HistoryDecember 9, 2015
Born for Liberty
For women, the Revolutionary War resulted in more than American Independence, it became a watershed moment for the development of women's political expression. Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, is a study of the emergence, and eventual suppression of female political activity during and after the American Revolution. Zagarri concludes that the increased political activities of women during the Revolutionary period produced a backlash in their political participation in the 19th century, but set the stage for women’s popular participation in other forms, such as benevolent societies and social reform organizations.
The following excerpt explains how political leaders asked for women’s contributions in helping the Revolutionary cause and how women came to understand their own patriotism.
“Yet this was a revolution, of a certain kind—a change in the understanding of women's intellectual capacity and social contributions rather than the achievement of political rights and privileges. Before the American Revolution the popular perception remained that politics and government were exclusively male realms. Although women had certain rights, their status was inferior to that of men.”
“By and large, however, most women remained reluctant to transgress into what was understood to be male territory. Even Mercy Otis Warren, who would become one of the most accomplished women authors of her generation, responded timidly when her friend John Adams first spoke to her about the subject of politics. In a letter written in 1776, Adams asked Warren what form of government she would prefer for the newly independent United States. In reply she expressed her hesitancy to speak to the issue, fearing that a discussion of ‘war, politicks, or anything relative thereto’ was off-limits to women. She wondered whether his query was ‘designed to ridicule the sex for paying any attention to political matters.’ Only after she received his explicit reassurances did she dare ‘approach the verge of any thing so far beyond the line of my sex.’”
“This state of affairs could have persisted indefinitely if not for the American Revolution. The American Revolution marked a watershed in the popular perceptions of women’s relationship to the state. Almost a soon as the controversy began in the 1760s, Whig leaders realize that the effectiveness of their resistance to Britain depended on their ability to mobilize popular support. This included women. Women’s support, they knew, would be critical to the resistance movement against Britain and could affect the course of the war.”
“What was different about the American Revolution [from earlier conflicts] was the nature and extent of the appeals to women. The more extensive use of print media made this change possible. Newspapers, magazines, and broadsides reached out to women in a direct, wide-spread, and public fashion. Using poems, essays, plays and orations, male political leaders urged women to join in the effort. During the 1760s they asked women to boycott imported luxury goods, produce homemade textiles and clothing and give up drinking British tea. Once armed resistance began, they asked them to sacrifice the conveniences of life, take over their husbands’ duties at home in their absence, and, if necessary, be willing to offer their men’s lives for their country on the field of battle. Printed appeals drew women to the cause."
“Women responded with a widespread outpouring of support. During the 1760s women in Boston, Massachusetts, and Edenton, North Carolina, signed formal agreements to abide by the boycotts forbidding the importation of British goods. In other places women organized local chapters of the Daughters of Liberty as female counterparts to the Sons of Liberty, held patriotic spinning bees, or wore homespun as a sign of symbolic sacrifice. Soon after declaring independence, New Yorkers toppled a leaden statue of George III on the Bowling Green. Seizing the opportunity, the women of Litchfield, Connecticut retrieved the statuary and transformed the broken pieces into over forty-two thousand cartridges to supply the Continental Army with ammunition. Once the war began, some women sewed shirts or knit stockings for Washington's desperately needy troops. Still others took even more direct action. In 1780 Esther DeBerdt Reed spearheaded a drive in Philadelphia to collect funds for the Continental Army. In towns throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia, women went door to door soliciting funds to assist the wavering war effort. Participating in the revolutionary movement in their own ways and on their own terms, women made themselves a political force.”
“At the grassroots level, women came to realize that their personal response to the Revolution could have an impact on the course of the war itself. The new nation needed thousands of men, year after year, to fill offices in the new state and federal governments, to serve in the militia or the Continental Army, and to represent the country as ambassadors abroad. When men left home to take up arms or serve in government positions, they depended on women to take over their duties on the farm, in business, and within the family. Women often had little prior training or experience in supervising these matters. Economic conditions were difficult; wartime shortages and inflation made matters worse.”
“Instead of being simply followers, women would lead the way and ‘point out their Duty to Men.’ Having suffered numerous adversities, they came to believe that their patriotism equaled any man's. Carrying on while her husband was a British prisoner, Mary Fish of Connecticut declared, ‘I have the vanity to think I have in some measure acted the heroine as well as my dear Husband the Hero.’ American women were, as Esther DeBerdt Reed put it, ‘Born for liberty.’”
“Although the Revolution did not necessary radicalize women, it did politicize them in ways and to an extent that had never before occurred. They started to see themselves–and were seen by others–as political beings. No longer were they politically invisible.”
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance. To learn more about the Museum's plans for a national museum in Philadelphia that will tell the complete story of the Revolution, click here.