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Cokie Roberts continues stories of strong women

She calls it history's "other half." But for too long, Cokie Roberts believes, the story of our country's first fragile years, from the woman's point of view, languished in the shadow of all those bestsellers about the Founding Fathers.

In 2004, she set out to remedy that, writing her own bestseller, Founding Mothers, about the indispensable women behind those strong, difficult men.

In her fourth book, Roberts, an award-winning political commentator for ABC News and a news analyst for National Public Radio, picks up where her previous work left off, at the inauguration of John Adams.

There are some familiar names like Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams in Ladies of Liberty, but in Roberts' hands, they surprise us. She casts an unsentimental eye on Abigail, who comes across as overly ambitious, even hot-headed. Her support of Adams' Alien and Sedition Act led to his defeat for re-election in 1800.

"This isn't about the battle for independence but the struggle to create a country, and that's much more instructive politically," said Roberts in a recent telephone interview.

For example:

•Dolley Madison wasn't just a hostess but - Hillary Clinton critics take note - a full partner in her husband's presidency.

•Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy, wrote beautiful letters filled with pain and poetry.

w Rebecca Gratz, "the foremost American Jewish woman of the 19th century," founded one of the nation's first social service networks in Philadelphia.

There are women of color, too:

•Sally Hemings, the slave who, it's widely believed, was Thomas Jefferson's mistress, and Sacagawea, the Native American woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition as interpreter and guide.

Roberts uses original sourcing to tell the stories of these women mostly in their own words.

The richest treasure trove? The Massachusetts Historical Society, with its vast collection of Adams papers - the letters between John and Abigail are online. She also cited Historic Hudson Valley, actually a network of sites in New York, and the Huntington Library in California.

"People need to understand that women in this country have played an essential role in the formation of the country, in the character of the country," Roberts believes.

In the face of untrammeled capitalism, "it's the women who say, people are being left out, and that's where you have the founding of all these benevolent societies and social safety nets," she said.

"Women have been deeply, deeply political from the very beginning, so involved and astute. The notion that this is some 20th-century phenomenon is so absurd."

Ladies of Liberty is both scholarly and accessible, deftly organizing a great deal of information - in a humorous, confiding and unpretentious style that her fans will recognize.

"I really felt in any book that I've written, that because people knew me as a broadcaster rather than as a writer, I needed to write in my own voice," Roberts said. "It's wonderful to craft a beautiful sentence and it's fun, but it's not the way we talk. That you can hear my voice, I think, is important."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact her at: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com.

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