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The Roles of Women During the American Revolutionary War

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An arts major and published indie author who writes on various subjects pertaining to humanities.

Depiction of Betsy Ross presenting the American flag to General George Washington in the painting "The Birth of Old Glory" by Percy Moran

Depiction of Betsy Ross presenting the American flag to General George Washington in the painting "The Birth of Old Glory" by Percy Moran

Women's Rights Before the Revolution

The grand stirring and upheaval of the American Revolution triggered a widespread epidemic of debate concerning the proper place of women in the public sphere. New political ideas and associative independence were at the forefront of women’s issues throughout colonial America. Some historians attribute the sudden rise of interest in effeminate causes as the initial groundwork that set the women’s rights movement on a successful journey towards equality of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

There was a dominant focal point before the Revolution that expressed the idea that the political activities of the time were only male essential and women were a force that could undermine public virtues. These anomalies left women without a social bond. There were very few establishments that allowed women to exercise their feminine influence, except within the church and the boundaries of home. With the rising tide of war, the political arena became a beacon of thought and conversation to women overshadowed by disinterest or outright ignorance.

American Revolutionary War: Plaque Commemorating the Edenton Tea Party

American Revolutionary War: Plaque Commemorating the Edenton Tea Party

Women and Political Aspirations During the American Revolution

American women soon honed their political convictions during the consumer boycotts of the 1760s and 1770s. They took control and exercised their use of biased judgment over resisting goods for sale, and the import of British tea.

In 1774, a group of 51 women gathered in Edenton, North Carolina, to sign pledges abstaining from the purchase and use of British tea. The public remained riled with ridicule and satire, as this protest was one of the first hints of political defiance to support their domestic sphere and is known as the historic Edenton Tea Party.

This display of patriotic duty by women led to many other causes and associations of support as the onslaught of war became a reality. Women became capable and began making cartridges and bullets, darning socks and baking biscuits. The more hearty found themselves beside their husbands on the front lines of battle or nursing the sick and wounded; there were even a few who took part as couriers and spies.

Women of all creed and color took on roles that were male responsibilities. Patriot women soon learned to manage their husband’s financial holdings and act as sole providers of their homes. It was their level of determination that led to a wealth of pride and self-worth, which had never experienced before.

Women who honored the British cause had isolated themselves from family and friends, and even the public support from the motherland. Black women in the south who had been subjected to the rigorous chains of slavery found an opportunity to emancipate themselves. Abandoning their master’s household, they cast themselves into British control or traveled north in search of a new urban life.

In contrast, it was the Indian women living in the coastal tribes who found no courage during the war with either the British or the colonials. Though both forces competed for loyalties, to Indian women this only meant an “increase of mobility, traditional war preparations, and losing husbands and sons.”

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth. Engraving by J.C. Armytage c1859

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth. Engraving by J.C. Armytage c1859

If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.

— Aristotle

Thomas Paine's Condemnation of the Feminist Movement

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris brought on an independent nation, and the birth of a new era, and women questioned their worth. As noted by Sarah M. Evans, author of Born for Liberty, the question arises as thus. “If they were not citizens, what was their relation to the state?”

Thomas Paine took advantage of the conditions of the American Revolution and commended the feminist movement; it was his voice that sparked an unusual attack against matrimony as he parlayed the notions of “the sweets of public esteem” and “an equal right to praise.”

A Good Wife's Trusted Counsel to John Adams

In another famous exchange, Abigail Adams expressed in a letter to her husband, John Adams, a caution about new laws concerning the full power of husbands over their wives. Like Abigail Adams, many other women would step forward and challenge the social issues of the day in part because of a new phenomenal movement called the Great Awakening.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams

Women of the American Revolution: Public Roles and Patriotic Duties

This religious event encouraged women to take part in female public efforts at a more active level than the war had allowed. Soon women joined voluntary church associations planned through sewing circles and charitable organizations. The ideals of this evangelical movement gave way to an intense emotional debate regarding a woman’s place in the civilian world.

Giving domesticity a political meaning unraveled the problem of female civic duty, and the result was the nurturing image of the republican mother. It was a woman’s patriotic duty to raise and educate her sons as moral and honorable citizens; this responsibility gave women a civic role and identity all of their own. The newfound attitudes brought women’s political attentiveness back into the domestic sphere; it provoked an outside awareness of women’s education. There were a few, like Priscilla Mason, a graduate of the 1793 Young Ladies’ Academy in Philadelphia who harked on equal educational opportunities for women, and that they should “break out of their traditional sphere.”

In 1790, feminist writer Judith Sargent Murray published an article, On the Equality of the Sexes. She also argued that a lack of education for disabled women and that their deficiencies stemmed from their limited knowledge. Murray had a knack for sharp words, and her humor ran sharper than a knife. She made a point that in the book of Genesis Eve’s sin was that she had “a thirst for knowledge” and mused that Adam “was influenced by no other motive than a bare pusillanimous attachment to a woman.”

Post American Revolution Civic Consciousness

The disruptions of the American Revolutionary War and the form of a new government had changed women’s lives and directed them toward a greater light. Their civic consciousness lay no longer within the framework of just domesticity. The war rendered women to support boycotts, assume control of their husband’s assets, and follow armies.

It freed Black slave families, forced Indians from their homelands, and had given new enlightenment to the educated republican mother. The Revolution hastened a change for women and shaped an equality movement for women’s rights that has long since been even unto this very day.

Cited Sources & Works

  • Sarah M. Evans, Born for Liberty, 53 & 59. Major Problems in American Women’s History, Chapter 4, Essay by Joan Hoff
  • Editors of the Civil War Trust. Revolutionary War Overview: Women in the American Revolution

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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