The best books on Revolutionary America that go beyond the Founding Fathers and focus on the lives of women

John Wood Sweet Author Of The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America
By John Wood Sweet

Who am I?

I'm an American historian and former director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Program in Sexuality Studies—and former pizza maker, gas pumper, park ranger, and tour guide at the house in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. As a historian, I've spent my career trying to understand the lives of people in early American history who weren't well known at the time. In writing the Sewing Girl's Tale, which focuses on a survivor of a sexual assault, it was especially important to keep her at the center of the story. Ultimately, I wanted to know: What was life in the aftermath of the American Revolution like—not for some Founding Father—but for an ordinary young woman.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

What is my book about?

On a moonless night in the summer of 1793, a crime in the back room of a New York brothel transformed Lanah Sawyer’s life. It was the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, the seventeen-year-old seamstress did what virtually no one else dared to do: she charged a gentleman with rape. The trial rocked the city and nearly cost Lanah her life. And that was just the start.

The Sewing Girl's Tale is the story of an extraordinary prosecution in the aftermath of the American Revolution—and its contemporary relevance. Reviewers have hailed the book as “a masterpiece” (Wall Street Journal), “decidedly pro-woman” (Atlanta Journal Constitution), and “excellent and absorbing” (New York Times).

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Why did I love this book?

This best-selling book tells an important story about Black women's struggles for freedom and autonomy at the founding of the American nation. And tells it so well! One of my favorite things about this book is that the title is a bit misleading: this is not actually (another) book about the Washingtons.The book centers on Ona Judge, a woman who freed herself after the Revolution and forged a new life in the tumultuous world of the newly independent United States. Dramatic and suspenseful as her personal story is, this book also tells a bigger story about how it was enslaved people themselves who made the North free. Heartbreaking, heroic, dramatic, suspenseful, inspiring.

By Erica Strong Dunbar,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Never Caught as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A startling and eye-opening look into America's First Family, Never Caught is the powerful story about a daring woman of "extraordinary grit" (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital. In setting up his household he brought along nine slaves, including Ona Judge. As the President grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn't abide: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to…

Book cover of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

Why did I love this book?

This widely acclaimed book uses the opaque diary of an obscure midwife from rural Maine in the decades after the Revolution to transform how we think about women's lives and women's work. A tour de force of the historian's craft, written with skill, compassion, and a flair for drama. As a professional historian, one of the things I love most about this book is the way that every chapter is such a revelation. Each chapter begins with a passage from the diary that at first seems mundane and uninteresting—until Ulrich starts working her magic. Soon, there is a puzzle to be solved. And by the end of each chapter, she's rummaged around in her hat and pulled out another rabbit. A revelation!

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Midwife's Tale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, "A truly talented historian unravels the fascinating life of a community that is so foreign, and yet so similar to our own" (The New York Times Book Review).

Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and…

Book cover of Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Why did I love this book?

This book about Jane Franklin (yes, one of her brothers was Benjamin Franklin) turns our culture's obsession with the Founding Fathers on its head. What, Lepore asks, did it mean to be a woman in the Age of Revolution? To be sure, Jane was a relatively well-off, relatively well-educated white woman in a cosmopolitan town, and, as their surviving correspondence reveals, she wasn't above giving her celebrated brother a piece of her mind. But she also faced limits he didn't and developed very different priorities. Lepore is justly celebrated for her brilliant storytelling, her sharp insights, her lean, inventive prose—and her seemingly effortless ability to find just the right detail to make her point. 

By Jill Lepore,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Book of Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


NPR • Time Magazine • The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Boston Globe


From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians—a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator.

Making use of an astonishing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore…

Book cover of Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton

Why did I love this book?

This book is compelling because Mazzeo is such a skillful writer of creative nonfiction (I also loved her Great Courses lectures on that subject)—and because the focus on Eliza Hamilton shifts what we thought we knew about her vaunted husband. Mazzeo is terrific at keeping Eliza at the center of her own story. And Mazzeo is not afraid to offer informed speculation when the documentary record, as it often does for underrepresented voices from this period, falters. As a professional historian, I learned a lot about centering women's experiences in stories that men keep threatening to take over—and about what kinds of speculation I am and am not comfortable with. I also found her approach to the Reynolds Affair—carefully documented, well reasoned, and centered on Eliza's perspective—to be bold, refreshing, and pretty persuasive. Why should we (as most recent Hamilton scholars have done) simply take Alexander Hamilton at his word about his role in the defining scandal of his life? 

By Tilar J. Mazzeo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eliza Hamilton as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Irena's Children comes a "vivid, compelling, and unputdownable new biography" (Christopher Andersen, #1 New York Times bestselling author) about the extraordinary life and times of Eliza Hamilton, the wife of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and a powerful, unsung hero in America's early days.

Fans fell in love with Eliza Hamilton-Alexander Hamilton's devoted wife-in Lin-Manuel Miranda's phenomenal musical Hamilton. But they don't know her full story. A strong pioneer woman, a loving sister, a caring mother, and in her later years, a generous philanthropist, Eliza had many sides-and this fascinating biography brings her…

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

By Rebecca Hall, Hugo Martínez (illustrator),

Book cover of Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

Why did I love this book?

This book brings the format of a graphic novel to the subject of women's resistance during enslavement and the trans-Altantic slave trade—and the result is fresh and compelling. As a historian myself, I appreciated the interwtined narratives of Hall's own research quest as a historian following the documentary record—and her reconstruction of the extraordinary revolt of the women held captive in 1772 on the slave-ship Unity. Both the search for truth and the dramatic uprising are conveyed with great skill and emotional power. The account of the Unity revolt calls attention to what we know, how we know it, and what we don't know. But Hall refuses to stop there. Instead, carefully marking speculation as such, Hall offers a fascinating, well-informed, effort to imagine a fuller account of what might have actually happened. We are left with a powerful sense of why this history matters two and a half centuries later. Vivid, unsettling, and compelling.  

By Rebecca Hall, Hugo Martínez (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Wake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A must-read graphic history. . . an inspired and inspiring defence of heroic women whose struggles could be fuel for a more just future' Guardian

'Not only a riveting tale of Black women's leadership of slave revolts but an equally dramatic story of the engaged scholarship that enabled its discovery' Angela Y. Davis

Women warriors planned and led slave revolts on slave ships during the passage across the Atlantic. They fought their enslavers throughout the Americas. And then they were erased from history.

In Wake Rebecca Hall, a historian, a granddaughter of slaves, and a woman haunted by the legacy…

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