Remarkable Women of New England: Daughters, Wives, Sisters, and Mothers; The War Years 1754 to 1787
By Carole Owens
2016, Globe Pequot $19.95
Carole Owens assures us that Molly Pitcher didn’t exist. But Margaret Corbin did. In 1776, to cool an overheated gun, Margaret Corbin poured water on it while her husband fired. When he fell, she took over until she also fell. Many women were Molly Pitchers during the war. We have records of the men who fought; women’s names are rarely noted. Their lives anonymously reflected in an occasional myth, rarely in documents. The Revolutionary War raged on for five years. It was only one of several wars that were fought in front of farmhouse doors and in the fields that were the world of women in 18th century New England. A world over which they had no control, and little recourse to amend.
But don’t let wars distract you from what we love most about Carole Owens’ writing. Owens is able to extrapolate from the formal and often obscure language of court documents and legal filings, the rough and tumble times of illicit sex, greed, land grabbing lawyers, and powerful oligarchies that could crush a widow and place her children in harms way. It also relates the personal heroics of the few women who confronted the system — some winning and some not. Or more crassly put, Owens is really good at “dishing the dirt” on a past that isn’t as distant from our own “enlightened” present as we would like to believe.
Make no mistake, Carole Owens, known to many in our region for her “telling” of New England tales, is also a serious scholar. Recognized by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities as a Scholar in Residence, her diligence in finding, and placing in context, the primary sources she has gathered for the basis of this book is formidable. The book, over 200 pages, has six Appendices, a Bibliography, End Notes, and most importantly for researchers, a Name Index — all items that warm historians’ hearts and should make this a must for all genealogists, and every library in New England.
A past, Owens points out, can only be inferred through the facts we have. And we cannot guess, as “guessing is a disservice to the heroes and the villains” of history. Anecdotal stories like Molly Pitcher, are rarely accurate and the book references a few of these fallacious tales for us to understand how difficult the historian’s job is.
And while we have enough documents to reasonably construct some of our general past, we have relatively few as they relate to women. Consequently, Owens is obliged occasionally to recycle a few adventures to make her point, but always with the ability to use the tale to advance her own very well drawn and provocative conclusions.
The book, in relating details and the very recognizable passions of individuals who instantly hold our attention with their stories, gently leads us to see the broader and wider context of history in which we must navigate our own turbulent times. History, and its wars, are still happening, she reminds us. We can only hope Owens will continue to be our war correspondent from the front.