Women and the American Revolution

Women played a crucial role in the American Revolution (1775-1783) in a variety of ways, including boycotting goods to fighting on the battlefields. This was a period marked by controversies for women. On one hand, their roles were limited by the traditional stereotypes and regulations, while on the other, women felt the influence of the revolutionary spirit.

The revolution needed the help of American women because of their vital role for the household economy. The colonies engaged in boycotts of British goods and stopped importing them. The scarcity of certain products needed to be tackled, so the rebel colonies sought the support of women to provide substitutes for the British goods. American women in sewing circles produced a product called homespun to replace the imported British textiles. The sewing circles also acted as social meetings at which political issues were discussed. Women shunned the purchasing and consumption of British goods such as tea and vocally proclaimed their preferences for products with local origin. An illustration of this attitude was a petition of 1774, signed by 51 women of Edmonton, who vowed not to "conform with the pernicious custom of drinking tea."

Women's involvement in the revolutionary drive was not limited to the household. Many participated in parades, riots and some women organized them. Hannah Bostwick McDougall (1748-1815) initiated parades with the goal to free her arrested husband. Other women took part in violent protests, such as the food riots targeted against merchants who took advantage of the situation by increasing prices. Some upper-class women also supported the revolution. In 1780, Esther De Berdt Reed of Philadelphia (1746-1780) and Sarah Franklin Bache (1743-1808), daughter of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), established a women's fundraising organization to help the Whig, otherwise known as the Rebels. George Washington (1732-1799) advised the women to provide clothes for the army instead of money and the women responded by providing more than 2,000 linen shirts by the end of the year.

Other women took active participation in military combat. Deborah Sampson (1760-1827) disguised herself as a man and served in the infantry for a year. She was discharged with honors in 1783. There were also many women who helped the army by cooking, cleaning and nursing. The vital role that women played in helping soldiers eventually prompted Washington to set a quota of one woman for every 15 soldiers in the Continental Army. The so-called "women of the regiment" received regular rations but also faced military discipline.

Women received a new sense of liberty thanks to the revolution and were able to express openly their views on important social and political matters. An example is the 1780 manifesto, Sentiments of an American Woman, thought to have been written by De Berdt Reed, which urged women to support the quest for liberty via boycotts, household production, support for the soldiers and self-sacrifice. The public mood changed and this affected the perception of the role of women. Therefore, the Whig did not oppose the social gatherings, disguised as sewing circles. In many cities it was usual for a woman to be economically independent, in case she chose not to marry.

Many women decided to take advantage of the new public spirit and sought to expand the rights of their gender. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) and Sampson, along with the writers Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) and Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) raised questions about women's role in a Republican society. Despite their efforts, little political achievements followed. The designation of gender roles prevailed and colleges and professions remained closed to women. Moreover, the "coverture" system stated that a married woman had no right to property, as she was covered by her husband.

Not all women who lived during the American Revolution took active participation in the rebellion, as there were also many loyalist women. Regardless of their attitude to the revolution, however, all women were subject to much the same treatment by the British army. The continental forces were especially brutal during their campaigns against the Iroquois in upstate New York. Rape, property destruction and theft were common events. Loyalist women were particularly vulnerable as they lacked the support provided to the Whig sisters. In some colonies, the Whig legislatures passed laws to take away property from the loyalists. Women faced tough challenges if their own views and those of their husbands on the revolution differed because the law supported men.

Women and the American Revolution: Selected full-text books and articles

Daily Life during the American Revolution By Dorothy Denneen Volo; James M. Volo Greenwood Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Women at War"
Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women By Christine Fauré Routledge, 2003
Librarian's tip: "The American Revolution through Women's Eyes" begins on p. 61
Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England By Catherine Adams; Elizabeth H. Pleck Oxford University Press, 2010
The Southern Experience in the American Revolution By Jeffrey J. Crow; Larry E. Tise University of North Carolina Press, 1978
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "'What an Alarming Crisis is This': Southern Women and the American Revolution"
Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays By Linda K. Kerber University of North Carolina Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Section I "Finding Women in the Revolutionary Era"
American Women Writers to 1800 By Sharon M. Harris Oxford University Press, 1996
Librarian's tip: "Revolutionary War Writings" begins on p. 269
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Before Equal Suffrage: Women in Partisan Politics from Colonial Times to 1920 By Robert J. Dinkin Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods;" "Women in the Patriot Cause" begins on p. 10
Legacies of the American Revolution By Larry R. Gerlach; James A. Dolph; Michael L. Nicholls Utah State University Press, 1978
Librarian's tip: Chap. "The American Revolution and the Rights of Women: The Feminist Theory of Abigail Adams" begins on p. 199
Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers: Primary Documents on Events of the Period By David A. Copeland Greenwood Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 26 "The Edenton Tea Party and Perceptions of Women, 1774"
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
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