America honors its Founding Fathers, though often in a manner unworthy of them. Too often they are depicted as bewigged gentlemen, always in formal attire and ostentatious pose. Their vibrancy is stripped from them. They appear as stoics, debating politics and positions in formal prose, loftily deciding the fate of the nation. Their wives are presented as mere decoration, a sideshow to the great acts performed as part of creating the nation. Women of the age are barely considered, at best rendered in the background, their influence and contributions ignored. This is inaccurate, and unfair. The women of early America contributed mightily to the creation of the American experiment.
Contrary to popular belief, many women in America owned property, operated businesses, and engaged in the affairs posterity assigned to men. In fact, the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence bearing the signatures of the Continental Congress was printed by a Baltimore company owned by a woman, Mary Katherine Goddard. Goddard also served as postmistress in Baltimore, published newspapers in Providence, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and was a virulent opponent of the Stamp Act before the Revolutionary War. She was but one of many women who deserve recognition as a Founding Mother of the United States. Here are just some of the others.
1. Martha Washington destroyed much of the record of her contributions to early America
Following George Washington’s death in December, 1799, his widow Martha systematically destroyed nearly all of the letters they exchanged during his many absences. Just three letters from George to her are known to have survived. Nonetheless, an extensive record of her contributions to the birth of the United States exists, recorded in the letters and diaries of contemporaries. She brought much of the couple’s wealth with her when they married, having inherited it when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis died. As a woman of wealth and at the top of Virginia society she could easily have remained in comfort at Mount Vernon during the Revolutionary War. Instead, she spent each of the eight winters of the war at her husband’s encampments, including Valley Forge.
In the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia, Martha opened the President’s House to weekly receptions, called levees, where political figures and the common man comingled. Martha ensured that political discourse remained polite, and the opinions of women were shared freely with men during her receptions. The term First Lady was not applied, she was typically referred to as Lady Washington. During formal affairs, such as dinners, Martha followed the social customs of the period, but her levees were open, often spirited, and provided the opportunity for the President and others of the government to hear the views of women from all of the American states, and from different levels of society.