Women in the Revolutionary War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The American Revolution is often considered to be one of the most important political revolutions in modern history. This internal conflict that pitted patriots against Tory loyalists immediately subjected women to the horrors and sacrifices of war. While the revolution ushered in a new egalitarian republican ideology, it failed to address the issue of sexual equality adequately. This failure, however, did not prevent women from becoming active participants in the war. Inspired by new radical doctrines, a collective feminist identity began to emerge, and after the American victory, the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality began to unfold in American history.

The American Revolution produced a new republican ideology that emphasized the importance of individual freedom and democratic liberty, but these rights were not extended to women.

The American Revolution is often considered to be one of the most important political revolutions in modern history. This internal conflict that pitted patriots against Tory loyalists immediately subjected women to the horrors and sacrifices of war. While the revolution ushered in a new egalitarian republican ideology, it failed to address the issue of sexual equality adequately. This failure, however, did not prevent women from becoming active participants in the war. Inspired by new radical doctrines, a collective feminist identity began to emerge, and after the American victory, the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality began to unfold in American history.

Women’s Contributions

Patriot women provided various services and made numerous contributions to the war effort. Left to manage the household economy, women undermined England’s ability to wage war by refusing to support the sale and production of British manufactured goods. “Buy American” campaigns were initiated as women sacrificed to protect the domestic market. They refused to purchase British textiles, wore only homespun clothes, and boycotted English tea. Women also attacked local merchants who refused to sell valuable goods. In July, 1778, more than one hundred women stormed into a coffee warehouse, confronted a loyalist merchant, and confiscated his supply of coffee. Similar demonstrations occurred throughout the revolution. In addition, women eased the revolutionary government’s economic burdens through aggressive fund-raising campaigns. Door-to-door canvassing took place in various states, such as New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. In 1780, several women attempted to coordinate the entire colonial effort by creating a national organization to help obtain money for the troops.

Women also played a pivotal role in furnishing key auxiliary support during several military campaigns. They served as spies, worked behind the lines as nurses and boardinghouse managers, and provided priceless logistical support that enabled the colonial army to seek shelter and tend their wounded before the next battle. Some wives became steadfast camp followers and assumed their traditional domestic responsibilities, including cooking meals and cleaning the camps. More adventurous women disguised themselves as men and even took part in actual combat. Deborah Sampson represented the most noteworthy case: She fought for more than two years before her true gender was discovered. By fulfilling these basic domestic tasks and through their willingness to endure the hardships and sacrifice of war, women elevated the soldiers’ morale and provided comfort and solace to those who were separated from their families. More important, their patriotism revealed that women had developed a sense of rebellious political consciousness and did not remain passive observers during the revolution.

One of the most famous women associated with the American Revolution is Betsy Ross, who according to tradition sewed the first American flag in June, 1776, on the request of George Washington. However, no firm evidence supports this legend. (National Archives)

Dangers

Despite all these displays of patriotic fervor, women were denied access to political and military decision making, were subjected to exploitative wage disparities when employed as nurses and camp servants, and were victimized by the same cult of domesticity that had existed prior to the war. In addition, enemy troops often raped and pillaged as they advanced, creating thousands of female refugees, and women were consistently forced to open their homes and surrender their property to British troops.

Tory wives experienced a similar fate. They were often brutalized by American troops, and since their husbands were fighting for the British, they were victimized by constant surveillance and suspicion. States passed expulsion laws that required Tory wives to vacate their property, and many were forced to find shelter in refugee camps. One Tory wife in New Jersey openly denounced her husband’s affiliation with the British, but the state legislature refused to grant her clemency and held her accountable for her husband’s political beliefs. Because American troops and local governments assumed that a woman could not possess the knowledge to formulate a political opinion that differed from that of her husband, countless women were unjustly accused of being conspirators.

The war also generated outbursts of patriotism from Tory women. On numerous occasions, they infiltrated enemy lines and distributed British propaganda to American troops. Colonial military commander George Washington often complained that women were filtering through his defenses and relaying key information back to the British. Washington’s concerns caused considerable alarm, and in 1780, thirty-two women were imprisoned in New York State for conducting espionage activities and for providing sanctuary for British troops. By the end of the year, the state granted local justices the power to evict loyalist women from their households and ordered them to leave the state within twenty days.

According to legend, an American woman named Mary McCauly accompanied her husband to the Battle of Monmouth, where she took her husband’s place at a cannon after he collapsed from exhaustion. She then served heroically through the remainder of the battle. For her work carrying pitchers of water to soldiers, she was dubbed “Molly Pitcher,” by which name she later became famous. (National Archives)

Legal and Social Restrictions

Following the end of hostilities in 1781, women’s legal and social status slightly improved, but unlike their male counterparts, women were still denied full participation in political and legal affairs. The constitutional and judicial systems in late eighteenth century America refused to grant women the right to vote and significantly curtailed women’s property rights as well. Women were subjected to laws of coverture, in which a married woman’s identity was supposedly subsumed into her husband’s identity; consequently, she did not require any individual legal protection.

As a result of women’s contributions during the revolution and the emergence of such prominent female writers as Abigail Adams, playwright Mercy Otis Warren, and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, a new feminist consciousness slowly developed. This shift generated several challenges to the patriarchal system of power. Several states passed treason statutes that allowed Tory wives to retain title to their dowries if they declared their loyalty to the United States and declined to follow their husbands into exile. Dowry rights were also preserved for all women after marriage, which meant that a husband could no longer sell his wife’s property without her written consent. Such gains, however, did not eradicate male dominance.

Although prenuptial agreements became more common in the propertied classes, courts often confiscated dowry property to pay off a man’s creditors if he died with considerable debts. Divorce laws were relaxed in certain states, but in others, such as South Carolina, women remained locked in abusive marriages. Education was improving, and the literacy gap between the sexes was closing, but women were still denied access to the professions. For example, women could enter the courts as plaintiffs, defendants, or as witnesses, but since they lacked formal educational training, women were prevented from becoming attorneys, judges, and clerks. This limitation significantly subverted their quest for full equality. Education was still associated with masculinity, and any woman who aggressively pursued studies was perceived as being an undesirable partner.

Yet the American Revolution and the advent of republican ideology did elevate women’s social status in American society. During the formative years of the revolution, many theorists began to argue that women could fulfill a certain political role that did not necessitate the right to vote. As a wife and mother, a woman could rear virtuous sons who would ultimately govern the republic. Referred to as the concept of Republican Motherhood, this belief spurred the creation of female academies and women’s literature that emphasized the interdependency between domesticity and women’s political rights.

Under this concept, which has often been classified as the fourth branch of the American government, women were expected to become self-reliant, pious, free from material temptations, and well educated, but these skills were only to be utilized within a domestic framework. While Republican Motherhood enhanced women’s prestige, it did little to challenge the subordinate political and legal status that women were forced to endure during the American Revolution. Thus, despite playing a prominent role in the struggle for independence, women did not share equally in the fruits of victory.

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