In Memoriam: Cokie Roberts Introduces Us to “Capital Dames”

Editor’s Note: With sadness, we mourn the passing of Cokie Roberts (December 27, 2943-September 17, 2019), one of America’s most popular journalists, authors, and historians. Her career included decades as a political reporter and analyst for National Public Radio and ABC News, with prominent positions on Morning Edition, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, World News Tonight, and This Week.

In addition to being a contributing senior news analyst for NPR, a regular roundtable analyst on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” a political commentator and on-air analyst for ABC News, she writes books, including “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation.” Her latest is “Capital Dames.”

To show us the power of women. “In the early 19th century, men in politics were literally killing each other in the name of their beliefs,” Roberts explains. “The women of the time were trying desperately to get them to put down their guns and pick up a glass of wine so they could, in a relaxed moment, discuss their differences.”

Below is an article we published in our magazine when this book launched in 2015.

Cokie Roberts’ “Capital Dames,” reviewed by Faye Moskowitz

Professor of English, George Washington University

Americans have always had an understandable fascination with the Civil War, the aftershocks of which still rattle the nation. Fiction writers from Stephen Crane, “Red Badge of Courage” (1895), to Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind” (1936), and E.L. Doctorow, “The March” (2005), plus countless others, have embodied that war with their own creative interpretations.

Now comes Cokie Roberts, an award-winning political commentator for ABC News and NPR, who uses her formidable journalistic skills to give us “Capital Dames,” a nonfiction account of the Civil War, focused primarily on the years 1848-1868, and illuminating the relatively neglected political part played by the women of Washington.

If Roberts had named her richly anecdotal “Capital Dames” after a quilt pattern, she might have called it “sunshine and shadow.” This is a story whose broad outlines are familiar to us. We know the horrific scene in Ford’s Theatre is coming in spite of the sunny word pictures of gala balls and women in the galleries of the Capitol cheering on their husbands, fathers, and other male acquaintances who might be friends or admirers.

These women, mainly socialites, worked their wiles in the only way they could — behind the scenes. They were relegated to supporting roles in the drama of their country’s agony. But the shadows obliterated the sunny days, and with the Confederate bombing of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the bloodiest war in the history of the United States began.

Here’s Roberts quoting Virginia Clay-Clopton’s “A Belle of the Fifties: Memoirs of Mrs. Clay, Of Alabama, Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853-66”: “When belles met they no longer discussed furbelows and flounces, but talked of forts and fusillades.”

Roberts’ story arc is predetermined by history. She hasn’t the luxury of creating her own characters, and her scenes are evoked by meticulous research. Sometimes the details and the sheer number of references can overwhelm the reader, but Roberts assists by helpfully dividing the women on whom she focuses into categories: political, literary, and activist.

Mary Todd Lincoln, for example, comes to life as a difficult, mercurial woman, roundly condemned by many for her insistent extravagance and profoundly shaken by the death of her young son. Her “modiste,” Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who paid for her own freedom, is portrayed as the entrepreneurial business woman she was, faithful to Mary Lincoln even after the president’s death, when her employer moves back home to Chicago.

We read of Sojourner Truth and her abolitionist battles — and of Louisa May Alcott, who became a nurse at a Georgetown military hospital, and of Dorothea Dix, volunteered her services to the surgeon general and the War Department.

At the end of the war, Clara Barton declared that life had changed for women in America. She later declared that “… woman was at least 40 years in advance of the normal position which continued peace … would have assigned her.”

Still, as Roberts points out, it wasn’t until August 18, 1920, that the 19th Amendment finally gave women the right to come out of the shadows — to vote and hold political office.

About Faye Moskowitz

Faye Moskowitz teaches creative writing and Jewish-American literature. She was chair of the English Department for eight years, and director of Creative Writing at GW, where she received the GW Award in Special Recognition for Contributions to University Life. She served as president of the Jenny McKean Moore Fund for Writers from 1975-1999. For many years, she was the fiction editor of Lilith magazine. Learn more about Moskowitz here.