A couple of the books I have read recently were specifically designed to devastate my feminist self-esteem. Nevertheless, I would recommend them to all my women friends, at least those sufficiently secure in their own skins. I would also recommend them to all my men friends to give them a greater appreciation for the “weaker” sex.
One of the books was a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Donnie Radcliffe. With every chapter, I admired Clinton more and felt more like a dud by comparison. What that woman has accomplished is phenomenal.
From childhood she has been a person with strong convictions and a willingness to stand up for them. However, this trait is coupled with an open mind ready to alter those opinions when new evidence is encountered. Unfortunately, that combination is very uncommon. She says, “I evolved my own political beliefs, which frankly, in some ways … weren’t dogmatically Republican, dogmatically Democrat, easily defined as liberal or conservative.”
I was surprised (and some of my rock-ribbed Republican friends may be gratified) to learn that the teenage Hillary Rodham strongly supported Barry Goldwater in 1964. She and an equally committed Democrat friend were very angry with their government teacher who made Hillary portray Johnson and the Johnson supporter play Goldwater in a debate. Of course, most teenagers take their political opinions from parents, and Hugh Rodham was a lifelong Republican who crossed over only to vote for his son-in-law, Bill Clinton.
Young Hillary’s mind began to open when a youth pastor in her church exposed his charges to life outside their rather high-class suburb. He took them to the Chicago ghetto to meet with a group of inner-city youth. He took them to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak and arranged for them to meet him which Clinton called an important event in her life. She continued to be active politically, but the candidates she supported became less and less conservative until she campaigned for George McGovern in 1972, along with a friend she had made in law school, William Jefferson Clinton.
Her law career was successful, but also service-oriented. She said that her life was too short to spend trying to make money for a big, anonymous corporation.
During her college years, she became increasingly interested in the issues affecting women and children. She asked to work one summer for civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman. When Edelman said he had no funds to pay her, Hillary sought and found a grant to pay her salary. This was a young woman who knew how to get things done.
Clinton continued to be an advocate for children. For example, she was instrumental in starting the Arkansas Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, which was praised by Barbara Bush in her literacy handbook, “First Teachers.” In the midst of a busy law career, she was adamant about making ample time to spend with her daughter Chelsea.
Perhaps I was even more impressed by the accomplishments of the women described in “Founding Mothers” by Cokie Roberts, because these women in the American Revolution era had fewer opportunities for education and professional achievements. Nevertheless, their accomplishments were also phenomenal. I became more and more convinced that we could not have become a nation without the contributions of these gallant, intelligent, but mostly unrecognized women.
Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney, mother of two of the “founding fathers,” Charles and Thomas Pinckney, showed her brilliance at an early age. After her father brought his English wife and daughters to South Carolina to claim three plantations he inherited, he left for Antigua to fight in the war with Spain and left 16-year-old Elizabeth to run the plantations and care for her ailing mother and a much younger sister. She not only handled these responsibilities admirably, she introduced imaginative innovations such as planting oak trees in anticipation of the colony’s future need of ships and introducing indigo as a cash crop.
While Benjamin Franklin was occupying an honored place in European society, Deborah Franklin was managing the postal service and real estate investments, which provided him the funds on which to enjoy Europe. Ben held diplomatic assignments in France and England for 16 of the last 17 years of their marriage, not even returning to Philadelphia for his daughter’s wedding. She supervised the building of their house and defended it from an angry mob, who objected to what they perceived as his support of the Stamp Act.
Abigail Adams also managed the family business and was essentially a single parent to her children while John Adams served in the Continental Congress and in diplomatic posts in Europe. On his last European assignment, Adams took 10-year-old John Quincy with him, and his mother did not see him again until he was grown.
In spite of having responsibilities at Mount Vernon, Martha Washington joined her husband at winter encampments during the war and spent much time and energy caring for soldiers. I believe that without her boost to morale, many of the discouraged troops might have deserted the cause.
Along with these eminent influences on the founding fathers, Roberts depicts many lesser-known women who wrote articles and pamphlets supporting the cause of independence, organizing fund-raising efforts to supply troops with necessities the Continental Congress failed to provide, and in a few cases even seizing the weapons of their fallen husbands and engaging in combat. One of these women was even wounded in battle and received a modest pension from the new nation.
Even though the exploits of all these remarkable women made me feel I have spent nearly three-quarters of a century just occupying space, I also found them inspiring. I wish I could emulate them. Perhaps Hillary Clinton spoke for all of them when she said, “You have to try to stand for something bigger than yourself.”