Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Women's History Year

As Women's History Month wraps up at the end of March, there's something we want to know: Why should half of the human race be relegated to one month a year? Especially in American history, where we have molded our Founding Fathers into deities of bronze and marble, it's important to consider the perspective of the distaff side in order to get a more accurate, not to mention more lively, understanding of the shaping of our society.

The men who declared independence, fought in the Revolution and crafted the Constitution were well aware that what they were doing was extraordinary. If they succeeded, they knew that their writings and letters would be preserved and published, so they carefully chose their words, editing extensively. Their missives bear such a weight of posterity (and in some cases, pomposity) that they might have been composed by their massive marble replicas.

It takes the women in their lives to introduce us to the Founders as flesh-and-blood human beings -- husbands, brothers, sons, friends, lovers -- with all the passion and playfulness, flaws and feelings that go with those roles.

To whom other than his wife would the great jurist John Marshall have admitted that he had arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina without any breeches? "I immediately set out to get a pair made. I thought I should be a sans-culotte only one day," but the tailors were busy, so "I have the extreme mortification to pass the whole term without that important article of dress I have mentioned." What was he wearing under those robes? It's a very different mental image than the formal portraits portray.

When they write to women, the men are franker and funnier about themselves and their colleagues, and more honest in their political judgments and in seeking the opinions of these often-remarkable women -- women our young people should know about.

But even better than the letters from the men to the women are the ones written by the women themselves. They had no expectation that we would be reading their mail hundreds of years later. Unfortunately, too many letters have been lost, and too many women like Martha Washington destroyed correspondence we would have found enlightening. But the letters and diaries that remain give us a much fuller and fresher insight into our history.

Women report on politics and pregnancies, often in the same sentence; they comment on economic conditions and fashion and food. They also paint unvarnished pictures of men in power. Here's a story no man would tell: John Quincy Adams' wife, Louisa, went to a meeting of the trustees of the Washington Orphan Asylum after the congressional session that was spent hammering out the Missouri Compromise in 1820. What she learned there shocked her: "The session had been very long, the fathers of the nation had left forty cases to be provided for by the public and that our institution was the most likely to be called upon to maintain this illicit progeny."

No man would even know that the departing lawmakers had left behind 40 pregnant women, and if he did, you can bet he wouldn't write about it. And no man was working diligently for the orphans the way the women were: one of their many contributions to American society.

Almost 50 years later, Louisa's daughter-in-law, Abigail Brooks Adams, scolded: "the Senate behave like children and silly ones at that." Her own husband, then-Congressman Charles Francis Adams, occasionally numbered among the men exasperating her, leading her to conclude, "I would advise any young woman who wishes to have an easy, quiet life, not to marry an Adams." Most of her call-it-as-she-saw-it musings (President Buchanan was a "heavy old toad") have never been published -- an all-too-common situation. Many women's writings have stayed buried in their husband's files, passed over as historians dissect the political ponderings of the men.

But their letters are so engaging and infused with such a sense of immediacy that history comes alive and becomes something young people would enjoy learning. And seen through the women's lens, the men who founded our nation -- and those who have led it over the centuries -- become more accessible and admirable. It's easy for a deity to do something extraordinary. It's much harder for the actual human beings we meet through the women.

Those humans are people our kids can emulate; that's reason enough to keep women in our history 12 months a year. Without them, we get a distorted picture of the past, and one that's a lot less fun.

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