THE BLOG

A Founding Mother on Women's History Month

03/18/2014 12:53 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2014
Kean Collection via Getty Images

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the month of March, named after Mars, the Roman god of war, is widely recognized as Women's History Month. While women are rarely battle-hungry, the war between the sexes has continued to transcend time, technology and tastes for generations.

A friend recently asked me what Mercy Otis Warren, the first female historian of the American Revolution (1728-1814), would think about American women today. As her biographer, I believe she would be thrilled to know about Women's History Month, since she spent her professional life battling for intellectual recognition of females. Before and during the Revolution, women were sharply discouraged from speaking or writing about politics nor were they educated to do so.

Among the few who dared was Mrs. Warren, who wrote several anonymous anti-British and anti-Tory pamphlets on the eve of the Revolution. Fearing her authorship would be discovered and she would be considered a shrew, she begged her friends and mentor John Adams to remain silent about the source.

Soon afterwards, Adams encouraged her to write a history of the Revolution. Despite erratic mail, family obligations and failing eyesight, Mrs. Warren spent the next 30 years collecting newspaper articles, interviewing sources and finally completing her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. Yet after its 1805 publication, her mentor, former President John Adams, brutally critiqued her work, sneering "It is presumption in a lady to write a History with so little information as Mrs. Warren has."

Eight years later,Adams was still brooding about her work and confided to Elbridge Gerry,"History is not the province of the ladies."

Nor was he alone. In 1805, The Panoplist conceded that while Mrs. Warren's work had a certain veracity, it it was the obvious product of someone who did not understand that politics "lay outside the road of female life. " Indeed today, Mrs. Warren would thus be thrilled to learn that over 50 percent of all those in graduate and professional schools are women, that 82 women serve as Congresswomen and that 20 are Senators.

Less happily resolved, however, are answers to the contemporary question "Can a woman have it all -- a career, marriage and children?" Mrs. Warren understood that dilemma all too well. During the summer and early fall of 1775, she was raising five sons in Plymouth and shuttling between there and Watertown to report on the Revolution for her husband, General James Warren, and then sent those reports to John Adams in Philadelphia. Mrs. Warren had servants to look after the children, but the rigor of her travel by horse and chaise and her anxieties about her sons took their toll and she fell ill. By late fall, she had ceased "commuting" regularly to Watertown and spent most of her time in Plymouth.

Today, I believe she would be pleased to know that women working outside the home have become the norm, but might caution them to avoid long commutes.

Doubtless Mrs. Warren would also empathize with today's growing population of single mothers. In addition to the thousands of wives left widows by the Revolution, her husband, James, spent many years away in public service, first as president of the Provincial Congress and later as an early director of the Navy Board in Boston.

Her best friend, Abigail Adams, the mother of four, was often alone too since her husband John attended Congress in faraway Philadelphia, then traveled to France and the Netherlands. Like many single mothers today, those two friends consequently took turns caring for the other's youngsters, traded outgrown clothes, discussed child-rearing theories and bonded over other household issues in the absence of a spouse.

If Mrs. Warren could return today, she would likely marvel. Admittedly, much has improved for American women in the 200 years since her death -- education, suffrage, maternal health, social and economic independence -- but other troubling issues remain. Among them, the fact that women still earn less money than men in the workplace, that more of them live and die in poverty than men, and that the search for a balanced life remains the burning issue for women today.