Key Ideas

1. Eighteenth-century women were active and engaged participants in every aspect of colonial and revolutionary life.

2. The experiences of women in the eighteenth century varied widely based on race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region.

3. The full history of the North American colonies and the American Revolution cannot be properly understood without considering the perspectives, experiences, and contributions of women.

Introduction

The English concept of the ideal colonial woman dominated the eighteenth century.

She is white. She wears long skirts and covers her hair. She is a housewife, effortlessly caring for home and family. She relies upon her husband to provide what their family needs and to shelter them from the outside world. She is deeply religious, and attends services regularly. She is aware of the political and cultural forces that shape the world around her, and she may even have an opinion or two of her own, but she is too modest and well-bred to share her ideas publicly. She submits to the wisdom and authority of the men who run her home, her community, and her colony, and occupies her days with domestic concerns. This ideal, popularized by authors and artists, still influences modern-day thinking about the lives and experiences of colonial women.

James Frothingham, Catharine Littlefield Greene Miller (1755-1814), wife of Nathanael Greene and Phineas Miller, and supporter of Eli Whitney, 1809. Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia. Museum purchase 1947.2.

The reality of the eighteenth-century woman in the historical record is equal parts more complicated and fascinating. Archival materials contain the stories of women of every age, race, class, gender, and sexual identity, all actively engaged in the world around them. There are activists, political leaders, rebels, philosophers, artists, and business moguls. The domestic tasks women were expected to perform were neither easy nor frivolous, and the very survival of their families and communities depended on women’s mostly unpaid and unacknowledged labor. Women were continuously lectured about their subordination to men, but they found creative and vital ways to subvert these cultural expectations. And when the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, women were as deeply concerned and committed to the cause, on both sides, as the men who are more regularly celebrated in popular history.

François (Franz) Fleischbein, Portrait of Betsy, 1837. The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 1985.212.

Settler Colonialism and the Revolution, 1670–1798 provides resources to allow you to easily discover the history of these eighteenth-century women and integrate them into your lesson plans. We’ve organized the unit into two sections—Settler Colonialism, which examines the lives of women in colonies across North America, and the American Revolution, which focuses in on women’s experiences in the struggle for independence. The resources in each module illustrate the experiences of a wide range of women across race, gender, age, social, and economic spectrums. You’ll meet women who worked in agriculture, participated in politics, ran complex business empires, and resisted slavery and colonization with every means at their disposal. Some resources tell inspiring stories of accomplishment and ingenuity, and some force us to confront the oppression and exploitation that women lived with every day. Some you’ll be able to substitute easily into your lessons, and some will allow you to introduce new ideas and avenues for exploration. Many of the resources “speak” to each other in interesting ways, allowing you and your students to compare women’s experiences across geographical and cultural lines.

Phillis Wheatley, Front piece from Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773). New-York Historical Society Library.

This unit is by no means comprehensive. For example, we’ve saved the debates over women’s citizenship during the formation of the new United States government for the next unit (coming in 2021), so that we can dig deeper into the lived experiences of the Revolutionary War. There are thousands more stories of women in the archives. We hope this introduction inspires you and your students to seek them out and bring them into the light.

Sarah Janeway, Sampler, 1783. The New-York Historical Society.

To get started, you can explore the fifty resources that make up this unit in two different ways: by “section” or by “theme.” Each resource comes with background information, a vocabulary list, and suggested activities for how you might integrate it into your lessons. Resources can be printed out individually or with various supplements included, depending on how you want to use them with your students. There are also links included on each resource page that will allow you to explore other resources that connect by topic or theme, so you can continue to follow interesting threads and see where they take you.

Unit Essential Questions

1. Why were women critical to the settler colonialism that characterized much of the eighteenth century?

2. How did women’s experiences vary as a result of race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region?

3. Why is it important to consider women’s narratives and perspectives when learning about the history of the colonies and American Revolution?

Explore by Section

To learn about this unit chronologically, explore the sections below!

Settler Colonialism

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American Revolution

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Explore by Theme

Explore resources related to common curricular topics and themes.

View All Resources

Discover all the resources in this unit below and click through to the sections to find even more background information.