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Women During the Revolutionary War
A Proper Place?
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. These effeminate causes were considered the primary groundwork that set the women’s rights movement on a successful journey towards the equality of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There was a dominate focal point prior to the Revolution that expressed the idea that the political activities of the time were only male essential and women were seen as 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 that being within the church and the boundaries of home.
With the rising tide of war, the political arena suddenly became a beacon of thought and conversation to women who had once been overshadowed by the perception of disinterest or outright ignorance.
Molly at Monmouth
"A woman is like a tea bag - you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
American women soon began to home in on their political convictions during the consumer boycotts of the 1760’s and 1770’s. They took control and exercised their use of biased judgment concerning the resistance of goods for sale, and chiefly the import of British tea.
In 1774, fifty-one women gathered in Edenton, North Carolina to sign pledges abstaining from the purchase and use of British tea. Though humored with ridicule and satire this protest was one of the first hints of political defiance in support of their domestic sphere.
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 found themselves participating as couriers and spies.
Women of all creed and color took on roles that were typically 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 eventually led to a wealth of pride and self-worth, which had never been experienced before.
Unfortunately, women who honored the British cause had been isolated from family and friends, and even the communal support from the motherland. Black women in the south who had been subjected to the rigorous chains of slavery suddenly 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 fortitude 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 the loss of husbands and sons.”
"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
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 suddenly began to question their own 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 the institution of marriage as he parlayed the notions of “the sweets of public esteem” and “an equal right to praise.”
In another famous exchange, Abigail Adams expressed in a letter to her husband, John Adams a caution that new laws should be curtailed 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 due to a new phenomenal movement called the Great Awakening.
This ecclesiastical event encouraged women to participate in female public activities at a more fervent level than the war had allowed. Soon women joined voluntary church associations that were 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 civil 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. Though these newfound attitudes found women’s political attentiveness back in the domestic sphere, it did provoke an outside awareness on women’s education.
There were a few, like Priscilla Mason, a graduate of the 1793 Young Ladies’ Academy in Philadelphia who harked on equal education 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 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 only that she had “a thirst for knowledge.” Unfortunately, Adam “was influenced by no other motive than a bare pusillanimous attachment to a woman.”
Mrs. John Stevens
The disruptions of the Revolutionary War and the form of a new Government had immensely 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 have long since been even unto this very day.
Sarah M. Evans, Born for Liberty, 53 & 59. Major Problems in American Women’s History, Chapter 4, Essay by Joan Hoff, 92 & 93.
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Which Historical Female Do You Think Contributed the Most During the American Revolutionary War?
The American Revolution was a home-front war that brought scarcity, bloodshed, and danger into the life of every American. In this groundbreaking history, Carol Berkin shows us how women played a vital role throughout the conflict.
First published in 1980 and recently out of print, Liberty's Daughters is widely considered a landmark book on the history of American women and on the Revolution itself.
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