March is officially Women's History Month. This has always seemed a mixed blessing: yes, it's wonderful to shine the limelight on women of the past, but why does half the world's population only merit one month's worth of attention out of twelve? Perhaps that's more apt then I want to admit, for often it does seem that men garner eleven times the ink in history books.
I've recently discovered a new book that will help tip the balance more fairly. In the Words of Women: The Revolutionary War & the Birth of a Nation 1765-1799 by Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, and Landa M. Freeman is a collection of the writings – including letters, diaries, poems, and journals – of dozens of women living in the turbulent era of the American Revolution. Whether addressing matters of daily life such as tending sick children and coaxing unhappy husbands, difficult questions of loyalty versus patriotism, or the shocking violence and loss of the war around them, the voices of these women, both patriots and loyalists, sound with astonishing clarity. This is one of those books that's a treat to read straight through, or to dip into a random, and I can't recommend it enough. For more from the book and about the authors, visit their website/blog here.
This passage from a letter from In the Words of Women shows how vulnerable women were to enemy forces. Eliza Yonge Wilkinson (1757-1813) of South Carolina was a young widow of twenty-three and a firm believer in the patriot cause. When British and American forces converged on Charleston, she took refuge in her sister's nearby plantation house, but on June 3, 1780, the house was ransacked by British troops:
I heard the horses of the inhuman Britons coming in such a furious manner, that they seemed to tear up the earth, and the riders at the same time bellowing out the most horrid curses imaginable; oaths and imprecations which chilled my whole frame....I'd no time for thought – they were up to the house – entered with drawn swords and pistols in their hands; indeed, they rushed in, in the most furious manner, crying out, "Where're these women rebels?" (pretty language to ladies from the once famed Britons!)....The moment they espied us, off went our caps (I always heard say none but women pulled caps!) And for what, think you? why, only to get a paltry stone and wax pin, which kept [the caps] on our heads; at the same time uttering the most abusive language imaginable, and making as if they'd hew us to pieces with their swords. But it's not in my power to describe the scene: it was terrible to the last degree; and what augmented it, they had several armed negroes with them, who threatened and abused us greatly They then began to plunder the house of every thing they thought valuable or worth taking; our trunks were split to pieces, and each mean wretch crammed his bosom with the contents, which were our apparel. &c. &c. &c. I ventured to speak to the inhuman monster who had my clothes. I represented to him the times were such we could not replace what they'd taken from us, and begged him to spare me only a suit or two; but I got nothing but a hearty curse for my pains; nay, so far was his callous heart from relenting, that, casting his eyes towards my shoes, "I want them buckles," said he, and immediately knelt at my feet to take them out, which, while he was busy about, a brother villain, whose enormous mouth extended from ear to ear, bawled out "Shares there, I say; share." So they divided my buckles between them. The other wretches were employed in the same manner....They took care to tell us, when they were going away, that they had favored us a great deal – that we might thank our stars it was no worse.
The detail of the painting, above, by John Singleton Copley, does not directly illustrate Eliza's letter (rather it shows a scene from the 1781 Battle of Jersey between British and French forces) – but it does convey the terror that faced women and children caught in the path of 18th c warfare.
Above: Detail from The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 by John Singleton Copley, 1783, Tate Collection. In accordance with some FTC rule or another (which probably doesn't apply to Loretta and me because we're writers, not reviewers, but better safe than sorry), I received a copy of In the Words of Women as a gift from the authors.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.