While specifics varied from state to state and sometimes from community to community, women during this period generally had little legal standing. So tiny was their role in politics that even to suggest having a larger one was a subject of great humor — at least to men.
When Abagail Adams wrote her husband John in 1776 to “remember the ladies” while drafting the fledgling country’s new government, he replied, “I cannot help but laugh. . . . Depend upon it. We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”
To a colleague, however, John took a more serious, if just as chauvinistic, tone. Extending the right to vote too widely under the new government would open a Pandora’s box of universal demands: “There will be no End to It. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote.”
American revolutionary women labored on the home frontWomen could and did enter the political arena by writing letters, circulars, and tracts and helping to operate lines of communication and information. And as in all great wars, it fell to women to do everything but fight to keep things going. When Americans quit buying machine-made cloth from England, for example, American women had to make it by hand.
“I rise with the sun and all through the long day I have no time for aught but my work,” wrote a Connecticut farmer’s wife whose husband was off to the war. Even during family prayer time, she admitted, her mind was on “whether Polly remembered to set the sponge for the bread, or put water in the leach tub or to turn the cloth in the dyeing vat. . .”
Less specific but more important, women were expected, at least in Patriot families, to infuse the children with the spirit of representative democracy and the value of individual liberty. It was a task that historian Linda Kerber labeled “republican motherhood,” and political leaders urged Revolutionary-era men to remind their spouses of its importance. “Let their husbands point out the necessity of such conduct,” wrote Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, “that it is the only thing that can save them and their children from distresses, slavery and disgrace…”.In addition to bearing the brunt of wartime shortages and other hardships, it also fell to women to bear the losses of men who would not come home from the fighting, as well as steeling themselves to send off their husbands and sons to war — or going themselves.
Women near the battle front in the American RevolutionA widowed Irish immigrant in South Carolina, Elizabeth Jackson lost two of her three sons to the war. She nonetheless volunteered to act as a nurse for wounded Americans held on British prison ships in Charleston Harbor. After contracting cholera, she summoned her remaining 15-year-old son, who had been fighting the British since he was 12 and bore the slash marks of a British officer’s sword to prove it. “Avoid quarrels if you can,” Andrew Jackson recalled his mother telling him before she died, “ . . . (but) if you ever have to vindicate your honor, do it calmly.”
Women often served as nurses, cooks, seamstresses, and laundresses to the various militias and Continental Army. General Washington wasn’t keen on the practice, since the women had to be fed precious rations. And, try as he might with repeated orders to the contrary, they often hitched rides in supply wagons, thus slowing things down. But since his own wife Martha often traveled with him, Washington did not order his commanders to ban women entirely from the army camps.
If they didn’t tag along with their husbands, sons, and brothers, women might make uniforms, gather food, or perform other tasks for the troops. One group of three dozen Philadelphia residents were so persistent in raising funds for the army, a Loyalist complained “people were obliged to give them something to get rid of them.” They ultimately raised the staggering modern-day equivalent of $300,000.
“Necessity,” a Revolutionary War woman recalled in 1810, “taught us to make exertions which our girls of the present day know nothing of.”