Women in the American Revolution
In the colonial period, women were not welcome in many of the arenas where the revolution was going on. Politics, public speaking, and economics were all considered far too public to be proper for a woman. However, this does not mean that women did not participate in the American Revolution. We say that history is written by the winners, and in fact, it is also written by those who are in the spotlight. Because women were not in the spotlight during the Revolution, it can be harder to discover women’s history, but it can be done.
Were women oppressed? Not necessarily. Society had strict gender roles at this time, which we would now consider sexist, but that didn’t mean that women had no opportunities – they just had different ones. At the time, private life or the “domestic sphere” included social gatherings in someone’s home, household tasks that were necessary as well as ones for enjoyment, like needlepoint, letter-writing among friends and family, and other activities. “Public life” included politics, economics, public speaking, for example – everything that men were expected to do.
Women’s daily lives were often occupied with raising their families. Families were significantly larger at the time than they are now; six or seven children was average, but ten or more was not uncommon. A woman who bears six children spends a cumulative total of four and a half years pregnant. Wealthier women usually had domestic servants (sometimes slaves) to help them raise their children, and in large families where the children were spread out over a number of years, the older ones could help take care of the younger ones. Still, without modern conveniences, being a mother was even more of a full-time job than parenting is today. One of several reasons that family sizes were larger is that child mortality was significantly higher in the 1700’s than today – more than a third of children did not survive to adulthood. Almost every colonial mother had to cope with the loss of a child at some point.
One of women’s major tasks during the Revolution flowed directly out of their role as homemaker: they were the ones trying to keep things running as normally as possible at home while the men were off politicking, fighting wars, and dumping tea in the harbor. Political upheaval and wars always disrupt daily life in some way or another. Boston was particularly affected, as British soldiers occupied the town from 1768-1770 and again during the Revolutionary War. It was women’s skill as homemakers that gave Bostonians some respite from the turmoil. For some women, keeping things running normally was a particular challenge, because their husbands (or other male relatives were absent. Some men were absent because they were fishermen, sailors, or traders. Some women outlived their husbands. Additionally, in the late 1700’s, some men left their homes for reasons directly related to the Revolution: political conventions or the war itself. The women that these men left behind then had to take on a double role, taking on their husbands’ work as well as their own. Because of this, women in Revolutionary Boston ran small businesses, operated family farms, and did other jobs that were not traditional for women to do. Generally speaking, women were not educated to do men’s work. Most girls were taught reading, writing, religion, and a little bit of math, and wealthier women were often taught music, drawing, and a foreign language. If a woman ended up running a business or a farm, she might have been lucky enough to have a father or a brother who could teach her the necessary skills. If not, she may have learned from other women who had faced the same challenge, or simply taught herself as she worked.
Women who considered themselves Patriots and supported the Revolution had additional challenges to keeping their homes running smoothly. British taxes and trade regulations often targeted items that were essential to the home, so if a woman chose not to buy these items, she had to get creative. For example, Patriots chose to boycott British cloth. Britain had power looms that could produce cloth that was almost comparable with what is manufactured today, but there were no textile mills in the American colonies. Women who stopped buying imported cloth could reuse and mend old clothing, but soon they would need new cloth, especially if they had growing children in the house. Patriot women began making homespun, meaning homemade cloth. Spinning and weaving were certainly more common skills than they are today, but most colonial women were accustomed to buying cloth pre-made. By choosing to make homespun, women added many hours to their workweek and gave up the luxury of the finer British product. Another boycotted item was tea, which was essential to properly entertaining guests in one’s home. Patriot women began serving an herbal tea made from raspberry leaves as a substitute.
Generally speaking, women were not present at the major protests leading up to the American Revolution. Protesting in the streets was considered a very, very public action, and improper for a woman. However, some women were present at other events, such as the Boston Massacre. Some women were even called as trial witnesses after the Boston Massacre; it was nearly unheard of for a woman to speak in court at the time, but the trial was so important to the colonists that they wanted as many eyewitness accounts as they could find.
Many of the ways that women contributed to the American Revolution, such as boycotts did not leave much of a trace behind them. However, women did find ways to leave a lasting record. One way that we know what women of the Revolution were thinking is by their writing.
An example of a prolific woman writer is Abigail Adams, who expressed her political views in letters to friends and family. Abigail Adams grew up in Massachusetts, the daughter of the pastor of a Congregational church. Her family was wealthy and she was fairly well-educated for a woman, but she took much of her education into her own hands by reading a lot and by learning from her grandfather, who was a colonel in the militia and a politician. Finding a husband who was just as intelligent as she was and who respected her opinions was important to her, and she was lucky enough to get what she wanted by marrying John Adams. The two spent much of their courtship and their marriage separated because of John’s work. This meant that like many other Revolutionary women, Abigail Adams ran their home single-handedly, and it also meant that the two wrote many letters to one another. John Adams often confided in her about political matters and asked for her opinions. Her letters are some of the most thorough existing first-hand accounts of life in Boston at that time. This is a good example of how women’s history is constructed differently than men’s because men’s is more often well-documented: Adams was not necessarily unique in her views or her intellect, but we know about her because but we have her letters.
Perhaps the most famous piece of advice that Adams gave her husband was a piece he did not follow – when she asked him to remember the ladies.
“I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Abigail Adams, 1776.
This quote is significant first of all because Adams wanted women to have a voice in government. The first national conference for women’s rights was not until 1848, and women did not get the right to vote nationally until 1921. Equally important is the fact that she used the rhetoric and the ideas of the American Revolution to ask for women’s rights – people have a right to a voice in their own government, and if they have no voice they have a right to demand one, and if they are still not represented, that government does not have power over them.
Mercy Otis Warren has a similar story to Abigail Adams, in that she was wealthy and educated, but advanced her education on her own. She, too, had connections to powerful men, and learned about the revolution through them. Her brother was James Otis, and her husband was James Warren, both prominent patriots. Mercy Otis Warren used the information she learned from her husband and brother in very significant ways. She wrote satirical plays that became so popular, leading patriots used the names of her characters as nicknames for the people they represented. For example, Governor Hutchinson was “Rapatio,” a character in several of her plays. While letter writing was considered a very appropriate activity for women at the time, many people felt that writing for publication was too public for a woman, and all of Warren’s work was published anonymously until 1790. However, in 1805, she published History of The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, which was one of the first histories written in America. This three-volume book had some political bias, but it was still a very important historical work, and it sold well even though she published it under her own name instead of anonymously.
The following quote is the introduction to her account of the Boston Massacre. She remarks that the Massacre began as a small incident between a sentinel and a young boy.
“No previous outrage had given such a general alarm, as the commotion on March 5, 1770. The accident …created a resentment which emboldened the timid, determined the wavering, and awakened an energy and decision that … the terror of the sword could not easily overcome. Yet [the massacre]… arose from a trivial circumstance; a circumstance which but from the consideration that these minute accidents frequently lead to the most important events, would be beneath the dignity of history to record.”
Warren noted that the fight between a few people was only important because it started the Boston Massacre, but she went beyond that statement, and asserted that the massacre is only historically significant because it helped spark the American Revolution. Already, by 1805, Warren interpreted the event in its context in history, rather than doing what many of her contemporaries did and exaggerating her side of the story to fit her political needs.
Because the idea that the women’s world is domestic and the men’s world is public has existed in some form or another for many centuries, women are often missing from history. But, just because they were not visible doesn’t mean that they weren’t contributing. In some instances, like with women taking over their husband’s businesses, gender roles were more fluid than we would expect them to be. In other cases, gender roles were rigid, but women’s contributions to society were as meaningful as men’s, just different, such as boycotting British goods. Women had a significant role in Revolutionary Boston.