1692 – 1783 Settler Colonialism and the Revolution The American Revolution

Key Ideas

1. Women played critical roles in every part of the American Revolution, from the early protest through managing the aftermath of the war.

2. The experiences of women during the American Revolution varied widely based on race, class, age, and geographic region.

3. The story of the American Revolution cannot be properly understood without including the contributions and experiences of women.

Introduction

Woodcut detail from Molly Gutridge, A new touch on the times: Well adapted to the distressing situation of every sea-port town (Danvers, MA: Ezekiel Russell, 1779). New-York Historical Society Library.

Women and the American Revolution, 1750–1783

Though women in the English colonies were legally barredfrom nearly all forms of public and political life, they found numerous ways to engage in the political discourse that heated up in the years before the American Revolution.

Whether it was by producing homemade goods to avoid paying import taxes, writing scathing political satire, or publicly declaring a boycott of British goods, women were more than capable of bringing their considerable social and economic influence to bear in support of the Patriot cause. Their efforts were not always welcome, but they were effective.

The outbreak of the war in 1775 at the Battles of Lexington and Concord cleaved a fissure right through the heart of colonial society. Thousands of women suddenly found themselves living in a war zone, endured years of hardship, and many lost everything as the American and British Armies battled across the continent. Some women rose to the position of head of the household when their husbands departed for the war, while others became camp followers of the Continental Army and actively contributed to the success of the American enterprise. Loyalist women exploited their reputations as the “weaker sex” to run successful spy operations in New York, while in Philadelphia, Peggy Shippen Arnold covered her husband Benedict’s plotting with mundane shopping tasks. Without the efforts of women on both sides of the revolutionary divide, the war would have progressed very differently.

For more information about how definitions of “freedom” in the Revolutionary Era intersected with gender, watch the brief video below.

This video is from “Women Have Always Worked,” a free massive open online course produced in collaboration with Columbia University.

Section Essential Questions

1. How did women actively participate in the Revolutionary era?

2. How were women’s activities in this era circumscribed by social and legal limitations?

3. What effect did a woman’s race, class, or social differences have on her experience of the Revolutionary era?

4. Why are women’s stories critical to understanding the events of the American Revolution?

Resources

Colonial women used spinning wheels like this one to create homespun thread that could be woven into fabric. In the lead-up to the American Revolution, spinning became an overtly political act, because it allowed women to avoid paying tax on imported British textiles and supported the general political protest against English policies.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
colonial protests, women’s labor, daily life, manufacturing, English colonies, civic action, Patriots
Go to Resource
Mercy Otis Warren wrote and published the tragic play The Adulateur in 1772 to call out the alleged crimes of the British government during the Boston Massacre.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
colonial protests, theater, Boston Massacre, civic action, Patriots, Massachusetts, Boston
Go to Resource
In 1774, fifty women in Edenton, North Carolina, signed and published a statement declaring their intention to boycott all British goods. It was the first women’s public collective political action in American history.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
colonial protests, women’s labor, Boston Tea Party, trade, civic action, Patriots, North Carolina, Edenton
Go to Resource
These political cartoons illustrate how the general public received colonial women’s political action, and how the figures of women became potent political symbols.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
political cartoons, colonial protests, women’s work, Boston Tea Party, civic action, artists, Loyalist, Patriot
Go to Resource
In this document, a well-to-do Loyalist lady recounts the events of the first battles of the American Revolution.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Loyalist, civilians in the American Revolution, Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, Boston
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A New York woman’s firsthand account of being caught in the crossfire during a British attack on New York.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
English colonies, civilians in the American Revolution, American occupation of New York, Battle of Brooklyn, New York, New York City
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Two letters of Lucy Knox illustrate the trials and tribulations of women whose husbands left to fight in the war.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
English colonies, civilians in the American Revolution, Patriot, life on the home front, Massachusetts
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Soldiers’ accounts of encounters with a Haudenosaunee woman who lost everything during General John Sullivan’s raids against Native communities in New York.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Haudenosaunee, Native experiences of the American Revolution, General Sullivan’s Campaign, New York
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This poem by Phillis Wheatley demonstrates how enslaved and free black people saw the American Revolution as an opportunity to end the systematic oppression of black people in the colonies.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
colonial culture, poetry, slavery, experiences of enslaved women, abolition, Free Black colonials, Massachusetts, Boston
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In this poem, a middle-class Massachusetts woman reflects on the hardships of life on the home front.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
home front, poetry, colonial culture, daily life, working class life, civilians during the American Revolution, Massachusetts
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This broadside, written in 1780, argues that every American woman must actively support the war effort to ensure victory.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
home front, Continental Army, Patriot, fundraising for the Continental Army, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
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This ledger records the biographical information about every enslaved or free black person who evacuated New York with the British at the end of the war.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
slavery and manumission, Loyalist, British evacuation of the colonies, experiences of enslaved women, end of the American Revolution, Dunmore’s Proclamation, North Carolina, New York, New York City
Go to Resource

Life Stories

The story of a camp follower who became a war hero and earned the first soldier’s pension ever awarded to a woman.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Molly Pitchers, camp followers, Patriots, Continental Army, post-war life, Battle of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, New York
Go to Resource
The story of a Loyalist spy in New York who did everything she could to undermine the American war efforts.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Loyalist, spies, New York, Washington’s retreat from New York, post-war life, New York, New York City
Go to Resource
The story of a woman enslaved by George Washington who self-emancipated during the war.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Loyalist, slavery and manumission, George Washington, experiences of enslaved women, Dunmore’s Proclamation, post-war life, Virginia, New York, New York City
Go to Resource
The story of an enslaved woman whose bid for freedom failed during the American Revolution.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Loyalist, slavery and manumission, experiences of enslaved women, Dunmore’s Proclamation, post-war life, New York, New York City, Virginia
Go to Resource
The story of the woman who was instrumental in Benedict Arnold’s plot to betray the Continental Army.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Benedict Arnold, Loyalist, spies, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, New York, post-war life
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The story of the Cherokee leader who tried to keep her people safe during the American Revolution.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Cherokee, Native history, Native response to European colonization, Native experiences of the American Revolution, differences in social and cultural practices between Native communities and European colonizers, Tennessee
Go to Resource
The story of the enslaved woman whose court case set the legal precedent to abolish slavery in Massachusetts.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
slavery, manumission, free black communities, experiences of enslaved women, abolition, politics and government, legal history, Massachusetts
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The story of a Revolutionary era woman who became an American legend.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Patriot, frontier life, myths of the American Revolution, American myths and legends, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky
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The story of a general’s wife who dealt with the repercussions of the revolution for decades after its official end.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Patriot, home front, camp followers, camp life, post-war life, plantation life, frontier life, Rhode Island, Georgia
Go to Resource

For more information and resources about the American Revolution, see our curriculum guide The Battle of Brooklyn.