the writers of the listicle put into creating it.

      Suffice it to say that <1% is not cutting it. Equally disturbing is the absence of race or African American and Indian history on the list too, given how the Whig movement was so obsessed with "slavery" and their own colonial subjection.

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      • I think the best point that has been made throughout these commets is that certain areas have been excluded — add social and cultural history, add slavery, add specifically women’s history, and these gaps close. Look, because of longstanding sexism and racism in the production of knowledge — how many tenured woman professors were there in 1965? — this list was going to be disproportionately male. But to put the thumb on the scale so that entire sub-disciplines are excluded seems almost willful.

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    • Thanks for letting me know.

      This is priceless: “It’s strange to be in the crosshairs of such a gender diversity analysis.”

      Yes, indeed. Interesting choice of metaphor (“in the crosshairs,”), no? Only feminists can be “militant,” I guess.

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