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:
- The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution by Edmund Morgan and Helen Morgan (The University of North Carolina Press, 1953).
- From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 by Pauline Maier (Knopf, 1973).
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:
- The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed (W. W. Norton, 2009)
- Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal (Random House, 2015)
- The Iroquois in the American Revolution by Barbara Graymont (Syracuse University Press, 1972)
- Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)
- Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes (Houghton Mifflin, 1943; now Mariner Books, 1999)
- Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin (Knopf, 2005)
- Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America by Linda K. Kerber (The University of North Carolina Press, 1980)
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.)
- American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier (Vintage Books, 1998)
- From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists by Rebecca Brannon (University of South Carolina Press, 2016)
- Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
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?
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?
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.