• July 2010

Powerful first ladies come to life in Cokie Roberts' "Ladies of Liberty"

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor & Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine

In addition to being a contributing senior news analyst for National Public Radio, a regular roundtable analyst on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, and a political commentator and on-air analyst for ABC News, Cokie Roberts writes books about history.

She writes good ones, too. The kind that make the early years of America come to life and enable us to see that the folks who came before us are, in fact, a lot like us.

Her first title was We are Our Mothers’ Daughters, followed by Founding Mothers, and then From This Day Forward, which she co-wrote with her husband, Steven.

Her most recent title is Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation.

It is a story told, as much as possible, in the words of the influential women of the period between the inauguration of John Adams in 1797 and that of his son, John Quincy Adams, in 1825.

Roberts wrote this book, she says, because after writing Founding Mothers, the “librarians and custodians of the collections, historical socials, and historic homes saw that their troves of papers would be of use, and they [were] steadfast about finding unpublished treasures for this project. For a couple of years now, I’ve waited with anticipation for some packet of letters to arrive in the mail, providing fresh insights. Seeing Abigail Adams’ handwriting is a treat all unto itself.”

Here’s why.

Power Behind the Throne

“In the early 19th century, men in politics were literally killing each other in the name of their beliefs,” she explains. “The women of the time were trying desperately to get them to put down their guns and pick up a glass of wine so they could, in a relaxed moment, discuss their differences.”

The women that Roberts writes about include Alexander Hamilton’s wife Aliza, John Quincy Adams’ wife Louisa, and the nation’s darling, Dolly Madison.

Well-documented and fascinatingly described, Roberts shows how these women kept tempers cool and showed the nation what it meant to be a first lady.

“It’s a complete myth that the first ladies were sitting around pouring tea until Eleanor Roosevelt came along, then poured more tea until Hilary Clinton took the political stage,” Roberts insists. “These women were tough, smart, and incredibly clever.”

What would the founding mothers say to us today?

“They’d look us square in the eye and say, ‘Honey, relax, you got it easy,’” Roberts believes. “The truth of the matter is that this is so true. We are not pregnant every year. Typhoid hasn’t just come through town and killed two of our children. We are not making candles and bread before we prepare the evening meal. I think this perspective is wonderful because it’s true: We have it easy.”

Further, the concept of “multitasking” is something Roberts says, “is a man’s made-up word for something women have done since the beginning of time.”

Been There, Done That

Roberts points to her own mother — former ambassador and long-time Democratic Congresswoman from Louisiana, Lindy Boggs — who first took office in 1973 after her husband (the late Hale Boggs, Majority Leader of the House of Representatives) died in a plane crash.

“I remember coming home one day and my mother was standing in her big kitchen cooking a grand meal and stirring pickles that she’d made from her giant vegetable garden. In one arm was my nephew, who was fussing and needed to be constantly rocked from side to side, and under her neck she’d cricked the phone and was dictating a speech she was to give the following day to Congress.”

“All the while she was monitoring the chicken in the oven and stirring those pickles. I said aloud, ‘Mom, not only CAN you do it all — you can do it all AT THE SAME TIME.’”

Inside the Book

Roberts divides the book into six chapters. They are:

Chapter 1: 1797-1801: The Presidency of John and Abigail Adams

Chapter 2: 1801-1805: The First Term of Thomas Jefferson and the Ladies of the Place

Chapter 3: 1805-1809: The Second Term of Thomas Jefferson and Women Talking Politics

Chapter 4: 1809-1813: The First Term of James Madison and the Presidentess

Chapter 5: 1813-1817: The Second Term of James Madison and “The Bravest American Soldier”

Chapter 6: 1817-1825: The Presidency of James Monroe and Some Characters to Contemplate

Listen to Cokie Roberts discuss Ladies of Liberty on Federal News Radio.

Click here to buy the book.

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