Historical events of the last three centuries come alive through these women’s singular correspondences—often their only form of public expression. In 1775, Rachel Revere tries to send financial aid to her husband, Paul, in a note that is confiscated by the British; First Lady Dolley Madison tells her sister about rescuing George Washington’s portrait during the War of 1812; one week after JFK’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy pens a heartfelt letter to Nikita Khrushchev; and on September 12, 2001, a schoolgirl writes a note of thanks to a
New York City firefighter, asking him, “Were you afraid?”
The letters gathered here also offer fresh insight into the personal milestones in women’s lives. Here is a mid-nineteenth-century missionary describing a mastectomy performed without anesthesia; Marilyn Monroe asking her doctor to spare her ovaries in a handwritten note she taped to her stomach before appendix surgery; an eighteen-year-old telling her mother about her decision to have an abortion the year after Roe v. Wade; and a woman writing to her parents and in-laws about adopting a Chinese baby.
With more than 400 letters and over 100 stunning photographs, Women’s Letters is a work of astonishing breadth and scope, and a remarkable testament to the women who lived–and made–history.
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Lisa Grunwald is the author of the novels Whatever Makes You Happy, New Year’s Eve, The Theory of Everything, and Summer. She is a former magazine editor.
Stephen J. Adler is editor in chief of Business Week magazine and author of The Jury: Trial and Error in the American Courtroom. Grunwald and Adler live with their two children in New York City.
I hear by Captn Wm Riley news that makes me very Sorry for he Says you proved a Grand Coward when the fight was at Bunkers hill. . . . If you are afraid pray own the truth & come home & take care of our Children & I will be Glad to Come & take your place, & never will be Called a Coward, neither will I throw away one Cartridge but exert myself bravely in so good a Cause.
— Abigail Grant to her husband
August 19, 1776
BETWEEN 1775 AND 1799 . . . 1775: Patrick Henry attempts to persuade Virginia to arm its militia against the British, declaring: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” The first shots of the Revolutionary War are fired at Lexington and Concord. In Salem, following the first news of the war, 13-year-old Susan Mason Smith chooses not to remove her shoes for several days, wanting to be prepared in case her family decides to flee. Only about half the white women in the colonies are literate enough to sign their names. 1776: With her husband, John, away at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail Adams writes to him frequently and urges him to make sure that he and his colleagues “Remember the Ladies” while they are shaping the new nation; if they don’t, she warns him, “we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense, a 50-page pamphlet that urges Americans to fight not only against taxation but also for independence; it sells more than half a million copies within its first few months. Betsy Ross (according to the legend that’s been neither proven nor refuted by evidence) is visited by George Washington and asked to make a national flag; the stars on her design will have five points, rather than the six Washington suggests. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson writes: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” For 67 days, the new country is called “The United Colonies of America”; in September, Congress gives the USA its official name. 1777: Sybil Ludington, the 16-year-old daughter of a New York militia officer, rides almost 40 miles to muster troops against the British. More than 100 women gather at the Boston store of Thomas Boylston to protest the merchant’s high wartime prices. General George Washington leads 11,000 militiamen to Valley Forge near British-occupied Philadelphia, where they are forced to spend a bitterly cold winter, plagued by widespread dysentery and typhus and a severe lack of food, clothes, and basic supplies. Washington writes in a letter that the soldiers’ “marches might be tracked by the blood from their feet.” 1778: During the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey, Mary McCauly earns the name “Molly Pitcher” after making frequent trips with water to cool down both the men and the cannon in her husband’s regiment. 1781: Los Angeles is founded by Spanish settlers; its full name is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula. 1783: The British evacuate New York. The Paris Peace Treaty ends the Revolutionary War. New Jersey, alone among the 13 states, enacts a statute giving women the vote; it will be put into sporadic use starting in 1787—and overturned in 1807. 1784: Abel Buell engraves and publishes the first map of the United States, “layd down from the latest observations and best authority agreeable to the peace of 1783.” Judith Sergeant Murray publishes her essay “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms,” arguing that in the absence of sufficient confidence, women all too often marry precipitously to avoid the epithet spinster. 1786: In his sermon “On Dress,” John Wesley declares: “slovenliness is no part of religion. . . . ‘Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness,’ ” but warns: “The wearing [of] gay or costly apparel naturally tends to breed and to increase vanity. . . . You know in your hearts, it is with a view to be admired that you thus adorn yourselves, and that you would not be at the pains were none to see you but God and his holy angels.” 1787: Despite Congress’s plan merely to revise the 1777 Articles of Confederation, delegates draft a new constitution that gives increased power to a central government. 1788: Nine states ratify the Constitution, and it goes into effect. 1789: Though rich in land, George Washington must borrow £600 in cash to travel from Mount Vernon to New York City for his inauguration. 1790: The total population of the United States is 3,893,874, of whom 694,207 are slaves. Among white males, 791,901 are under the age of 16; 807,312 are 16 and over. 1791: Vermont becomes the fourteenth state. The national debt is $75,463,000, or roughly $18 a person. The Bill of Rights is ratified. 1792: George Washington signs an act providing for the creation of copper pennies and stipulating that “no copper coins or pieces whatsoever except the said cents and half-cents, shall pass current as money.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac debuts, offering weather predictions, tide tables, and occasional advice; it costs sixpence and has a first-year circulation of 3,000 that will triple in a year and after two centuries pass four million. 1794: Eli Whitney is granted a patent for the cotton gin, which combs and deseeds cotton 10 times faster than the nonmechanical process. 1796: Amelia Simmons publishes the first American cookbook under the title American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Puff-Pastries, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plum to Plain Cake—Adapted to This Country and All Grades of Life. 1798: More than 2,000 people die in a yellow fever epidemic in New York City. 1799: A Philadelphia Quaker named Elizabeth Drinker writes in her journal about the nearly novel experience of taking a bath: “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over att once, for 28 years past.”
1775: Circa April 18
Rachel Revere to Paul Revere
On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere (1735–1818) made his famous midnight ride to Lexington, Massachusetts, warning his countrymen of the British troops’ planned attack. Revere was captured later that night, but his actions marshaled colonial troops to the famous first battle on Lexington Green, where the American Revolution began the next day. Once released, Revere started back toward Boston, despite having neither money nor horse. With this note, his worried wife, Rachel Walker Revere (1745–1813), tried to send him help. Dr. Benjamin Church was trusted by Rachel as a fellow rebel but was in fact a British spy. Rachel’s letter was promptly turned over to the British.
My dear by Doctr Church I send a hundred & twenty five pounds and beg you will take the best care of your self and not attempt coming in to this town again and if I have an opportunity of coming or sending out any thing or any of the Children I shall do it pray keep up your spirits and trust your self and us in the hands of a good God who will take care of us tis all my dependance for vain is the help of man aduie my
Love from your
affectionate R Revere
1775: April 22
Anne Hulton to Elizabeth Lightbody
Anne Hulton (?–1779) was a sister of Boston’s commissioner of customs and, like some 15 to 35 percent of the white colonial population, a British Loyalist. In this letter to her friend Elizabeth Lightbody, in Liverpool, she described the beginning of the war as it would come to be seen on the other side of the Atlantic, right down to the outrage of having His Majesty’s troops attacked from behind trees and fences. By the end of the year, having endured months in a besieged city, Hulton would sail for England.
Inst was a common abbreviation for instant, meaning “the month this was written.” The Grenadiers were elite British troops who wore long red coats and tall bearskin hats. A magazine, in this context, was a warehouse. Hugh Percy was a British brigadier general. The Otter was a British sloop that would engage in battle in the first week of May.
I acknowledged the receipt of My Dear Friends kind favor of the 20th Septr the begin’ing of last Month, tho’ did not fully Answer it, purposing as I intimated to write again soon, be assured as your favors are always very acceptable, so nothing you say, passes unnoticed, or appears unimportant to me. but at present my mind is too much agitated to attend to any subject but one, and it is that which you will be most desirous to hear particulars of, I doubt not in regard to your friends here, as to our Situation, as well as the Publick events. I will give you the best account I can, which you may rely on for truth.
On the 18th instt at 11 at Night, about 800 Grenadiers & light Infantry were ferry’d across the Bay to Cambridge, from whence they marchd to Concord, about 20 Miles. The Congress had been lately assembled at that place, & it was imagined that the General had intelligence of a Magazine being formed there & that they were going to destroy it.
The People in the Country (who are all furnished with Arms & have what they call Minute Companys in every Town ready to march on any alarm), had a signal it’s supposed by a light from one of the Steeples in Town,...
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