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Women of the American Revolution: Remarkable Stories You’ve Never Heard

Carol Berkin, Presidential Professor of History, Baruch College

This talk puts to rest another of the remarkable myths of the American Revolution: that it was an all-male affair. An eight-year home front war and American women didn’t notice it? In fact, the politicization of women in the 1760s and 1770s is one of the most striking consequences of the rebellion against British rule. Women made the boycotts of British imports work. They picketed merchants who dared to sell British cloth and tea. They produced homespun or “Liberty cloth” as they called it — willingly engaging in the single most boring task known to colonial America. Women wrote propaganda, from plays to poetry; they signed petitions — not as Mrs. so-and-so, but with their own names, a fact that horrified conservative colonists everywhere; and in NYC, women signed a pledge not to marry any man who supported the Crown. Valley Forge, Monmouth, and others were not all-male sites. Women and children flocked to the army each winter and transformed army camps into instant cities. Here they did the nursing, the cooking, and the washing. Women served as spies, as couriers, and as soldiers. And let’s not forget all the Molly Pitchers in the forts. And after the war, how were they rewarded? Lots of praise but no legal or political rights. But a new ideology, Republican Motherhood, did arise and that proved in fact to be revolutionary. It said: a) women were capable of rational thought and could tell right from wrong (NOT a belief held in the 17th or early 18th century); and b) women were the backbone of the republic because they could instill patriotism in the next generation. Women turned the ideology to good use: if we are to educate our sons and daughters, we need to be educated. And, thus for the first time, schools were created for females. And, as we all know, education is a dangerous thing. It was the next generation who demanded equality.

Turning Points That Changed American History

Edward O’Donnell, Professor of History, Holy Cross College

In the relatively short history of the United States, there have been many turning points and landmark movements that irrevocably altered the direction of the nation and signaled the dramatic start of a new historical reality. Some took the form of groundbreaking political and philosophical concepts; some were dramatic military victories and defeats. Still others were nationwide social and religious movements, or technological and scientific innovations. What all of these turning points had in common, is that they forever changed the character of America. Sometimes the changes brought about by these events were obvious; sometimes they were more subtle. Sometimes the effects of these turning points were immediate; other times, their aftershocks reverberated for decades. Regardless, these great historical turning points demand to be understood.

The Constitution: Enduring Myths & Hidden Truths

Andrew Porwancher, Wick Cary Associate Professor of History, University of Oklahoma

Amid the heat of a Philadelphia summer in 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention gathered to save a fledgling republic whose very existence was mired in doubt. Americans had waged a bloody war against their mother country a decade earlier to win their independence. Now, as the delegates debated the contours of a new frame of government, they were all too aware that if they failed, the people might once again take up arms. At this pivotal moment in history, the delegates drafted a Constitution that endures today as the oldest surviving national charter still in effect anywhere in the world. But what did the framers really mean? Did they intend the Establishment Clause to merely ban a national religion or completely separate church and state? Was the Second Amendment designed to protect the rights of individuals or just militias? How much do we actually know about what transpired in Independence Hall? What myths were later invented and accepted as law? The surprising answers to these questions matter, not only for uncovering the truth about our history but for rethinking the laws that govern our lives today.

Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty of the Graduate Center of CUNY. She has worked as a consultant on several PBS and History Channel documentaries, including, The “Scottsboro Boys,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. She has also appeared as a commentator on screen in the PBS series by Ric Burns, “New York,” the Middlemarch series “Benjamin Franklin” and “Alexander Hamilton” on PBS, and the MPH series, “The Founding Fathers.” She serves on the Board of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Board of the National Council for History Education.

Edward O’Donnell, Professor of History at Holy Cross College, is the author of several books, including “Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age.” He frequently contributes op-eds to publications like Newsweek and the HuffPost. He has been featured on PBS, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and C-SPAN. O’Donnell also has curated several major museum exhibits on American history and appeared in several historical documentaries. He currently hosts a history podcast, In the Past Lane.

Andrew Porwancher is the Wick Cary Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, where he teaches constitutional history. He has degrees from Cambridge, Brown, and Northwestern, and has held fellowships at Oxford, Yeshiva, and Princeton universities. He is also the recipient of the Longmire Prize for innovative teaching. His third book, “The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life”, will be published by Harvard University Press.