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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute i'm here with meh selling author Cokie Roberts talking about the women in early America and their role in our revolution and the founding of the country let's talk a little bit about women as builders of america's social safety net what do you mean by that cookie well here was this brand new country and it was an exciting place to be particularly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 when the country doubled in size people started moving west and there was a sense that anybody could make it in America but not everybody could and so what you would have was people left behind because their children left behind and you call it in your book ladies of Liberty that the women who shaped the nation did they have a different perspective than men on the role of society and helping to nurture those left behind they seem to have because they either because they just were more directly dealing with poor people you know people would come to them as women and ask them for things but particularly in Washington after the British invaded in 1814 the city was burned down and then flooded there was a huge storm the day after the British invaded and children were left his orphans and Dolly Madison then the president's wife got together with women in Washington to create the Washington female orphan asylum which still exists in some form and they had to go to Congress now these are women with no political rights and no legal rights and let me you say go to Congress but did the federal government then think it was the government's role to help provide a social safety net for poor people they had to go to what Congress to get incorporated because Congress was the body that incorporated businesses in the Washington DC and the reason they had to get incorporated was because women couldn't own property so they couldn't buy property for an orphanage but the corporation can own property and did the government generally see it as a role to help those in need did not see that as well even though the Constitution talks about providing for the general welfare that was not seen as a role so women and men too but but women especially started creating organizations like orphanages and poor houses and fuel societies and started the sunday school movement that was started by a former slave named Catherine Ferguson tell us about Catherine Ferguson Catherine Ferguson was a slave in the north we forget that slavery was legal in all of the colonies what Abigail Adams called the sin of slavery was prevalent in all of American society and she obtained her freedom it's unclear how that happened but she then started taking in poor children she was a baker and she made wedding cakes and such for society people and she started taking in poor children and then started a little school in her living room and that really became the beginning of the sunday school movement which was a way of educating poor kids and tell us about Isabella Graham well Isabella Graham was a scottish woman who came to america and started a school for girls that all of the fancy girls went to including Nelly Custis Martha Washington's granddaughter but she then also working with Alexander Hamilton's wife Elizabeth Hamilton started an orphanage in New York which is still going as a place that to take care of children in need and and here's a place Walter where we have the records we have all of the records of this orphan because it's incorporated because it was incorporated and we have the minutes of their meetings all of that and think of this these women had to go to the state legislature to get a corporate charter they had to go to the public and ask for funds they had to go buy property for the corporation it was very public what they were doing and people think of women in the early 19th century is sitting home pouring the tea these women were out there in the public eye making public statements and appeals and Isabella Graham at one point writes that she was ridiculed for it but she was willing to do it because the children needed her and they did one thing after another like that some of them are religious Rebecca gratz in Philadelphia started Jewish orphanages because she felt that the ones that were not Jewish were proselytizing Christianity it was all over the country Mother Seton here in Maryland starting orphanages and schools for poor children Elizabeth Seton yeah but you know the underpinning of what we created as a nation was education because every citizen had the right to participate and that helps expand that notion by allowing more and more people to be educated did they also look towards educating young girls absolutely when Dolly Madison helped start the orphan asylum in Washington the goals were to not only take the girls in and give them shelter and food but to educate them and find them work so that they could then support themselves Thank You Koki