The American Revolution and Women’s Struggle Against Injustice
The American Revolution marked a turning point in the lives of colonists living in America, who, after years of mistreatment by the British, finally declared their independence. Although this turning point was meant to benefit all living in the colonies, women did not benefit so much from the American Revolution with regards to their independence. Women were often scrutinized for their attempts to participate in political activities. Additionally, women were forced to rely on their male counterparts for legalities such as landholding. Furthermore, although it could be argued that women used their spouses as vehicles to promote their political agenda, their reliance on their spouse was a representation of the gender barriers that existed during that time. Lastly, women could be subjected to brutal treatment that also demonstrated the lack of respect for their role in society.
A woman Spinning in the colonial kitchen, from A Brief History of the United States by Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Baker Steele, 1885. ( Public Domain )
Before The American Revolution: Women’s Struggle For Equality
As the eighteenth century progressed many women persevered in their struggle for rights in American society . In 1735, a letter was anonymously published in the New York Weekly Journal that argued that education was more suited to women than men. The writer stated:
“A second Reason why Women should apply themselves to useful Knowledge rather than Men is because they have that natural Gift of Speech in greater Perfection.”
The letter also argued that women should not be referred to as the “ opposite sex ,” but rather their own “species,” since women possess their own knowledge and are beneficial to society. For example, in 1740, an anonymous woman wrote to the Boston Gazette that women were just as useful in business as men and should be offered an equal education. She argued:
“There are few Trades in which Women cannot weigh and measure as well as Men, and are as capable of selling as they…”
Women also contributed to the economy by operating businesses. For example, following the death of her husband, Rachel Draper opened a small tavern in approximately 1767, as a means to economically support her family. In addition to supporting her family, Draper was able to economically contribute to her neighborhood in Philadelphia. As an unmarried woman Draper, “…[was] a central actor in the creation and maintenance of the economic, religious, familial, and political networks of association that defined urban life.” Although the majority of women during this time period were primarily dependent on their deceased husband’s inheritance , many women were able to invest their inheritance leading to an increase in their income and wealth status.
Revolution, Resistance and Abuse
Throughout the events of the American Revolution and thereafter, women actively participated in promoting the agenda of revolutionists, and unsuccessfully advocated for political recognition. For example, in 1775 in Providence, when tea was being burned out of opposition to Britain’s tea tax, women actively participated in the protest. The Virginia Gazette article, Providence Women Burn Tea , recognized women’s participation within the protest. However, the article perpetuated the stereotype that women have an “evil tendency of continuing the habit of drinking tea.” Additionally, the article also used a negative female description of women to represent the burning of the tea as the “funeral of Madam Souchong.” The article’s description maintains the view of women as low prostitutes.
Women’s attempted involvement in politics was also scrutinized. For example, Jane Adams advocated for the rights of women to be recognized in the new nation to her husband, congressman, John Adams , stating that women would cause a “rebellion” if their voices were not heard. In response John Adams described her boldness as laughable, thus showing his disregard for her claims.
American women participated in the burning of tea which lead to the American Revolution (laufer / Adobe Stock )
Although it can be argued that some women who were part of the elite in society were able to promote their political views by using their status, their reliance on their male counterpart also demonstrated their role was viewed as inferior. For example, Anne Holden’s (a member of the Daughters of the Revolution) land sell to four men can be viewed as strategy to insert herself into the political framework, since women were unable to vote despite the amount of landholding they had. By selling her land to these four men it can argued that she sought to influence the men’s voting choice. However, this action also showed her reliance on the male gender to promote her political agenda .
Women during the American Revolution period were subjected to brutal treatment. For example, Mary Philips and her niece, Abigail Palmer, described being raped by a British soldier who claimed they were secretly working with “rebels.” In December 1776, Mary and Abigail had been at the house of Edmund Palmer, Mary’s father and Abigail’s grandfather, a farmer near Pennington, New Jersey. British soldiers straying from a nearby camp took control of the home. For three days, several soldiers raped Abigail and Mary, as well as her teenage friends Elizabeth and Sarah Cain. There was no specific evidence that these particular women were spies or involved with the American war effort. This was a “crime of opportunity.” Soldiers came across the women at the Palmer residence and then abused them systematically. Edmond Palmer, who attempted to shield Abigail, Mary, and Elizabeth and Sarah Cain, provided an account of the event: "[several soldiers] pull'd them both into a Room" –– but, ignoring their screams, they "Ravishd them both."
The families of raped American women often pointed out that British soldiers maximized the humiliating and demoralizing impact of their attacks by assaulting women in front of their fathers, husbands, and other close relatives. Assaults on the honor of American men who failed to protect their vulnerable women seemed as critical as defeat on the battlefield. This showed the blatant disregard and low perception of some men towards women on the part of the British, but also their overall importance and symbolism in American society.
The daughters of the American Revolution (Grant Wood / Public domain )
During The Revolution Women Fought For Recognition
Despite these stereotypes and wrongdoings, many women continued to actively participate in promoting the agenda of revolutionists, and unsuccessfully advocated for political recognition. For example, The Daughters of Liberty were a political group that formed in response to unfair British taxation in the colonies during the American Revolution. In particular, the Townshend Acts of 1767 were a series of measures that imposed customs duties on imported British goods such as glass, paints, lead, paper and tea.
According to Carol Berkin’s video, Women as Major Participants in the Revolutionary War , women took a political stance by burning tea, and instead of buying English cloth, they would create their own, which became known as "Liberty Cloth.” Although a majority of women were unable to leave their homes during the Revolution because they were expected to take care of their children, this time period resulted in what would be known as republican motherhood. This term applied to women who were primarily educated in order to help educate their children how to live a moral life. Women also played a pivotal role in influencing their children’s political views. President Thomas Jefferson remarked:
“I thought it essential to give [my daughters] a solid education, which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive.”
The women of 1776: "Molly Pitcher" the heroine of Monmouth (Currier & Ives / Public domain )
During the Revolution, women also began questioning their inferiority to their husbands. Many women published poems citing their frustrations and their desires to be free. For example, one line from a poem read, “That woman, dear woman, shall ever be free. Nor more shall the wife, all as meek as a lamb.” This time period spawned a rhetoric of freedom from both Great Britain, as well as in society for women.
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The American Revolution was supposed to liberate all the colonists from oppression, but it also served to highlight the oppression women faced within society. Despite participation in political protests and attempts to participate in politics, women, such as Jane Adams, were still scrutinized for their attempts, and were portrayed negatively. Furthermore, women were forced to rely on men within the upper classes when attempting to promote their political views. While women attempted to succeed, societally and politically men benefitted.
Top image: A typical portrayal of women in America society after the Revolution: Betsy Ross and two children presenting the "Betsy Ross flag" to George Washington and three other men. Source: Edward Percy Moran / Public domain
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