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.
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.
The upheaval of the Revolutionary era also provided women with opportunities to challenge the status quo of colonial society. Phillis Wheatley and Elizabeth Freeman both pushed for enslaved black colonials to be granted the same freedoms claimed by the writers of the Declaration of Independence, while Deborah Squash and Peggy Gwynn took the opportunity to emancipate themselves and joined hundreds of other escaped enslaved people trying to leave for Canada with the evacuating British. Nanyehi Ward, like other Native American leaders, strived to use the Revolution to carve out new opportunities for her people to survive and thrive under the ongoing threat of colonization. And Esther de Beredt Reed blazed a new trail for public-minded women by organizing a fundraising campaign to make up for the deficiencies of the Continental Congress.
The effects of the Revolution did not end with the Treaty of Paris. Women like Catharine Littlefield Greene Miller labored for years to work off the debt and upheaval caused by the war, and some, like Nancy Morgan Hart, became legends long after their deaths. The experiences of the revolution would reverberate for years to come, and shape a new ideal of American womanhood.
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.
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?