Tomorrow, Americans celebrate Independence Day. It’s a time for waving flags, marching in parades, and eating grilled hot dogs and hamburgers. We speak about our Founding Fathers and the sacrifices they made. We don’t hear very much about the women.
How it started: Spurred by what the colonists considered unjustly levied taxes on imported tea, the British commanders in the colonies and the colonists came to an impasse. The colonists rebelled and dumped the tea that was waiting to be off loaded into Boston Harbor (the Boston Tea Party). The British Prime Minister, Lord North, passed a series of laws in retaliation, the Intolerable Acts, which resulted in the American Revolution.
Loyalists and Rebels: Some people sides with the British and others with the colonists. Women of the day did not, for the most part, hold jobs but were responsible for the household. But the feelings and activities of the revolution permeated political, civil, and domestic life. Some women stayed loyal to the Crown. Other women rebelled by boycotting British goods, spying on the British, following and working with the army, and some even fighting,
Organizers: Women organized various associations to help the war effort. Esther Deberdt Reed (wife of the Pennsylvania Governor), Sarah Franklin Bache (daughter of Benjamin Franklin), in Philadelphia, collected funds which Martha Washington took to her husband, General George Washington. Women in other states followed their example and raised over $340,000 for the American war effort.
Baggage: Other women, whose men went off to war, were left the hardship of holding onto their homes and protecting their families with little help. Many of these women were easy prey for marauding soldiers. Some women refused to stay behind and followed the army. The commanding officers called these women “necessary nuisances” and “baggage.” But these women played an important role, too. They served the soldiers and officers as wash women, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, supply scavengers, sexual partners and even prostitutes.
Fighters: There were women who did not follow the army but joined the army, some disguised as men. Some, like Anna Maria Land and Margaret Corbin, did it to be near their man and others, like Anne Bailey (under the name of Samuel Gay) and Anne Smith, joined for the enlistment bounty, money for enlisting. Several women, Deborah Samson and Hannah Snell, were able to hide their gender and were given honorable discharges from the service.
Spies: There were women who acted as couriers and rode through enemy lines carrying documents and letters under their petticoats. Deborah Champion, Sara Decker, and Harriet Prudence Patterson Hall all managed to sneak documents past the British.
Not Quite Equal: The ideals of liberty, equality, and independence the Founding Fathers professed didn’t impact women. Women continued to be associated with home and hearth and they were not welcome in politics. They confined their political views to their personal writings. Only a few, like Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren became public figures. But the woman’s role held importance none the less. It was the woman’s role to pass on the ideals of independence to their children so it would prosper, grow, and become part of the very fabric of the colonist’s lives.
The Power of the Female Pen: One woman would be looked upon by President Lincoln as “…the little woman who made this great war.” He was speaking of the American Civil War and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ignited a spark in the North while she indicted slavery in the south. Her story sold over 300,000 copies in America and Britain which may represent only 1/10 of the audience it really reached. She definitely demonstrates the power of the pen. There is a great review by Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia, of David S. Reynold’s book, Mightier Than the Sword, in a Sunday New York Times Sunday Book review printed last year.
Tomorrow, Americans celebrate Independence Day. It’s a time for waving flags, marching in parades, and eating grilled hot dogs and hamburgers. It’s also a great day to relax and read a book. Who knows, it could change the world.