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Women in colonial America

In this video, journalist and best selling author Cokie Roberts and Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson discuss women in colonial America.  Created by Aspen Institute.

Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson with the Aspen Institute i'm sitting here with the journalist and best-selling author Cokie Roberts we've done a series of lessons on the founding fathers so today we're going to turn to the founding mothers the women who raised our nation what was it like to be a woman in colonial America cookie it was hard it was really hard just getting through the day was hard for anybody but especially for women because of course they had all the chores just think of it what was it like to clean something anything but also disease was so prevalent Walter and so a woman could lure and her husband as well could lose two children in a week think of it I mean it's not what they had so many children and well they they didn't have very easy ways to prevent having children but they did also we're likely to have a baby every so how many children would they generally have six to twelve somewhere in that seven to eight range but the babies would die very very often and you know there's this myth that oh well they had so many children it wasn't the same as it would be today that's just baloney these women and their husbands were deeply affected by losing these children just as we would be today was there a difference in the regions in other words if you lived in the north of the South what it was like to be a woman well if you were a wealthy woman are a woman who influenced the founding fathers in the South you were likely to be a slave owner and so you did have some help with running your business which a plantation was a business but that also involves being an administrator and so there was a lot of work involved being the mistress of a plantation in the North these women who were in the orbit of the founding fathers also we're likely to have a servant but again they did an awful lot of the work themselves what about education for women education varied tremendously so that for instance one of the women I write about Liza Pinckney two of whose sons her two sons were generals in the rev and went on to become great statesmen in the early republic she was educated in England in the early 18th century and so she was very well educated Abigail Adams was educated in her father's parlor he was a preacher and he had students and so she was educated by them but she always felt she was not well educated enough even though she read everything and could speak French and all of that I suspect your Boston accent on the French was a little rough yeah just like our southern accents on the French Oh sometimes I well well did they get to go to school like we would call high school not really there were some schools but very few schools Deborah reed franklin was almost illiterate she was a very astute businesswoman but she couldn't really write and spell correctly that was a wife of benjamin franklin one of the great writers who was not very literate was Ben Franklin's sister Jane meachem right she also didn't get an education but she wrote pretty well she wrote very well and very appealing leaves and of course we're lucky because we have all of her correspondence with Benjamin Franklin and that's the other thing Walter that's so hard because if you try to get information on women from the 18th century a lot of it's just not there to be had either they didn't write or they destroyed their own correspondence because they thought it was too personal or maybe because they were embarrassed by the spelling and the grammar our the men destroyed their correspondence because they thought it was too personal so it's but there was some good letters like mercy otis one like she was farm was a propagandist for the revolution almost a historian like yes she did become a historian later and did she go to college there no she was not allowed to go to college she was educated along with her brothers up until college and then they went to Harvard College as everybody in Massachusetts did and she was not a girl was not allowed in after the Revolution of women's education became much more important and girls a cat ladies Academy's started springing up around you know the one in Philadelphia well and the reason for that was that the founders understood that they had done something extraordinary as you know in creating this country based on consent and that meant that you had to have informed virtuous citizens and somebody had to raise those virtuous citizens and those people were likely to be their mothers and so girls schools were created to educate women to educate the boys and you said Harvard didn't accept any women back then was there any place a woman could go to college not until the 19th century not until Overland college started accepting women there were secondary schools like Emma Willard which were almost like a college they I would compare them to a junior college today well that's particularly fascinating and in our next segment we'll talk about how despite that fact women was so important in the American Revolution Thank You cookie Thank You Walter