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Gender in The American Revolution

Activism and Femininity in Times of War

When Parliament passed duties on tea, among other items, in the Townshend Act of 1767, female Patriots banded together to support and uphold the colonial boycott. American newspapers praised the ladies who sipped coffee or local herbal teas in place of the British imports. Poetesses sent their verses to the local gazettes in order to express their heartfelt devotion to the cause and their determination not to submit to the fastening of "Chains upon my country."144 In North Carolina, 51 women signed an agreement in October 1774 declaring their "sincere adherence" to Congress's resolves and pledging to do "every thing as lies in our power" to support the "publick [sic] good."145 These women proclaimed their patriotism while simultaneously declaring their intention—and even their right—to participate in the traditionally male realm of public policy. Some men may simply have laughed off such endeavors as amusing trivialities, but whether they recognized it or not, the Revolution changed the thoughts and mindsets of their mothers, wives, and daughters in many important if subtle ways. Even those women who accepted that politics was not the province of the female sex still remarked that "nothing else is talked of," and that the gathering storm against the British was "the most animating Subject" of the day, one that "Concerns us all."146

Pragmatic Necessity Creates Opportunities

In addition to patriotic gestures and increased involvement in traditionally male-dominated topics—like politics and military strategy—the sheer necessities of warfare also created new opportunities for women. These opportunities were not always advantageous for the women themselves, particularly in the case of enslaved women; but they did carry the potential to teach such women new skills. Enslaved black women in the South became the backbone of the domestic textile industry during the colonial boycotts of the Revolutionary War, when Virginia merchants and other slaveowners put them to work spinning and weaving to manufacture cloth that satisfied public demand in absence of British imports. They would continue to manufacture cloth until the War of 1812. Farther north, white women who could not rely on slave labor had to assume the duties of creating homespun fabric in addition to their other considerable chores in the household and on the farm. The demand for homespun clothing was clearly a priority, and in turn, it elevated the importance of women's unpaid but crucial domestic labor. One Connecticut farm girl who spent an entire autumn day carding and spinning wool in 1775 sat down that evening to write in her diary that she "felt Nationly [sic] into the bargain."147 Another young woman in New York City used the same terminology—"felt Nationly"—to express her pride in having knitted stockings from homespun yarn.148

Taking Sides

Women not only provided critical economic support during colonial boycotts, but they utilized their position in society to play the roles of politician, spy, informer, and activist. During the British invasion of South Carolina in 1780, women like Eliza Wilkinson recalled that the Whig ladies were "perfect statesmen," for they could easily gather amongst themselves and pretend to talk of fashion, all the while exchanging information about the enemy. British officers would have disregarded the sight of such ladies gathering to discuss what they assumed were "feminine" matters. The same was perhaps even more true of young women (who would be known as teenagers today, although the term did not exist back then) like Emily Gieger and Deborah Champion, who served as messengers for the militia.149

Women who married patriot leaders or even rank-and-file soldiers had unparalleled access to the latest information about everything from political controversies to battle preparations, courtesy of their husbands (or fathers or sons). Many became so fiercely committed to their cause that the divergence between allegiances could destroy long-cherished friendships and even marriages. In a few exceptional but legendary cases, women like Deborah Sampson disguised themselves as men so that they could literally fight in the revolutionary army, and Nancy Hart of Georgia captured a group of Tories all by herself.150 During the British attack on Fort Washington on 16 November 1776, Margaret Corbin commanded her dead husband's cannon until she herself was seriously wounded. Enemy fire wounded Corbin in the chest and the jaw, and tore her left shoulder, disabling her arm. Although Gen. Nathanael Greene's forces lost the fort to the British that day, Margaret Corbin's efforts did not go unnoticed—she became the first woman to be pensioned as a war veteran by the government, in 1779, though she only received half-pay. In 1926 the Daughters of the American Revolution arranged to have her remains moved from Highland Falls, New York, to the grounds of the West Point Military Academy at West Point, New York, where a monument was erected in her honor.151

The legend of Revolutionary War heroine Molly Pitcher arose from the story of Mary Ludwig Hays (or Heis), the wife of Continental soldier John Hays (or Heis). While her husband and his comrades fought at the battle of Monmouth (now Freehold, New Jersey) on 28 June 1778, Molly carried water for her husband and other soldiers, who gave her the "Pitcher" nickname. A legend grew up around Molly, who was said to have manned her husband's gun, though there is no evidence for that claim. Pennsylvania saw fit to grant her a pension in 1822.

Of course, women also took active roles regardless of their allegiance. Historian Paul Smith has estimated that perhaps 15% of adult white colonists fought for the British, but only 5.5% of white female Loyalists directly assisted their cause. Yet among these women Tories there numbered eight spies, six letter carriers who traversed enemy lines, and nine who assisted British soldiers, including those held as prisoners of war.152

An Equivocal End

Leaders of the new United States were no more willing to give up on patriarchal traditions than they were to change similar traditions championing white supremacy. In fact, the republican ideology of the Revolution wound up circumscribing women's role in society as the years went by, dividing society by gender into "separate spheres"—citizenship and public affairs became more exclusively the realm of men, domesticity and motherhood the realm of women. Still, for a moment the Revolution nonetheless provided unprecedented opportunities for many women to make a difference, beginning a very gradual shift in women's self-perceptions. Revolutionary women expressed pride and patriotism through their very meaningful contributions to the cause of liberty. The legacy of "Liberty's Daughters" manifested itself later in the activism that characterized female reformers who lobbied for temperance, women's rights, and abolition during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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