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What We Learn from the Myth of Betsy Ross

11/12/2007 5:11:57 PM

Tags: Betsy Ross, American flag, oral history, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Utne Reader History Lessons, legend of Betsy Ross, myth of Betsy Ross

Betsy RossBetsy Ross adeptly hatched our flag from her freedom-loving soul, right? Well, of course, not exactly.

Harvard historian and author of Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Knopf, 2007) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich looks at America’s most enduring seamstress and her many historical incarnations in Common-Place, the web journal of the American Antiquarian Society.

There is no definitive account of who stitched the first flag or whether Ross was influential in its design, but that’s beside the point. What matters, Ulrich writes, is how we believe and recount Ross’s story. Her legend begat a history that inserted women into the founding myth of America, accuracy be damned.

Ulrich argues that more than a century ago, the retellings of the Ross narrative “broke down boundaries between the supposedly male world of war and politics and the supposedly domestic worlds of women.” Ross was no rabble-rousing suffragette, but her story did much for the political prospects of women “by elevating their devotion to the state.”

Today, the story of Betsy Ross still teaches respect for the flag. “But it also,” Ulrich writes, “demands a role for ordinary people who sustained the patriot cause.” Along with Ben Franklin, Ross is the ultimate democratic figure, illustrating how noble work can shape a nation as much as its leaders. Or at least that’s what we’re taught to think. —Eric Kelsey

For more on history, myths, and how we learn them, take a look back at Utne Reader’s “History Lessons” package in our Sept./Oct. issue:

History Lessons
Forgetting Hitler
Can We Handle the Truth?
In the Trenches

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