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NPR’s Cokie Roberts addresses women’s unacknowledged role in American history

“It’s important to understand that this country was founded by both sexes.” -- NPR commentator Cokie Roberts

Great Barrington — Although known mainly to NPR listeners for her decades of astute political commentary, journalist Cokie Roberts spoke to a sold-out audience at the Mahaiwe about an issue that has become a passion for her — celebrating the contributions women have made to the founding and continuing evolution of our nation.

“When history talks only about one-half of the human race, it’s clearly inaccurate,” Roberts said in an interview with The Berkshire Edge. “It’s my mission to fix that.”

In addition to her three Emmys and being named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, Roberts has written six bestsellers, mostly dealing with the roles that woman have played in American history. “It’s important to understand that this country was founded by both sexes.”

NPR commentator Cokie Roberts. Photo: Andrew Blechman
NPR commentator Cokie Roberts. Photo: Andrew Blechman

When she speaks with classes of children, she often points to famous drawings of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — and asks what’s missing. “It takes the kids a while to figure it out, and it’s usually a young girl who will finally say ‘women.’ To which I ask, ‘Do you think there were women back then? After all, there’s no sign of them.’ ”

Roberts’ goal is to raise awareness of the women who did so much to make this country what it is today. Orphanages, hospitals, schools, the Red Cross, and many of today’s social service agencies owe their existence to women, she said. “It was women who organized in city after city to weave together a social safety net,” Roberts said. “They not only created necessary institutions, but long-lasting ones. They worked to perfect the union despite the many limitations placed upon them.”

Women were also instrumental in two critically important social movements: Abolition and Universal Suffrage. “These were great historical movements, and yet the women who led them were often the object of ridicule,” Roberts said. Much of this work was accomplished against all odds, she added, at a time when women had no political or legal rights, when they could not own property, and even the jewelry they wore legally belonged to their husbands.

“Women couldn’t own property — but a corporation could — so they incorporated,” Roberts explained. “The treasurers of these institutions were unmarried so that their husbands could not lay claim to the organization’s funds.”

The Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts was sold out for Cokie Roberts' address. Photo: Andrew Blechman
The Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts was sold out for Cokie Roberts’ address. Photo: Andrew Blechman

And yet, many adults today, when asked about the role of women in American history, generally point to very basic or apocryphal stories, such as Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag and Dolly Madison saving White House artwork from advancing British soldiers during the War of 1812.

Although trained as a journalist, Roberts said she has embraced being a “pop historian.” “To be a historian, all you have to do is be good at research and hopefully good at writing.” Much of her research has centered on studying the letters of women who were either active in politics behind the scenes, or in more public roles as instigators of social justice. “I became very curious about the role that women played in the founding of our country,” Roberts said. “But when I went to learn more, I could find very little that had been written about women. They’re still essentially invisible in the history books.”

“The letters men wrote, such as the founding fathers, were more formal, written with an eye to posterity, knowing that historians might read them,” Roberts continued. “But not the letters written by women at the time. They weren’t guarded. After all, who would read them?” For example, it was through one of these letters that Roberts learned that famed senator, Stephen Douglas, had an awful stink about him because he didn’t bathe very often.

Roberts was invited to speak at the Mahaiwe as a guest of the Mona Sherman Memorial Lecture, an annual event of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Roberts donated the honorarium for her presentation, “Putting the her in history,” back to the lecture series.

Mary Berle, the principal of Muddy Brook elementary school, said she was inspired by Roberts’ talk to work even harder to bring women’s history to light in the classroom. “It’s true that it’s really hard to find stories about women in our history books to share with young children,” Berle said. She purchased a signed copy of Roberts’ children’s book, “Ladies of Liberty,” to bring back to Muddy Brook. “This is something I’d like incorporate into the school’s curriculum.”

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