Daughters of Liberty: Women and the American Revolution

Pia Katarina Jakobsson. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Perspectives in American Social History Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

The 18th century was a period of both dramatic change and surprising stability. The Revolutionary War created an independent nation, yet the new American republic retained many of the elements of the older colonial order. Similarly, women made important contributions to the war effort both leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, sometimes dramatically challenging traditional gender roles, yet the overall changes in the status and roles of women, as a group, in the early Republic were surprisingly limited.

Women’s Status and Roles in Colonial America

Gender roles and relations in the colonies at the beginning of the 18th century resembled those in earlier periods, although the increase in native-born colonists had diminished the early imbalance between men and women. Society continued to be organized as a hierarchical, interdependent network, in which individual members had limited flexibility of movement and were bound to others in the family, community, and state by a system of mutual obligation. Men were expected to take on leadership positions, both within the family and in society. Women, servants, and children were seen as dependents, represented by the head of household because it was assumed that their interests were the same. Younger men deferred to older men, and women deferred to their husbands. Formal education was, with few exceptions, only available to the elite, and then mostly to men, but Protestant women were sometimes taught to read the Bible, and on occasion, daughters were educated as a symbol of the wealth of the family.

Traditionally, women had been seen as lesser men, with their capacities for physical strength, rationality, and morality inferior in degree, but not different in kind, from men’s capacities. Somewhat like children or feeble-minded people, women were thought to be less responsible and capable than men. The Bible said God created woman from Adam’s rib as the helpmeet of man. The bodies of men and women were thought to be similar enough that illustrations in medical books showed a male body representing both the male and the female, since, apart from the minor matter of women carrying the fetus and the position of the genitals, women’s bodies were simply less developed versions of male bodies.

Over the course of the 18th century, society changed in numerous ways, as a result of the Great Awakening, the Enlightenment, the growth of commercialization, the expansion of the public sphere, and the American Revolution. These changes profoundly affected the relationship between the individual and society, and also altered conceptions of gender difference and gender roles in the new American republic.

Gender and Religion

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation had shifted the balance between society and the individual by making one’s personal relationship to God more important than the clerical hierarchy that was so powerful in the Catholic Church. Protestant women no longer had access to the monastic life, which had been an acceptable alternative to marriage, but they secured other advantages. Protestants held that salvation came out of faith and God’s love, rather than out of good works and participation in church-sanctioned sacraments, thus making the external hierarchies less important. To Protestants, the Bible, not the church fathers, was the ultimate source of authority. People were encouraged to learn to read so they could know God’s words themselves. According to the Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius, girls and women too should learn to read, since “they too are formed in the image of God, and share in his grace and in the kingdom of the world to come” (Comenius 1967, 68). Accordingly, in 1742, the Moravians founded the first educational institution for young women in the present-day United States, Bethlehem Female Seminary in Pennsylvania.

The understanding of salvation as individual and internal grew even stronger with the Great Awakening, the religious revival movement that came from England and swept across the colonies during the 1730s and 1740s. Women played active roles in this movement, empowered by the call to conversion from the heart rather than the head, and by the challenge against established church structures. A religious appeal based on emotion, rather than tradition, scriptures, or theological sources in Latin was a lot more accessible to women. Although only Quakers officially accepted female ministers, women in sectarian groups remained active as itinerant preachers even after the revival ebbed out. These women gave witness to their conversion experiences and shared their faith at informal meetings, sometimes even baptizing newcomers. Women also supported religious movements by fundraising for local churches, providing hospitality for visiting preachers, and by encouraging their husbands and sons to attend services. By the end of the 18th century, the Shakers emerged. They believed that Jesus would return in the form of a woman, and each congregation was led by a man and a woman together.

Revolutions in Science and Philosophy

The religious revivals were, at least in part, a response to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, intellectual movements originating in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries that shook the established order and questioned conventional authority. Rooted in the educational changes coming out of the Reformation and the Renaissance, new ways to think about the world developed in the 17th century. A number of people, such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton, explored new approaches to the study of nature. They shared a desire to develop reliable methods to explore the natural world by experiment and reason, relying on mechanical explanations rather than resorting to divine intervention. They believed nature was governed by natural laws that could be understood and used to manipulate the environment. Earlier, religious study had been the major focus of scholarly effort, and study of the world a potential diversion. To these intellectuals, science was not a distraction, and did not take time and effort away from the contemplation of God. In particular, Newton thought that, by studying nature, he was studying God’s work. In the 18th century, this focus on scientific reasoning and practical experiment led to a steady flow of discoveries, technical inventions, and improved mechanical processes.

French philosopher Rene Descartes saw the mind as an abstract, rational entity that was separate from the body and the physical world, a disembodied entity that was, for all intents and purposes, classless and sexless. This led some writers to argue that if the mind had no sex, perhaps there was no difference between the intellectual capacity of men and women. As Mary Astell put it, “Sense is a portion that God himself has been pleas’d to distribute to both Sexes with an impartial Hand, but learning is what Men have engross’d to themselves” (Springborg 1996, 21). Although not always framed in Cartesian terms, the idea that the main intellectual differences between men and women stemmed from differences in education was to be taken up by numerous writers over the 18th century.

British philosopher John Locke took the idea of an independent reasoning subject even further. He suggested the mind at birth “to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas” until it was furnished with them “from Experience” (Locke 1995, Bk. 2, Ch. 1, sec. 2). This position had radical implications for the understanding of the individual and his or her relationship with society. If the individual is the sum total of his or her experience, then all are the same at birth; there is no innate hierarchy and there are no essential gender differences. From this it follows that changing the kinds of experience a person has will change who they are. Thus, education is not just a means of acquiring specific information or the development of learning. Rather, a person can re-create himself through education. In the 18th century, this translated into the concept of the self-made man. The narrative of the self-made Benjamin Franklin became hugely popular as an example of the empty slate written on through a lifetime of education and deliberately created experiences. The notion of the mind as an empty slate only written on by experience would also strengthen the argument in favor of education for women. This did not necessarily translate into a demand for changing gender roles; the stated goal was usually to make women more useful as helpmeets and mothers.

For women, the Enlightenment presented both an opportunity and a challenge. It was an opportunity because theoretically women could claim participation in society as rational, disembodied, unsexed minds. At the same time, Enlightenment scientists and philosophers made new distinctions between women and men that justified women’s exclusion from the public sphere. Women were increasingly portrayed as emotional and frivolous and lacking in the rational capacity necessary to participate in political and economic life. The new science, in the form of autopsies and other empirical investigation, was used to show that women really were physically different from men. Women’s physical pleasure was no longer seen as a prerequisite for conception to take place, and the female body began to be portrayed as different in kind (rather than degree) from the male body. Women came to be considered as constituting a group in their own right, but that also meant they were seen as completely other than the norm, which was male. Likewise, a newfound focus on racial distinctions made it clear that slaves (blacks) were different from free people (whites). By the end of the 18th century, the rational individual subject was marked as a white, public, professional male, with the colored, domestic, emotional, and female designated as something other than—and decidedly inferior to—the Enlightenment ideal.

Another radical idea proposed by John Locke was that marriage, and political institutions, were built on contractual relationships rather than being divinely ordained. In the state of nature, Locke claimed, all people had perfect freedom and perfect equality. From that came the first society, the “conjugal society” between husband and wife, created by “a voluntary compact between man and woman” (Locke 1998, Bk. 2, Ch. 6, sec. 77). When husband and wife disagree, as must happen, one of them has to make the final decision and this “naturally falls to the man’s share, as the abler and stronger.” This only goes for the things they share, however, leaving “the wife in the full and free possession of what by contract is her peculiar right” (Locke 1998, Bk. 2, Ch. 6, sec. 82). In other words, Locke believed that people did not have power over others by divine proclamation, but because, in a structured society, some division of responsibilities was desirable.

The notion that social relations were founded on a voluntary compact between people who were equals in a state of nature became very important to the founders of the American republic. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties in which each party agrees to give something to receive something else. If one party breaks the contract by not contributing what they have agreed, the other party is no longer bound by the agreement, and the contract is null and void. In the American colonies, political thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Otis took from Locke the idea that this is how social relations between a ruler and the people work as well, and if the king or government does not live up to the contract, the governed could withdraw their consent to be governed by that person or entity. Other, traditionally disenfranchised groups, including women, poor people, and African Americans, picked up on the voluntary and reciprocal aspects of a contract, suggesting that they too might be parties to a contract, and had the right to give consent and to withdraw consent in the governments of both the family and the state.

The American version of Enlightenment thought was less averse to religion than some European interpretations, and was more influenced by republican political ideals as developed by thinkers such as Montesquieu and later Thomas Paine. Republican principles—especially rejecting inherited rule by a monarch and supporting rule by the consent of the governed, sovereignty of the people, and rule of law—became increasingly important to the American colonists as tensions with England grew in the second half of the 18th century.

Social and Economic Changes

Social and material conditions changed as dramatically as did the worlds of science and philosophy. Understanding of the world greatly increased, and the ability to produce both greater quantities and better quality food and other goods increased as well, making it possible to provide for more people. During the first half of the 18th century, the size of the population in the English colonies exploded, growing from less than 300,000 in 1700 to four times that number (over 1 million) in 1750. By 1800, the population had quadrupled again, and stood at 5.3 million people. The economy grew as well, but the growth was not even. Those with the resources to invest in commercial ventures, including shipping, fishing, and commercial farming enterprises, became rich very quickly. Those people who had once been farmhands and now moved to the cities to work for weekly wages improved their fortunes only to some extent, and they were increasingly vulnerable to being replaced by cheaper labor. Thus, social inequality increased, and the number of landless poor grew significantly at the same time as commerce and general wealth grew. Also, as wage labor outside the home became the norm, the work women did within the domestic sphere became increasingly invisible as work, a development that would grow much more pronounced in the 19th century.

Not only labor moved out of the home. People met in coffee houses, taverns, and other public places to discuss news, politics, and ideas; and they increasingly thought of themselves as members of a public with opinions to express and share. The demand for information about political ideas, new technology, business transactions, and consumer goods was strong, and new media struggled to keep up. Early in the 18th century, the press had been a mouthpiece for the colonial administration, but by the middle of the century, there were around twenty publications in circulation published by independent printers, which represented a variety of interests and political affiliations. It is difficult to say exactly how widespread literacy was, or how many people would have read any particular text, since people shared reading materials, and newspapers and pamphlets could circulate for a long time after their initial publication. There were large differences in literacy rates between white men and other groups, and between rural and urban areas; but in the second half of the 18th century, literacy rates are estimated to have been 75 to 90 percent among white men in New England, and about half that among white women.

Although women were not welcome in taverns (although they sometimes worked in them as waitresses), they read newspapers at home and found ways to express their views about the changing world around them. It is clear from diaries and letters that many women kept up with current events and debated their positions with both male and female friends and family. Women from well-to-do families were expected to read, although there were regular debates in the press as to what specifically they should read, and some forms of writing were acceptable for women to participate in, even professionally. Women did not hold political office and did not have the right to vote, but elite women sat at the dinner table with, and intimately knew, the men in power. Much of political life and debate was taking place in people’s homes, and women were actively involved in at least some of those debates. On rare occasions, women would contribute articles or poems to newspapers or pamphlets (such as those written by Mercy Warren), the author usually only identified as “a Lady.”

Trouble Brewing

As the colonists developed their own customs and culture, and built communities far away from England, they found it increasingly difficult to be dependent on the mother country. This became particularly obvious during the French and Indian War, a conflict fought between the English and the French, and the Native American allies of both countries, which began on the North American continent and spread to Europe. In North America, the war lasted from 1754 to 1763, and effectively ended French colonial power on the continent. During the conflict, the colonists had opportunities to notice differences between American and English culture, particularly within the respective military forces, since there were thousands of British troops involved. The British officers, in charge of a conscripted army, did not hide their contempt for the American volunteer forces, which were based on cooperation rather than hierarchy. The colonists in turn thought the British officers were arrogant. Men from different colonies fighting together far away from home also helped build a sense of community among the Americans. Those on the home front followed developments in the growing number of newspapers, and felt as if they were part of a common struggle.

When the French and Indian War ended, 10,000 British troops remained in North America, creating a constant source of tension between the soldiers and the colonists. Additionally, the war had left Britain seriously in debt, and it took steps to increase revenue from duties and tariffs in America, claiming it only right for the colonists to help pay for the defense of the empire. The British Parliament passed the Sugar Act in 1764, and set up a series of Admiralty courts to quell the expected challenges to the act. This was followed by the Stamp Act in 1765, the first act to impose a direct tax on domestic consumption in the colonies, rather than merely assigning tariffs on trade. From this point, there was a constant tug-of-war between the British Crown and the American colonists. The colonists increasingly felt that their interests were different than those of the British, and resented being taxed with no direct representation in Parliament. The British saw the colonists as disloyal and dangerously unruly; colonies were part of the motherland and should not have an independent agenda.

In 1770, the Boston Massacre angered and frustrated the population of Boston. As illustrated by a classic engraving by Paul Revere, Bostonians felt that British soldiers had shot, unprovoked, into a crowd of innocent people, including women and children. The British soldiers claimed the crowd had been throwing things at them and had acted threateningly. In 1773, colonists dumped tons of tea into Boston Harbor to protest the Tea Act, an event known as the Boston Tea Party. In response, the British Parliament introduced a number of Coercive Acts in 1774. The colonists referred to them as the Intolerable Acts, furious that their rights as free men were infringed upon. The acts did nothing to suppress opposition, and in fact were the impetus for the first collective colonial assembly, the First Continental Congress, which was organized to coordinate the response and step up resistance. Colonists were still hoping for a peaceful resolution, but as the situation deteriorated, people started planning for alternatives. In 1775, armed conflict began with the events in Lexington and Concord, but it was only in 1776, when Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was published, that the call for independence overcame colonists’ fears of separating from England. Even so, only about a third of the colonists were active Patriots. One-third remained loyal to the British, and about one-third were more or less neutral. In July of 1776, the American colonies declared independence, but the fighting would go on for another seven years.

Women and the Road to War

During the period leading up to the war, women participated in the patriotic cause in several different ways. They organized and participated in boycotts, they produced boycotted goods at home, and they helped shape public opinion by writing about political events and their own activities. In doing so, they regularly challenged conventional notions of gender roles, but their activities were largely framed in terms of traditional female concerns about family and virtue.

Women were actively involved in making decisions about household purchases and consumption. That made them a powerful force in boycotts of imports such as tea and textiles, which was an important way to protest tariffs and trade limitations imposed by the British. Women also acted as a peer pressure group toward each other and toward their male family members. On some occasions, women even made and signed their own petitions. On October 25, 1774, one of the most well-known petitions was signed by 51 women of Edenton, North Carolina, who promised they would abide by the nonimportation resolutions passed by the First Continental Congress and proudly pledged that they would not drink tea.

Not only did women refrain from buying boycotted products, they organized spinning bees where women got together, each bringing their own spinning wheels and spending the day together producing homespun cloth and encouraging each other to keep up a patriotic spirit. In Boston, the Daughters of Liberty was formed to organize home manufacture. In the southern colonies, it took longer for home manufacture to spread. Plantation owners raised cash crops and used the money to buy the things they needed, which made it a bigger adjustment to set up the facilities and teach slave women to spin and weave. In boycotting goods and engaging in home manufacture, and in linking these activities to the larger civic good, women imbued their domestic activities with political meaning, drawing on their conventional duties to claim a role for themselves in the events unfolding in the public sphere.

Often, women supported men’s activities from home. When the Boston Tea Party took place in 1773, women were not part of the group that boarded British ships. However, the event was planned at the house of Sarah Bradlee Fulton, and it was to her home the men returned to change out of their Native American disguises. Such private involvement is very difficult to trace unless mentioned in diaries or letters, and it is impossible to know how widespread women’s participation in this kind of activity was. Such acts appear to have been common enough not to be shocking, but uncommon enough not to be expected.

Contemporary writers emphasized both the real and the symbolic importance of female patriotic activity, and used women’s efforts to help create enthusiasm for the Patriot cause. Initially, although many pamphlets, articles, poems, and letters were apparently aimed at women, this was as much to shame men into action as it was to engage women in active participation. In 1768, a poem entitled “The 20 Daughters of Liberty” was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The anonymous author says, “Since the men … Are kept by a sugar-plum quietly down … Let the Daughters of Liberty nobly arise.” Women were asked to do their patriotic duty, not because their actions would make a direct difference, but because when women acted they “pointed out their duty to men.” If even women were prepared to make sacrifices for the Patriot cause, this author chastises, men, who possessed political agency and responsibility, should be ashamed at not doing their part (Kerber 1980, 38). Later appeals were wholeheartedly positive toward female patriotism. In 1776, Anne Terrell wrote in the Virginia Gazette, urging soldiers’ wives to support the war effort with boycotts and prayers, while their husbands provided armed support for the “glorious cause of liberty” (Terrell 1776). The political theorist and historian Mercy Otis Warren expressed her patriotism in a number of pamphlets, plays, and poems. She and other female writers and activists justified their transgression of gender boundaries in two main ways, by claiming that they were simply defending the domestic sphere, since “every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty,” and by framing themselves as patriots first and women second (Warren 1805, iv).

Among the Patriots, appropriate female behavior was, at least for the time being, defined to include active participation in political activities on behalf of the colonists. The British saw it differently. They specifically used gender roles to criticize the protests against them. Women such as the ladies of Edenton were portrayed as bad mothers and neglectful wives. In numerous satirical prints and texts, the British warned that women’s participation in political activities would rob them of their femininity and make them unsuitable for domestic life, upend the natural hierarchy between men and women, and inevitably lead to family dissolution and social chaos.

Women at War

As the boycotts and protests escalated into armed conflict in the spring of 1775, women remained involved in the war effort in numerous ways, which both conformed to and challenged conventional gender expectations. They raised funds, collected materials (including saltpeter for gunpowder), knitted stockings, manufactured cartridges, engaged in public protests, and acted as deputy heads of household in the absence of their husbands and fathers; some even went along to the battlefield. The kinds of activities women participated in during the Revolution were shaped in part by their status, with upper-class women more involved in writing and fundraising activities, and lower-class women more involved in street protests and going along to the battlefield.

In 1780, Esther DeBerdt Reed, wife of the governor of Pennsylvania, and Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin, organized a women’s fundraising organization for the cause, The Ladies Association of Philadelphia. Reed published a call for support entitled “Sentiments of an American Woman,” in which she gave historical examples of women patriots, and argued that women were as willing to sacrifice for their nation as were men. DeBerdt framed women’s effort in terms of support and gratitude for the men who were fighting. She clearly envisioned women’s involvement in public affairs as ancillary, not independent, although as vitally important.

The women who joined the Ladies Association solicited funds in person, knocking on doors. Mary Frazier of Chester County, Pennsylvania and her neighbors participated by “day after day collecting from neighbors and friends far and near, whatever they could spare for the comfort of the destitute soldiers” (“A Reminiscence” 1922, 55). Reed and Bache wanted to give the money they had collected directly to individual soldiers, but their idea was vetoed by George Washington. After some negotiation, Washington agreed with the association that they would use the money to make shirts that could be given directly to individual soldiers. By the end of 1780, over 2,000 linen shirts had been donated, each with the name of the woman who made it sewn into the fabric. This group of elite women thus claimed the right to publicly express their patriotism, while still remaining limited by conventional expectations as to the domestic nature of women’s contributions to the political sphere.

Women, mostly those of lower status, were important participants in group protests. On more than 30 occasions, between 1776 and 1779, colonists gathered to protest food prices. This was a traditional form of female activism, both in the colonies and in Europe, perhaps because concern over food supplies was seen as an extension of the domestic sphere. Still, opponents sometimes ridiculed female involvement in food riots as inappropriate, claiming that the artisans’ and tradesmen’s wives who participated were abandoning their familial duties and roles. Sometimes women acted together with men, and sometimes they acted by themselves. Some of the protests were peaceful, but some of them became violent, as mobs challenged merchants who were hoarding or overcharging for food.

Women also contributed to the war effort by taking over men’s labor at home. Farmwives like Abigail Adams (wife of Johns Adams) managed farms, and the wives of artisans and shop owners ran businesses, sometimes with the help of a trusted apprentice or son, sometimes by themselves. They settled accounts, paid taxes, maintained production and sales, and in other ways acted as deputy husbands. The war touched them in other ways too. Women left behind were forced to support large families with limited means, and were at risk of rape by looting soldiers who had, by choice or accident, been separated from their unit. They had to function independently to survive, and there is no way their fathers, husbands, and sons could have been successful at the front without the contributions of women at the home front. Some women responded to the challenges brought on by the war with anxiety. For others, taking on unconventional responsibilities instilled in them a newfound confidence in their abilities, and a new sense of possibility for their roles as women in the American nation.

Women at the Front

Not all women stayed at home. Some went to the front lines and were actively involved in the war effort, as camp followers, and sometimes by serving as soldiers. Although some camp followers were prostitutes, many of the women who traveled with the Continental Army were married to soldiers and performed important support functions for the troops, such as cooking, doing laundry, and nursing the sick and wounded. Wives both of officers and enlisted men accompanied the troops, although most camp followers were poor women who had no other way of supporting themselves and their children while their husbands were away at war. There were so many women going along with the troops, and doing such important work, that George Washington unofficially set a quota of 1 woman for every 15 soldiers in Continental Army regiments. Such women drew regular rations and were tolerated, since they left the men free to fight, but they were not encouraged, and they were subjected to strict rules and regulations. Camp followers were allowed to remain with the troops only if they were married and if they charged only minimal fees for laundry and other services, but they were not allowed to be visible when the army marched. Although they performed critical services for the army, camp followers traveled, lived, and worked under highly stressful conditions that put their own and their children’s health and lives at risk.

A very small group of women saw military action themselves, and they were sometimes honored for their soldierly contributions to the war effort. Usually they were wives who had gone along with their husbands, and who took over when their husbands were wounded or killed. For instance, Margaret “Captain Molly” Corbin fought alongside her husband John in Fort Washington, New York in 1776 when the fort was attacked. John had been assisting a gunner until the gunner was killed; then John took charge of the cannon, and Margaret assisted him until he, too, was killed. Margaret continued loading and firing the cannon by herself until she was wounded. She never fully recovered from her wounds, and she became the first woman to receive a pension from the United States government as a disabled soldier. She was buried at West Point beneath a statue dedicated to her memory.

Very unusual, but not unique, was Deborah Sampson, who enlisted on her own. Disguised as a man, Sampson served in the Continental Army under the name of Robert Shurtleff. Deborah grew up as an indentured servant in a family with ten sons, and then worked as a schoolteacher before enlisting in 1782. She posed as a man too young to have to shave, and the loose-fitting clothes and minimal attention to hygiene in the army made her masquerade successful for more than a year. The first time she was wounded, she cared for herself to avoid detection. Her sex was finally detected when she was wounded again and examined by a doctor, who realized that she was a woman. He quietly informed her superiors, and she was discharged. For years after the war, Sampson traveled the country and gave lecture tours in which she wore her uniform, told of her exploits, and executed the manual of arms. After a long struggle, she was finally granted a pension for her services (including two years of back pay) in 1805.

A number of more or less mythological narratives of brave women have also become part of Revolutionary lore. Molly (Hays) Pitcher is one of the more famous woman soldiers of the Revolutionary War, but we know very little about her. According to legend, Hays traveled with her soldier husband, and earned her nickname by carrying pitchers of water for the soldiers at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey in 1778. During the battle, her husband was wounded, and Hays took over his gun. There is no actual evidence for any of this. The only thing known about the historical woman, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, is that she was awarded a pension by the State of Pennsylvania for her service during the war, which does seem to indicate her having done something out of the ordinary. Another legendary Revolutionary era woman, Nancy Hart, is known as the Amazon Warrior. Hart supposedly killed several British soldiers when they stopped at her family’s farm. She also purportedly fought Indians and acted as a spy on several occasions, wandering into a British camp dressed up as a simpleminded man, and gathering information by listening to people talk around her. As with the story of Molly Pitcher, there is very little historical detail to back up the tall tales about Hart. However, the myths themselves served an important function. On the one hand, they highlighted how unusual the exploits of Hays and Hart were, revealing the limited opportunities most women had to participate in the American Revolution. On the other hand, the myths of these brave women emphasized the seriousness of the conflict and the importance of unity in the new nation by valorizing female participation in battle. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and these were times when everybody was called to serve.

African Americans, too, were involved in the Revolutionary War in several ways. Many black people sided with the British in the hope that slavery would be forbidden by them, or at least that individuals who had served would be freed. Some slave men served in the Continental Army under their owners. Some free black men served because they believed in the revolutionary cause. All in all, it is estimated that around 5,000 African Americans served on the Patriot side, and around 20,000 on the side of the Loyalists. There is limited knowledge about how the war affected African American women, partly because so very few of them were literate and left a written record. Most of them were slaves, and remained at the home front, subject to the same risks and problems faced by the white women serving as deputy husbands; but slave women were even more vulnerable, since they had no legal recourse if assaulted or raped.

Some Native American tribes tried to remain neutral, thinking this was not their fight, but sometimes they were attacked anyway. Many of them sided with the British, hoping to get a better deal from a ruler who was far away than they could from a group of people who were directly competing for the use of the land, and who they expected to expand westward if given any opportunity. The effect on Native American women was mostly indirect. As a result of the war, tribes lost many men or were displaced, and crops were harder to maintain with fewer people. It was also difficult to maintain traditional Native American gender roles with women doing most of the agricultural work. The Americans wanted Indians to adopt Euro-American conventions, having the men perform agricultural labor and the women carry out the domestic responsibilities customary for white women—spinning, weaving, and cooking. Adapting to a social structure imposed from without came at a high price for Native women.

Loyalist Women

Roughly one-third of the American colonists remained loyal to the British, some of them because they were either dependent on trade with the British or were paid by them, and some because they genuinely believed it was better for the country to remain part of the British nation. Traditional gender relations put the wives of men loyal to the British—the Tories, as they were called—at a particular disadvantage, since they were at risk of losing their property through choices made by their spouses. Some state legislatures passed laws to strip Loyalists of their property and, generally, in accordance with the laws of coverture, it was simply assumed that a wife sided with her husband. If the wife remained behind on the estate, she might persuade the local authorities to let her keep her “widow’s third,” the part of the property that would fall to her as inheritance. This way, the community did not have to support a penniless woman and her children, and it sometimes encouraged women to side with the Patriots. Some women stayed behind, claiming neutrality or adherence to the Patriots, while they were secretly helping the Loyalists by collecting information for the British, or hiding and helping spies.

Sometimes, declared loyalist women were excused for their sympathies, since it was taken for granted that they had no choice but to follow their husbands’ allegiance; but some women were deemed to be traitors solely on the basis of their husbands’ position, whether the woman had expressed any opinion or not. Both legally and in practice, there appears to have been some ambiguity. For example, Grace Galloway was openly loyalist, but stayed behind in Philadelphia, when her husband and daughter sailed for England in 1778, in order to retain control of the family’s property. When their property was confiscated, Grace took steps to protect for her daughter the part of the property she had previously inherited from her father. She claimed it as her private possession and argued that it should therefore be exempt from the confiscation of her husband’s assets. The court found that the property might be hers, but as long as her husband was alive, he controlled it, under coverture laws. Only after his death would she be able to claim it back. In the end, after both Grace and her husband had died, the assets Grace had claimed as her separate property were returned to the family and passed on to Grace’s daughter.

Other women were not so lucky. Some women were suspected of being spies or smugglers and were kept under house arrest or some other sort of detention, since letting them go might have improved enemy morale and allowed dangerous information and supplies to fall into the wrong hands. However, only a very small group of women were directly charged with treason. In most of those cases, it appears that the women’s names were attached to those of their husbands in order to make sure that the confiscation of property that came with a writ of treason would encompass all of the property these families owned. It is notable that there were any cases of married women accused of treason in the Revolutionary era. The implication of such an accusation was that married women could be seen as independent decision makers in certain circumstances, and when it served the interests of the court, this is what happened. As circumscribed as the lives of women were, according to prescriptive documents, pragmatic considerations regularly trumped the general rules.

The Early Republic

When the war ended in 1783, with the Treaty of Paris, the colonists had won independence, and the British troops and the Loyalists left for England or Canada. Yet there was much work left to do. The country was organized by the vague and limited Articles of Confederation. They had served during the war (ratified in 1781), but did not even provide for the federal government to issue taxes or regulate commerce. Individual states set about developing state constitutions and it slowly became evident that a federal Constitution was needed as well. It took until 1787 for a new constitution to be written, debated, voted on, and finally ratified. Although the principles on which the new republican government was based—liberty and equality—were broadly recognized and embraced, questions about the nature of government and the meaning of citizenship were still very much up for debate in the post-revolution years. There were a number of contentious issues to be decided—how closely tied to each other the states should be, what the role of the federal government should be, and who should have the right to vote in what elections. Another unsettled issue was the role and status of women in the new nation.

Women had valiantly supported the war efforts in various ways, and had helped secure the survival of the new republic. Often, their contributions were framed as an extension of traditionally female concerns, but at times they had emphasized patriotic duty over gender expectations. Some women were hoping that their participation in the fight for freedom and the spread of Enlightenment ideas about rational individuals would translate into active participation in the political life of the republic, but in the end the legacies of the Revolution for women and women’s rights were mixed. Abigail Adams famously wrote her husband John in March 1776, when he was serving as the Massachusetts representative to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, asking him to “remember the ladies.” She threatened, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.” John responded by saying that he and other men knew better than “to repeal our masculine systems,” continuing by saying that since men really only had the name of masters, they would cling to the illusion of control as long as they could (Butterfield, 1963-1993, 370-71). His tone was chivalrous, which let him be nice without having to seriously engage with the issue. Adams was willing to discuss politics with his wife and women like Mercy Warren, but he saw no reason to change the political structure or established gender roles.

Although the laws of coverture persisted, in some ways women’s roles and status broadened and improved. One of the concrete legal changes was that divorce was made more available in several states, particularly in New England. There had to be a compelling reason cited as the cause (adultery was common), and since it was difficult for single women to provide for themselves, divorce was uncommon. However, the fact that divorce became more permissible indicates a clear shift in the direction of viewing marriage as a reciprocal contract.

The discussions about equality and representation put questions about women on the national agenda, even if it was for a limited time. The two decades following the American Revolution witnessed an outpouring of political debate over the role and status of women in society. The writings of women such as American author Judith Sargent Murray and British writer Mary Wollstonecraft were widely read and even more widely discussed. In 1790, Murray published a series of essays, including such titles as “On the Equality of the Sexes.” A collection of her essays were also published under a male pen name, “the Gleaner,” in 1798. Murray believed most differences between men and women were the result of differences in education. She contended that if women were educated, they would be better equipped to become efficient administrators of their households and proficient teachers of their children. She questioned women’s status more than she questioned women’s roles, and she argued in favor of companionable marriages based on mutual love and respect. She even thought that for some women it was better to remain single. Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) advanced similar ideas about women’s intellectual equality, arguing that all the negative traits and behavior women were charged with were a result of their inferior education. As long as men encouraged women to focus on superficial things such as their beauty, and discouraged reading and higher pursuits, women would remain vapid and useless creatures. Her book was highly controversial, but aroused a lot of interest, and within a few months, a second edition was published in England. Both an American edition and a French translation came out soon after.

Writers such as Judith Sargent Murray espoused the notion that women needed to be educated in order to raise and support virtuous, active citizens in a republic based on consent by the people, an idea that historian Linda Kerber has called the ideology of “Republican Motherhood” (1980). Widely endorsed in the decades following the Revolution, Republican Motherhood afforded women respect for their domestic role, and gave them an accepted, although circumscribed, means of engaging in political life.

The most immediate effect of these ideas was the establishment of schools for young women. Educational opportunities for middle-and upper-class girls had started to expand before the war and grew significantly in the first decades of the new republic, as female academies opened in Philadelphia, Litchfield, Boston, and other places. By the census of 1852, almost all white women in New England were literate, and the numbers in other parts of the country had also improved. The Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia, although founded about a decade earlier, received its official charter in 1792. More than 100 women studied subjects such as grammar, arithmetic, history, and geography, as well as musical instruments and other skills. The school had support from the highest levels. In 1787, Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, gave a speech at the school that outlined his “Thoughts upon Female Education.” He believed young women needed education to prepare them for their roles as mothers and to equip them to raise good citizens, but he believed they had to do more than that. Women needed training to handle the management of servants, and to know how to be good companions to, and helpmates for, their husbands. This included learning how to figure accounts and how to write neatly, in order to help with business records and correspondence. Students spoke eloquently about what their education at the academy offered them. Ann Harker viewed it as a way to free women from the “shackles, with which we have been so long fettered,” and Priscilla Mason saw education as a way to open the door to the professions—the church, the bar, and the Senate—that had been closed to women because the contemptible Saint Paul had “declared war on the whole sex” (Nash 1997, 187). It is difficult to know how representative these views were, but the trustees of the Ladies’ Academy let both Harker’s and Mason’s speeches be published in a book that was used to market the academy.

In 1797, the novelist, playwright and actress Susanna Rowson retired from the stage to form the Young Ladies Academy in Boston. In 1792, Sara Pierce founded the Litchfield Female Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut. The school educated over 3,000 women during the 40 years of its existence. Pierce regularly reorganized her schedules, but among the topics on her students’ curricula were subjects such as logic, chemistry, botany, and mathematics. Students were also instructed in what were known as the “ornamental” subjects.

While daughters in well-to-do white families began to take advantage of new educational opportunities, other groups of women did not fare as well. African American women in the North experienced some expanded opportunities for freedom, as gradual emancipation took hold. However, they continued to battle racial discrimination, barriers to schooling and economic advancement, and limits on their civil rights. In the South, slavery became more firmly established, and spread more widely, spurred by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. For Native American women, the legacy of the Revolution was almost uniformly bad. The disruption of Native American customs and traditions in favor of European social structures entailed severe restrictions on the lives of most Native American women.

Even white women, although they did better than other groups, faced serious challenges and limitations after the Revolution. Although Republican Motherhood gave women a platform for political engagement, the ideology could also be used to limit that engagement to the domestic sphere. Women were denied full citizenship rights in the new republic—the laws of coverture continued to abide and, with the brief exception in New Jersey, where women had had suffrage since the Revolution, they were denied the right to vote. The New Jersey laws were changed in 1807 to specify that only men were eligible for suffrage, and no other state in the country let women vote until almost a century later. As the franchise was broadened over time to include all white men, whether property owners or not, and as citizenship became more closely tied to voting rights, women were explicitly marginalized from political life.


From the women who engaged in political debate with men and those who refused to drink tea and began making their own cloth, to the women who acted as deputy husbands while their men were fighting and those who fought on the battlefield, women were vital participants in the intellectual and practical creation of the American republic. Some of them were praised for their contributions, while others were criticized for their lack of femininity. Many were simply forgotten. Women themselves did not forget their contributions to the war effort. Though they did not at this time secure for themselves the independence they had helped to win for their country, by the middle of the 19th century, a new generation of American women would be ready to take up the call of Abigail Adams to foment a new rebellion, until the Revolution’s promise of equality for all would also encompass women.