Podcast: Ladies for Liberty by John Blundell

In this IHS Academic podcast, Jeanne Hoffman interviews John Blundell, author of Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made A Difference in American History. Mr. Blundell is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and Distinguished Senior Fellow at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs and is also an IHS board member. He explains how a British economist comes to write a book about American women, profiles some of his favorite stories, and details the lessons we can learn from these extraordinary American women.


Jeanne Hoffman: Welcome to this Kosmos Online podcast. I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today I’m joined by John Blundell, author of Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made A Difference in American History. Mr. Blundell is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and Distinguished Senior Fellow at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs and is also an IHS board member. Welcome, Mr. Blundell, and thanks for being on our podcast!

John Blundell: Delighted to be here with you.

JH. So how did a British economist come to write a book about American women’s history?

JB. It’s an interesting story. I gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation about five years ago about Margaret Thatcher and her achievements, which were mostly in the economic sphere, of course. I got such an amazing reaction to that speech that I sat down and wrote a book, Margaret Thatcher and the Portrait of the Iron Lady, to explain Lady T and her policies to Americans.

That led to more speaking engagements across America, and I would come home disappointed because we would get to the Q&A of the discussion section and I would almost always get a question like why hasn’t America had a great woman like Margaret Thatcher? I would say American history is stuffed with great women, what are you talking about? And I’d start mentioning names, a few obvious ones like Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Clare Booth Luce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ayn Rand, then name recognition just plummets into the cellar. I would come home grumbling about this and about three years ago one evening, my then-nineteen year old youngest son said, Dad for heaven’s sake, just shut up and write a book about them all! It was like a light bulb went off in my head, and I sat down and I’ve done it. Here it is, just published, Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made A Difference in American History, portraits of my favorite women in American history.

JH. Fantastic. So you have about twenty profiles of women, right?

JB. There’s twenty chapters, but some chapters, for example the Grimké Sisters, there’s two of them but one chapter on them, Elizabeth Cady Stanton covers Susan Anthony, and other chapters cover more than one. There’s about 25 or 26 major figures covered in my twenty chapters.

JH. Was it difficult to find that many women to profile?

JB. No. American history is stuffed with great women. I started with a list of about 50, and by process of elimination winnowed it down to about 25 that are here. I wanted a good range of really good stories, really different careers. I didn’t want too many examples of the same thing, too many frontier novelists, too many suffragists, too many abolitionists, too many revolutionaries. It’s a little bit of everything across a wide range of history. The chapters are ordered by the date of birth of the ladies concerned, so it’s really a history of America as shown through my book.

JH. So how early did women start becoming influential figures in a free society?

JB. The first lady, by date of birth in my book, is Mercy Otis Warren, who was born in 1728. There were women before her, and if I ever do a revised and expanded edition, I’m sure I’ll find some from years before her, but at the moment she’s my earliest. She was known as the conscience of the American Revolution. She helped create the committees of correspondence, she advised many of the revolutionary leaders, she wrote some brilliant satirical plays and poems savaging the Brits. The plays were never performed, they were passed from hand to hand, the manuscripts, between the troops, and they cheered the troops up greatly. She was the first woman to write a history of America, and she influenced the Bill of Rights. So she’s the first lady in my book.

JH. Before you had mentioned, when you were listing women who were influential in American history, at a certain point the recognition dropped off, so what’s the balance in the book between women who are well-known figures versus more obscure?

JB.  I would say five are very well known, five are recognized when I start to tell the story, and ten are not well known at all. In particular, I recently had 3 speaking engagements in Michigan, there was a lady in my book, Bina West Miller of Port Huron, Michigan, and I remember standing in Midland, Michigan in front of 170 people and asking if anyone had heard of her, only one hand went up. She was a great, great woman. She invented life insurance for women. Before that, if a woman died in the family, the man would probably have to put his children up for adoption, or would have to remarry within a month, and sometimes they did. And if they were put up for adoption, they would probably be sent out to work as servants, or work in the fields, or whatever.

She thought this was unfair because, if a man died, he would have life insurance through the local Friendly Society. She was a 21-year old schoolteacher in Port Huron, Michigan, and said this is very, very unfair. So she essentially invented life insurance for women, and within a few years, had hundreds of thousands of women covered.

JH. Wow. So how did you come across these more obscure figures?

JB. A lot of digging, and a lot of asking around. There are about 40 people acknowledged in the back, in the acknowledgments, including the President of IHS, Marty Zupan, and several professors of history. I knew of some of them through a lifelong interest in liberty and American history.

JH. What woman did you find particularly inspiring?

JB. I just mentioned Bina West Miller, I find her very inspiring. I also mentioned Mercy Otis Warren, and she is as well. I think the Grimke sisters of Charleston, South Carolina are just great. They gave up a life of luxury, they were southern royalty essentially, and they moved to Philadelphia, then to New York, then to Boston, and were brilliant speakers and strategists about slavery, for abolition. For their writings, their speaking, they were just terrific. Sojourner Truth, she was a freed, upstate New York slave who spent 20 years campaigning on the road from Boston clear across to Kansas, to people settling in Michigan.

Harriet Tubman, she ran the underground railroad, and her train never left the track, and she never lost a passenger. She went down every winter because the nights were longer—you could only travel at night if you were smuggling people out of the South—and she would go down and bring back scores of people and inspired others to copy her. There would be bounty hunters, literally bounty hunters, on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and then after the 1850 Fugitive Act, she had to get not just to Pennsylvania, but to Canada. She got so many slaves up to small towns in Canada, racial problems arose between the Irish and these newly-freed slaves because they were competing for the same jobs. So these small towns, with populations of say, a thousand, suddenly there would 300 freed slaves there and some social issues arose. So those are some of my favorites.

Vivien Kellems was the post-World War II tax collector in Connecticut. She was a manufacturer with 100 staff who objected to withholdings. She felt that she wasn’t paid, she wasn’t trained, if she didn’t go along, she would have gone to jail or be fined, she felt that withholding meant her staff didn’t know how much taxes were being paid, so she stopped withholding and had a three-year fight with the IRS that ended in a pretty bloody tie. She never got her day in the Supreme Court, but she pulled the IRS into a tie.

JH. So do you think there’s a prevailing myth that women want and benefit from big government?

JB. There is a myth, I’m not sure how prevailing it is, but it’s certainly there. I’m hoping that my book will do something to redress the balance in that regard.

JH. Exactly how does your book combat that myth?

JB. I think through educating and bringing together in one place 20 really inspiring, really good stories covering, like I said earlier, 25-26 women. I think it’s education.

JH. So what lessons did you learn from these women?

JB. I learned a lot of lessons, and in fact chapter 21 of my book is called something like “10 Lessons To Be Learned from These Women”. I think the 3 major lessons I learned were courage; they were extremely brave, these women. They were egged, mobbed, stoned, buildings they spoke in were burnt down, it took a great deal of courage.

Secondly, they’re very principled. Isabel Paterson, for example, was not that well off at all, she had been a journalist all her life, not made a great deal of money, and yet in retirement she refused social security on the grounds that it was a Ponzi Scheme. Or Harriet Tubman, when Sojourner Truth was talking to Washington, D.C., as one did to see the president—as many of these ladies seemed to walk to Washington to see the president—she said to Harriet Tubman, come along with me let’s go see Lincoln. And Harriet Tubman said, no I’m not going to see Lincoln as long as he’s playing the black regiments only a half of what he’s paying the white regiments.

Thirdly, they were very, very strategic. The early revolutionaries would lead boycotts of British goods. The abolitionists would only buy slave-free products. So when Angelina Grimké married, the sugar on her wedding cake was slave-free sugar. Elizabeth Katie Stanton argued endlessly with Susan B. Anthony about strategy. Katie Stanton wanted to fight on every front, Susan B. Anthony wanted to choose the one issue where they stood the best chance and then find the one issue within the other issue where they stood the best chance. They had terrific arguments for 50 years about where they stood the best chance. The Grimké sisters were phenomenally good at segmenting their market and their message, and coming up with wonderful ways. For example in one of their books, it is said that Harriet Beecher Stowe, her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while she was writing it she slept with a copy of the Grimké Sister’s book under her pillow. When Harriet Beecher Stowe went to Washington to see Lincoln, he reportedly said to her, “So you’re the little lady who created my big war.”

The fourth thing that struck me I think, was how bored they were with public education. Time and time again I came across examples. Isabel Paterson’s teacher wanted her to read a story about some little red hen when she was aged 7, and Isabel wanted to talk about William Jennings Bryan. Clare Booth Luce didn’t go to school until she was 11, yet at age 8 she was reading Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ayn Rand hid at the back of her class in school sketching out story ideas. Jane Jacobs, likewise, hid in the back of her class with advanced reading on her lap, many years ahead of what the teacher was giving them. Time and time again these women were bored with public school.

JH. Thank you so much for joining us Mr. Blundell.

JB. Thank you for inviting me, thank you.

JH. And his book again is Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made A Difference in American History, and you can find that in such outlets as Amazon.com. And for more interviews with leading scholars, visit Kosmosonline.org, providing career advice and intellectual resources to academics, and this is Jeanne Hoffman signing off.
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