Women in the American Revolution
|Women in society|
This article is about the role played by women in the American Revolution.
- 1 The American Revolution Background
- 2 Roles
- 3 =
The American Revolution Background
The American Revolution took place after Britain put in place the seven Coercive, or Intolerable Acts, in the colonies. This included closing the port of Boston. They extended the boundary of Quebec to the Ohio River, limiting self-government in the Mississippi River, ordering colonists to provide housing for more troops, and allowing British officials to be tried for crimes in England instead of the colonies. The Americans responded by forming the Continental Congress and fighting with the French armies. However, the war would not have been able to progress as it did without the widespread ideological, as well as material support, of both male and female inhabitants of the colonies. While formal politics did not include women; ordinary domestic behaviors became charged with political significance as women confronted the Revolution. Halting previously everyday activities, such as drinking British tea or ordering clothes from Britain, demonstrated Colonial opposition during the years leading up to and during the war. Although the war raised the question of whether or not a woman could be a Patriot, women across separate colonies demonstrated that they could. Support was best expressed through traditional female occupations: such as in the home, the domestic economy, and their husband’s or father’s businesses. Women participated by boycotting British goods, producing goods for soldiers, spying on the British, and serving in the armed forces disguised as men.
Support in the Domestic Realm
- Homespun Movement
Women in the era of the Revolution were responsible for managing the household. Connected to these activities, women worked in the Homespun Movement. Instead of wearing or purchasing clothing made of imported British materials, Patriot women continued a long tradition of weaving, and spun their own cloth to make clothing for their families. In addition to the boycotts of British textiles, the Homespun Movement served the Continental Army by producing needed clothing and blankets. Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane Mecom, could be called on for her soap recipe, and even instructions on how to build the soap-making forms. While male suppliers of such services were exempted from military service in exchange for their goods, there was no such recompense for women who did the same thing. Spinning, weaving, and sewing were seen as part of the female province; as patriots they utilized their skills to assist the revolutionary cause.
- Nonimportation and Nonconsumption
Just as spinning and weaving American cloth became a mechanism of resistance, so did many acts of consumption. Nonimportation and nonconsumption became major weapons in the arsenal of the American resistance movement against British taxation without representation  Women played a major role in this method of defiance by denouncing silks, satins, and other luxuries in favor of homespun clothing generally made in spinning and quilting bees, sending a strong message of unity against British oppression. As a result of nonimportation, many rural communities who were previously uninvolved in the political movements of the day were brought "into the growing community of resistance" because of the appeal "to the traditional values" of rural life. In 1770, Christopher Gadsden made a direct appeal to colonial women, saying that “our political salvation, at this crisis, depends altogether upon the strictest economy, that the women could, with propriety, have the principal management thereof…” (‘To the Planters, Mechanics, and Freeholders of the Province of South Carolina, No Ways Concerned in the Importation of British Manufactures’ June 22, 1769). As mistresses of the domestic economy, housewives used their purchasing power to support the Patriot cause. Women refused to purchase British manufactured goods for use in their homes. The tea boycott, for example, was a relatively mild way for a woman to identify herself and her household as part of the patriot war effort. While the Boston Tea Party of 1773 is the most widely recognized manifestation of this boycott, it is important to note that for years previous to that explosive action, Patriot women had been refusing to consume that very same British product as a political statement. The Edenton Tea Party represented one of the first coordinated and publicized political actions by women in the colonies. Fifty-one women in Edenton, North Carolina signed an agreement officially agreeing to boycott tea and other British products and sent it to British newspapers. Similar boycotts extended to a variety of British goods, and women instead opted in favor of purchasing or making “American” goods. Even though these “non-consumption boycotts” depended on national policy (formulated by men), it was women who enacted them in the household spheres in which they reigned.
In 1778, a group of women marched down to a warehouse where a merchant was holding coffee that he refused to sell. The women opened the warehouse, lifted out the coffee, and “confiscated” it. During the Revolution, buying American products became a patriotic gesture. In addition, frugality (a lauded feminine virtue before the years of the revolution) likewise became a political statement as households were asked to contribute to the wartime efforts.
- Other Aid
But the call of women to support the war effort extended beyond contributions of the family economy of which they were in charge; women were also asked to put their homes into public service as well for the quartering of American soldiers and legislators as the republic took shape.
Women helped the Patriot cause through organizations such as the Ladies Association in Philadelphia. The women of Philadelphia collected funds to assist in the war effort, which Martha Washington then took directly to her husband, General George Washington. Other states subsequently followed the example set by founders Esther de Berdt Reed (wife of the Pennsylvania governor, Joseph Reed) and Sarah Franklin Bache (daughter of Benjamin Franklin). In 1780, the colonies raised over $300,000 through these female-run organizations.
Some women were economically unable to maintain their households in their husband’s absence or wished to be by their side. Known as camp followers, these women followed the Continental Army; serving the soldiers and officers as washerwomen, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, supply scavengers, and occasionally as soldiers and spies. The women that followed the army were at times referred to as “necessary nuisances” and “baggage” by commanding officers, but at other times were widely praised. These women helped the army camps run smoothly. Prostitutes were also present, but they were a worrisome presence to military leaders particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases.
Wives of some of the superior officers (Martha Washington, for example) visited the camps frequently. Unlike poorer women present in the army camps, the value of these well-to-do women to the army was symbolic or spiritual, rather than practical. Their presence was a declaration that everyone made sacrifices for the war cause.
Specific population numbers vary from claims that 20,000 women marched with the army to more conservative estimates that females formed 3% of camp populations. Women joined up with army regiments for various reasons: fear of starvation, rape, loneliness, and imminent poverty- either as a last resort or following their husbands. Camp women were subject to the same commanders as the soldiers, and were expelled for expressing autonomy. Army units in areas hard hit by war or in enemy occupied territory housed more women than those in safe areas, most likely because women in battle-ridden areas sought the protection of the Continental Army.
Women who fought in the war were met with ambivalence that fluctuated between admiration and contempt, depending on the particular woman's motivation and activity. Devotion to following a man was admired, while those who seemed enticed by the enlistment bounty warranted the scorn of enlisted men. Anna Maria Lane and Margaret Corbin fit under the first category, while Anne Bailey (under the name Samuel Gay) belonged to second. Anne Bailey was discharged, fined, and put in jail for two weeks. Anne Smith was condemned for her attempt to join the army in order to secure the enlistment fee.
Deborah Samson, Hannah Snell, and Sally St. Clare successfully hid their gender for a time. St. Clare kept gender a secret until her death, while Samson was discovered and honorably discharged. Deborah Samson was later awarded a veteran’s pension.
Molly McCauley also took her husband's post behind a cannon once her husband was injured in an attack in New Jersey. She gained notoriety for her excellent aim and soldiers began to respect her as a fighter.
Nancy Hart was forced to house British soldiers during the war as were most colonial households. When providing dinner for the soldiers, she chose to fight back. She killed both men in her home with their own muskets. She was later a part of a spy ring that passed messages between revolutionary forces.
Other Patriot women concealed army dispatches and letters containing sensitive military information underneath their petticoats as they rode through enemy territory to deliver it. Deborah Champion, Sara Decker (Haligowski) [married to Polish shoe maker in later years], Harriet Prudence Patterson Hall, and Lydia Darraugh all managed to sneak important information past the British to their American compatriot.
Anglo-American loyalist women
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Native women, patriot and loyalist
At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, much of the land ceded to the British by France was actually in the hands of Native tribes across the western frontier, although “ownership” of “unsettled” parts of North America was and would be contested. With British rights westward acknowledged back in Europe, most Native people faced increasing encroachment by settlers and a greater military presence of British troops. As the American Revolutionary War drew near, many of these soldiers ultimately relocated in coastal cities like New York and Boston, as British strategy called for greater control there, leaving the western frontier to ballooning numbers of conflicts between white settlers and Native Americans. In addition, by 1763, famine and disease had become widespread problems in and among native communities.
Several historians claim that contact with whites resulted in the displacement of women from their traditional spheres, both as a result of war related upheavals and specific American policy after the war. Post-Revolutionary guidelines called for the “civilization” of Native peoples, and which meant turning a population from a hunting-based society to an agricultural one, despite the fact that almost all Native American societies did practice agriculture—the women farmed. However, U.S. policymakers believed that farming could not be a significant part of Native life if women were the main contributors to the operation. Thus, the American government instead encouraged Native women to take up spinning and weaving and attempted to force men to farm, reversing gender roles and causing severe social problems that ran contrary to Native cultural mores.
The Revolution particularly devastated the Iroquois. The nations of the Iroquois confederacy had initially endeavored to remain neutral in the American Revolutionary War. They, like many other Native peoples, saw little to gain from aid to either side in the conflict, and had been burned before by their participation in the Seven Years’ War. Ultimately, however, some of the tribes were persuaded to join the British front by Sir William Johnson.
As a result of this alliance, the American Major General John Sullivan and his soldiers burned and completely destroyed about forty Iroquois towns in what is now upstate New York, displacing thousands of Iroquois inhabitants. This campaign obliterated hundreds of acres of crops and orchards, which had largely been the domain of the agricultural women, and served to kill thousands of Iroquois, both outright and through the ensuing starvation.
Before the American Revolution, relations between the Catawba Nation and European settlers were cautiously hostile, as neither side was interested in starting a war. Tensions led to conflict, particularly over land. While settlers believed in private property and put up fences to mark their lands, Catawbas believed that no person could claim land forever, and tore the fences down. Catawba men roamed the countryside in search of game, while settlers considered hunters trespassers, and wrecked their hunting camps. The settlers brought with them new methods of farming which profoundly affected Catawba daily life. Like every society heavily dependent upon agriculture, the Catawbas oriented their existence to that pursuit. Colonists’ crops required enclosures, schedules, and practices unfamiliar to Catawba cultivators. These changes particularly affected women, who had traditionally farmed while the men would hunt. As with other Indian groups, the Catawba Nation could not maintain traditional ways of life. In order to survive, they found ways of living with the settlers. The nation started a trade with settlers in household goods made by Catawba women, who turned traditional crafts into a profitable business. As early as 1772, Catawba women peddled their crafts to local farmers.
One of the most successful ways that the Catawba Nation improved relations with settlers was by participating in the American Revolution. Its location gave it little choice in the matter; Superintendent of Southern Indians John Stuart observed in 1775, “they are domiciliated and dispersed thro’ the Settlements of north and South Carolina.” In July 1775, two Catawbas arrived in Charleston to learn more about the dispute between the crown and the colonists. The rebels’ Council of Safety sent the representatives home with a letter explaining the colonists’ grievances, reminding Catawbas of their friendship with Southern Carolina, promising trade and pay for Indians who served, and warning what would happen if the Nation refused to serve. Over the next eight years, the Catawbas would fight for the patriot cause. They would also pay heavily for their loyalty to the Americans. British forces drove the natives from their homes, destroying villages and crops.
During the Revolution, Catawba warriors fought alongside American troops at many battles throughout the South. The Indians who remained at home often provided food to patriots. Since traditional Catawba gender roles prescribed women and children as agricultural preparers, wartime responsibility of providing for the patriots fell heavily on women. Several Catawbas also served as informal goodwill ambassadors to their neighbors. One such person was Sally New River, a woman who enjoyed both the respect of her people and the affection of local whites. When visitors arrived unannounced, Sally New River made sure they were provided for. She spent much time with the Spratt family, whose patriarch was the first white man to lease Catawba land. Fifty years after her death, local whites still recalled “old aunt Sally” with affection.
Overall, however, the Catawbas’ role in the war has been termed “rather negligible;” with so few men to commit to the cause, it does seem unlikely that the Nation determined the outcome of any battle. But the significance of their contribution lay in their active and visible support. While their alliance with the patriots helped them fit into a rapidly changing environment—in 1782, the state legislature sent the nation five hundred bushels of corn to tide them over until summer and both paid them for their service in the army and reimbursed them for the livestock they had supplied—the settler’s temporarily favorable impression of the Catawbas did not guarantee a secure future. The Indian’s continued indifference to Christianity frustrated the European settlers, who tried to educate select members at the College of William and Mary in hopes that these people would return to their Catawba homes converted, and ready to convert others. Efforts failed, refueling popular sentiments about the inferiority of Indians.
Relations between the Catawba and the settlers did not improve in the long term, despite the Catawba’s decision to fight with the patriots. After the revolution, tenants previously renting land from the natives demanded that they become owners. Throughout the 1830s, the South Carolina legislature sent representatives to negotiate the sale of land. This constant pressure, combined with U.S. government removal policies, culminated in the spring of 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Nation Ford. The treaty stipulated that the Catawbas relinquish their 144,000 acres (580 km2) of land to the state of South Carolina. The agreement all but destroyed the Catawba Nation. “As a Nation,” South Carolina governor David Johnson said of the Catawbas in 1847, “they are, in effect, dissolved.”
African American women, patriot and loyalist
Patriot freedom from the Crown did not mean the end of bondage for the vast majority of African Americans. Moreover, there were few educational opportunities for women in this period. Zinn explains, "women struggled to enter the all male professional schools. Elizabeth Blackwell [a white woman living decades after the American Revolution] got her medical degree in 1849, having over come many rebuffs before being admitted to Geneva College" (Zinn 90). Although the American Revolution is famous for its rhetoric of liberty and equality, one of the most downtrodden groups in the soon-to-be United States is all but forgotten in contemporary scholarship. African American women, the majority of whom were slaves, played an important role in the war but most ultimately gained much less than they had hoped at its inception. The majority of African Americans in the 1770s lived as slaves, both in the South and the North.
Between 1716 and 1783, fourteen northern black women brought civil lawsuits to gain freedom. Black women brought freedom suits for one of the following legal technicalities: there had been a fraudulent sale; the plaintiff’s mother was not black (enslavement was determined by one’s mother’s status); or the plaintiff had entered a manumission agreement and the documentation had disappeared. Elizabeth Freeman is arguably the best known of these plaintiffs. She “brought the first legal test of the constitutionality of slavery in Massachusetts in 1781,” with Brom & Bett v. J.Ashley Esq. The state legislature never outlawed slavery outright, but its 1780 Bill of Rights declared all men free and equal; Freeman effectively used this rhetoric to challenge slavery forever in Massachusetts. Along with Brom, another of her owner’s slaves, Freeman, won her freedom in 1781. Similarly, in 1782 a slave woman named Belinda petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature, not for her freedom, but for compensation for the fifty years she served as a slave. However, not all states followed Massachusetts’ example so quickly: in 1810 there were still 27,000 slaves living in the Northern states.
In the tense years leading up to the war, Britain recognized that slavery was a colonial weak point. Indeed, unrest in slave communities was greatest in the two decades surrounding the American Revolution. In January 1775, a proposal was made in the British House of Commons for general emancipation in all British territories, a political maneuver intended to “humble the high aristocratic spirit of Virginia and the Southern Colonies” (Edmund Burke, from The Speeches of the Right Honorourable Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons, and in Westminster-Hall). Slaves in the colonies recognized a certain British openness to their claims: in 1774, two slaves petitioned General Thomas Gage, the British commander-in-chief of America and the governor of Massachusetts Bay, for their freedom in exchange for fighting in the incipient war.
Slavery was the backbone of Southern society and the British reasoned that dismantling it would undermine southern resistance. In April 1775, Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, appropriated the colony’s store of gunpowder because he suspected the Virginia Assembly of rebellious sentiments. This precipitated an armed uprising. From his warship off the coast of Virginia, the governor issued Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, which declared martial law and offered freedom for “all indentured servants, Negroes, and others…that are able and willing to bear arms.” Like the 1775 House of Commons proposal, Dunmore’s Proclamation was intended to scare the white slaveholders of Virginia and to encourage slaves, especially black males, to abandon their masters, not to create a slave rebellion based on the ideology of equality.
One third of all of the slaves that responded to Dunmore’s Proclamation were women. In the colonial period, approximately 1/8 of all runaways were women. The small percentage of women attempting escape was because they were the anchors of slave family life. Most women would not leave without their families, especially their children, and since running in large groups increased the odds of capture exponentially, many women simply chose not to run at all. If slave women did leave their owners, it was often to attempt to reunite with family members who had been sold away.
Of the men that flooded Lord Dunmore’s camp, some actually saw combat. Dunmore formed an “Ethiopian Regiment” of approximately five hundred of these former slaves and put them to work fighting their former masters. Often their wives followed them, working as cooks, laundresses, and nurses in camp. Single women who stayed with Dunmore’s main camp performed similar tasks.
In June 1776, General Henry Clinton similarly promised that any slave deserting his master to a British camp would have “full security to follow within these Lines, any occupation which he shall think proper.” Like all British slave pronouncements, Clinton’s was self-interested and ambivalent – he was alarmed by the prospect of African American men joining the Continental Army in an effort to gain freedom after the war. However, southern slaveholders saw Clinton’s Phillipsburg Proclamation as an attack on their property and way of life and an invitation to anarchy. The Proclamation aroused much anti-British sentiment and became a rallying cry for Southern Patriots.
Most of the slaves that joined General Clinton after his Phillipsburg Proclamation left their homes in family groups. Clinton attempted to register these blacks to control the numerous masterless men who were viewed as a threat to peace and order. In the registration process Clinton returned all those slaves that had run away from Loyalist sympathizers. Of the slaves permitted to stay, the division of labor was highly gendered. Men were generally employed in the engineering and Royal Artillery departments of the army as carpenters, wheelwrights, smiths, sawyers, equipment menders, wagon and platform builders and menders, etc. Both men and women made musket cartridges and butchered and preserved meat for the hungry army. Southern black women and children who knew the territory often served as guides to the confusing, swampy territories.
The British army saw these slaves as spoils of war. Individual officers claimed slaves as their own, thus many former slaves served as personal servants. The British government claimed some as crown property and put them to work on public works projects or, more commonly, agriculture. Agricultural labor was vital because the large British army needed constant food supplies and it was expensive to ship food. These slaves were promised manumission in return for loyal service.
Many Southern slaveholders “refugeed” their slaves to prevent them from escaping and/or being killed during the war. They force-marched slaves to holdings out of the way of the war, usually in Florida or in the territories to the west.
Like the British, the new American government recognized that blacks were potentially a powerful military force. However, George Washington was initially reluctant to encourage slaves to fight in exchange for freedom because of race-based objections and because he feared numerous black recruits that he could not control. Therefore, at the onset of the war, only free blacks, a tiny percent of the population, were allowed to fight. However, in the winter of 1777-78, the winter of Valley Forge, Washington was desperate for men and thus opened enlistment to all black males. Additionally, black slaves could serve in the place of or under custody of their masters.
In the South, black slave women were vital to the Patriot cause. They made up the bulk of the workforce that built and repaired the fortifications used during the sieges of Savannah, Charleston, and other low country towns and cities.
The period directly following the war was one of much hope and indecision for African Americans. Many expected the new country would live up to its ideals and abolish slavery. However, slavery was in fact built into the new Constitution – and even in many northern states, where slavery was neither prevalent nor particularly profitable, it took years and many court challenges to gradually abolish slavery.
There was a massive migration, not unlike the Great Migration, of blacks to urban areas in the North after the close of the war. This migration was largely female. Prior to the Revolution, Northern urban populations were overwhelmingly male; by 1806, women outnumbered men four to three in New York City. Increasing this disparity was the fact that the maritime industry was the largest employer of black males in the post-Revolutionary period, taking many young black men away to sea for several years at a time. The rural African American population in the North remained predominately male.
Most free urban blacks in the North were employed in “service trades,” including cooking and catering, cleaning stables, cutting hair and driving coaches. Family life was often broken up in these urban black communities. Many families lost members in the Revolution, either to the chaos of the time or back to slavery. Many employers refused to house whole families of blacks, preferring to board only their “domestic” woman laborer. Despite these challenges, many Black women made efforts to support and maintain ties to their nuclear kin.
In the Pennsylvania colony, for instance, church records document many Black unions. Especially since women held as slaves needed masters’ permission to wed, “there are enough records to point out that Black women had a value for solidifying the family structure according to the laws of the colony”. Those families that did live together often took in boarders to supplement income or shared a dwelling with another black family or more, contributing to the nontraditional shape of black family life in the post-Revolutionary period. Those families that did live together often took in boarders to supplement income or shared a dwelling with another black family or more, contributing to the nontraditional shape of black family life in the post-Revolutionary period.
In the South, broken families increased as slavery became more entrenched and expanded westward. For example, in the Chesapeake region, agricultural and economic patterns changed after the war, with many planters moving away from labor-intensive tobacco as a cash crop and diversifying their plantings. Many slaves were sold, usually to the Lower South or West, where slave agriculture was expanding. Of those slaves that were not sold, many men with skills were hired out, taking them away from their families.
Following the war, significant numbers of African American women and men relocated to Nova Scotia and the British Caribbean. While many moved with their Loyalist masters, others relocated independently. For example, enslaved women living in Philadelphia, rather than waiting for their husbands to return from fighting for the colonists, left with the British occupations in the late 1770s and early 1780s. These African American women moved of their own accord to Great Britain, Nova Scotia, and the West Indies –in search of a better life. Another way that Black women in the North tried to empower themselves and their children after the Revolution was through education. Early Black women’s organizations were local efforts to support their children‘s access to schooling. For example, Dinah Chase Whipple, a young widow and mother of seven, founded the Ladies African Charitable Society of Portsmouth in New Hampshire. The Ladies Society was “a highly practical undertaking designed to provide financial backing for a school two sisters-in-law ran out of their home”.
Although the rhetoric of the Revolution brought much promise of change, that promise was largely unfulfilled for African Americans, especially African American women. Most women’s status did not change appreciably. If anything, family life became more unstable in the south and, although slavery was gradually abolished in the north, economic opportunities and family stability slowly diminished in urban areas. However, black women contributed significantly on both the Patriot and Loyalist sides, and have thus far gone unheralded.
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