To Be Useful to the World: Women in Revolutionary America, 1740-1790

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9780807856970: To Be Useful to the World: Women in Revolutionary America, 1740-1790

Offering an interpretation of the Revolutionary period that places women at the center, Joan R. Gundersen provides a synthesis of the scholarship on women's experiences during the era as well as a nuanced understanding that moves beyond a view of the war as either a "golden age" or a disaster for women. Gundersen argues that women's lives varied greatly depending on race and class, but all women had to work within shifting parameters that enabled opportunities for some while constraining opportunities for others.

Three generations of women in three households personalize these changes: Elizabeth Dutoy Porter, member of the small-planter class whose Virginia household included an African American enslaved woman named Peg; Deborah Franklin, common-law wife of the prosperous revolutionary, Benjamin; and Margaret Brant, matriarch of a prominent Mohawk family who sided with the British during the war. This edition incorporates substantial revisions in the text and the notes to take into account the scholarship that has appeared since the book's original publication in 1996.

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"Here is living testimony to the significance of the recovery of women in our published history. . . . [Gunderson] covers immense ground that brings to life a historic scene we hardly realized previous narratives had treated in such a lopsided manner."-- Anglican and Episcopal History

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Gundersen's analysis benefits from two decades of scholarly research into the lives of colonial women. Her vivid account synthesizes the work of her colleagues and brings an essential multicultural perspective to the discussion. She examines the lives of African women brought as slaves to the colonies and their American-born descendants, as well as of Native American women. Gundersen also extends the parameters of her study to include the decades that bracketed the Revolution, framing her argument around three generations of women in three households. To be Useful to the World opens with engaging accounts of three women: Elizabeth Porter, a Virginian of the small-planter class whose household includes her extended family and several slaves; Deborah Franklin, the Philadelphian wife of Benjamin Franklin; and Margaret Brant, an Iroquois woman whose family became British allies during the Revolutionary War. Through her examination of these women's lives, Gundersen illustrates the diversity of the colonial experience for women as well as the trends that crossed ethnic and class boundaries. She then follows the lives of these women's daughters through the years of the Revolution and closes her account with their granddaughters, who began their lives in post Revolutionary America. In presenting these daughters of the Revolution, Gundersen finds that while the Revolution provided opportunities for some women it also restricted the lives of others in a give and take resulting from the integrated yet divergent communities that made up the new world. This lucid account brings to life the experience of women during a period of war and profound change, a period that continues to shape Americanthought and culture to the present.

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