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Women in the American Revolution

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Women in the American Revolution

As the American Revolution started with the shot heard around the world, colonists joined together to fight for their independence from Britain. However, men were not the only ones stepping forward to participate in the war. Women played a crucial part in the war effort, and while their rights did not extend far, they did not stop fighting throughout the colonies. Read on to see what they did and how they impacted the American Revolution!

Women in the American Revolution, Portraits of Women in the American Revolution, Study Smarter

Mercy Otis Warren, Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Phillis Wheatley. Source: All images from Wikimedia Commons.

Important Women in the American Revolution

Women participated in the American Revolution contributing to the colonial effort in a multitude of capacities. For example:

  • Martha Custis Washington: George Washington’s wife supported soldiers in camp.
  • Abigail Adams: John Adams' wife lobbied for women’s political and equality rights.
  • Mercy Otis Warren: First female playwright and prolific writer on political issues.
  • Margaret Moore Barry: Scout, messenger, and women spy for American forces.
  • Esther DeBerdt Reed: Established the "Ladies of Philadelphia," raising $300,000 for soldiers.
  • Margaret Cochran Corbin: Camp follower who manned and fired a cannon in battle until she was severely wounded.
  • Phyllis Wheatley: First African American female to publish poems.

Women's Roles in the American Revolution

What kinds of roles did women take up during the American Revolution?

Seamstresses, Cooks, and Maids

Women in the American Revolution, Mary Hays, Molly Pitcher, cannon, Study Smarter

Mary Hays, known as "Molly Pitcher," manning her husband's cannon in battle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At the onset of the war, many women followed their husbands and performed sewing, cooking, and maid services. These positions became the earliest roles that women took on in the war. Other women extended their camp duties to include the battlefield. For example, in 1776, at the Battle of Fort Washington, Margaret Corbin followed her husband onto the battlefield. Her husband's responsibility included loading and firing the cannons. During the battle, Corbin's husband died manning his cannon. By his side at the time of the incident, Corbin continued loading and firing the cannon until she became injured. Margaret Corbin's heroism contributed to the legend of Molly Pitcher.

Nurses

Women in the American Revolution, nurse, battlefield, Study Smarter

A Nurse Tends to Injured Soldiers of the Revolutionary Army. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As it was an unprecedented role, nurses did not appear on battlefields until the end of the American Revolution. The original nurses tended to be women who had followed their husbands into camp. Women handled routine work such as feeding and bathing patients and cleaning. A resolution, signed on July 27th, 1775, allocated two dollars a month to nurses. Appreciation for the nursing profession became evident as the payment to nurses increased to four dollars in 1776.

Soldiers

Women in the American Revolution, Nancy Hart captures Tories, StudySmarter

Nancy Hart Catches the Tories. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Though women were not allowed to enlist as soldiers in the American Revolution, it did not stop many from donning a uniform and fighting. Very few women made it past the entrance into the military. However, several became victorious soldiers and participated in battles. For example, Deborah Sampson and Sally St. Clair had successful soldiers' roles. St. Clair's gender stayed unknown until she died in battle. Women played a decisive part in the American Revolution. One woman even started a female militia.

Leonard Whitings' Guard:

Prudence Cummings Wright organized an all-female militia of roughly thirty to forty women known as Leonard Whitings' Guard. Wright organized the militia to protect her home in Massachusetts while her husband fought for the Continental Army. In a skirmish on Jewitts Bridge, the women captured two men who had been on their way to deliver intelligence to British officers.

Women in the American Revolution, Agent 355 of the Culper Spy Ring, Study Smarter

Agent 355 of the Culper Spy Ring. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Spies

Women, thought to be intellectually inferior, became the perfect ally for both sides as spies. “Washington often used women as scouts and spies because of their ability to gain information not easy to obtain.” Women's perceived feminine and naive qualities made them seem trustworthy. As a result, many female spies found success in their intelligence endeavors.

Women spies in the American Revolution

Women in the American Revolution, women's roles in the war, Study Smarter

A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Anna Smith Strong

Along with caring for the household while their husbands fought, some women became spies who ultimately helped the colonies win the war. For example, Anna Smith Strong became a spy for the Culper Spy Ring and is well known for having sent messages through hanging laundry. For instance, Strong hung a black petticoat on the clothesline when a message needed to be picked up by a courier. The Culper Spy Ring accomplished an undeniable intelligence feat throughout the war, passing on crucial information for the Continental Army.

Anne Bates

Women in the American Revolution, Spy for the Crown, Anne Bates, Study Smarter

Portrait of American Loyalist spy, Anne Bates. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Philadelphia school teacher, Anne Bates, became a successful British spy who breached General Washington's camp on multiple occasions. Bates followed her husband, a British soldier, to his military station in New York. Shortly afterward, Major Drummond employed Bates as a spy. Eventually, she successfully entered Washington's camp and relayed pertinent information to the British. In the end, Bates became one of the most well-known spies during the war.

African American women in the American Revolution

African American lifestyles in the North varied greatly from those of the South. After the American Revolution, many Northern states abolished slavery, giving African American women access to previously nonexistent rights. For example, many women enjoyed the right to marry, keep their children, and own property. After the American Revolution, the treatment of African Americans in the South remained inhuman, often denying fundamental human rights and enforcing slavery.

Women in the American Revolution, Phillis Wheatley book, Study Smarter

Frontispiece of the Memoir and poems of Phillis Wheatley. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Enslaved African American women, like their male counterparts, took advantage of the chaos and confusion occurring in the American Revolution and used it as a stepping stone to gain freedom. Fuelled by an intense yearning for freedom and a love of family, many African American women fled in an attempt to take their freedom. Before the American Revolution, the majority of runaway slaves were male. In sharp contrast, almost one-third of runaway slaves were female during the war. The rhetoric of the revolution had urged enslaved African American women to pursue freedom and challenge the ideals of slavery.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved person for much of her life. She was also the first African American woman to publish a book of poems. Arriving in America upon a slave ship in 1761, the Wheatley family of Boston, Massachusetts, purchased her for a household slave. However, the Wheatley family educated Phillis, and she began writing poetry at age fourteen.

She believed in the American revolutionary ideas and opposed the institution of slavery. Phillis Wheatley's writing made a critical impact on American literature by influencing the abolitionist movement and proving African Americans' essential contribution to the building of America.

Women’s Rights in the American Revolution

Women in the American Revolution, Peggy Shippen, wife of Benedict Arnold, Study Smarter

Peggy Shippen and her daughter. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Women's rights consisted of strictly household roles in America's early years. Raising virtuous children and influencing their husbands through morality became the life standard for a colonial woman. The Law of Coverture withstood even the political upheavals of the American Revolution, requiring women to remain void of political identities. The law stated that women remained under their father's identity at birth, and after marriage, the women transitioned to becoming one with their husbands. "Women could not own property, control their own money, or sign legal documents." The Law of Coverture placed restrictions on women from birth through marriage, therefore, minimizing women's rights and political identity even further.

Women in the American Revolution, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, Study Smarter

Portrait of Abigail Smith Adams. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

After the Revolutionary War, some women took a more robust political stance, lobbying for increased legal rights and equality. For example, Abigail Adams entered the political arena lobbying for women's rights and freedoms through her writing. In a letter to her husband, John Adams, she writes:

“…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.”

–Abigail Adams, 1776

In her letter (above), Abigail Adams requests her husband to create room for women's rights in the "new Code of Laws." Though John Adams declined to "remember the ladies," Abigail Adams continued to fight for equality in women's education and political rights after the American Revolution.

Women in the American Revolution, Washington, George, Betsy Ross, American Flag, Study Smarter

Betsy Ross and "The Birth of Old Glory". Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Revolutionary war spurred a new perspective on women's rights and equality, directly challenging the existing patriarchal systems. While women did not receive voting, political, or educational rights after the revolutionary war, the new equality ideology created a firm foundation for the women's rights and suffrage (voting) movements to come.

Patriarchy:

Relates to a system of government and ideology controlled by men and male supremacy over women and children.

Women after the American Revolution

Women after the American Revolution, Mother and child, Study Smarter

Spinning in the Colonial Kitchen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the American Revolution, women influenced politics, shaped the war's outcome, and fought for equality. While women's rights remained essentially unchanged after the war, the equality rhetoric of the revolution influenced significant changes to women's right to inheritance. All states eradicated traditional inheritance practices that generally favored the eldest son. Ultimately, inheritance equality became the norm, including sons and daughters equally.

Women's rights after the Revolutionary war did not have many successful gains. Gender discrimination ultimately kept women from receiving the right to vote. However, New Jersey allowed women landowners to vote, though legislators revoked the right in 1807. Nevertheless, with the independence of America came women's right to separation from abusive husbands. Under English authority, divorce became almost unthinkable for women. After the war, all states acknowledged the necessity to end abusive marriages. However, each state adopted unique ways of dealing with the subject.

Women in the American Revolution - Key takeaways

  • Women excelled at critical wartime roles in the American Revolution such as:
    • Spies, Cooks, Seamstresses, Writers, and Soldiers
  • African American women used the American Revolution to their advantage and sought freedom.
  • Women's Rights during the American Revolution were restricted to household roles. During this time women had no right to vote and the law of coverture gave women no political identity.
    • Many women continued to fight for women's rights after the war. For example, Abigail Adams requested her husband John Adams "to remember the ladies" when writing the "new code of laws."
  • Women did not have many successful gains after the American Revolution. However, two of the most important changes were:
    • Changes to inheritance (favored both sons and daughters)
    • Ability to divorce (though each state had its own rules on this)
    • The new equality ideology of the American Revolution created the foundation for the suffrage and equality movements that were to come to America.

1. Allison Lange, Women's Rights in the Early Republic, 2015.

2. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: Chapter the Fifteenth: Of Husband and Wife. 4 vols. 1765-1769.

3. Abigail Adams. "Letter to John Adams, 31 March 1776".

4. Karen Cook Bell, Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America, 2021.

5. Duquesne University, "The History of Wartime Nurses", (n.d.).

6. Heather K. Garrett, Camp Followers, Nurses, Soldiers, and Spies: Women and the Modern Memory of the Revolutionary War, 2016.

7. Master Sgt. Quinnus G. Caldwell, The Importance of Spies to Washington's Success, 2018.

Frequently Asked Questions about Women in the American Revolution

Women played many roles in the American Revolution including: soldiers, spies, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, and maids.

Women participated in the American Revolution by influencing political opinion, fighting for women’s rights, and directly aiding in the war effort through a variety of roles.

Women did fight in the American Revolution, although many women attempting to be soldiers failed, few successfully executed roles as soldiers and participated in battles.

Women helped in the American Revolution by aiding and supporting the war effort by becoming nurses, camp maids, caring for homes, scouts, and spies.

Women gained very few rights after the American Revolution. However, all states passed laws requiring inheritance inequality to include both sons and daughters and allowed divorces, in different capacities, from abusive husbands.

Final Women in the American Revolution Quiz

Question

What was the colonial law that denied women their political identity?

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Answer

Law of Coverture 

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Question

After the start of the American Revolution. How many runaway slaves were female?

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Answer

1/3 

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Question

Which female spy participated in the Culper Spy Ring by hanging out laundry?

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Answer

Anna Strong

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Question

Name the Philadelphia teacher who spied for the British?

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Answer

Anne Bates 

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Question

List roles women took on during the American Revolution?

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Answer

Nurses, seamstresses, cooks, maids, soldiers, spies

Show question

Question

What female writer pleaded to “remember the ladies”?

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Answer

Abigail Adams

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Question

Name the woman who manned and fired a cannon in battle, injured herself.

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Answer

Margaret Corbin

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Question

What wartime occupation allocated wages to women?

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Answer

Nursing

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Question

What state briefly allowed women landowners to vote?

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Answer

New Jersey

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Question

What woman organized an all-female militia?

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Answer

Prudence Cummings Wright 

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Question

When was the Daughters of Liberty founded? 

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Answer

1765

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Question

What act created the need for the Daughters of Liberty? 

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Answer

The Stamp Act 

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Question

What did the Daughters of Liberty call their homemade tea?


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Answer

Liberty Tea 

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Question

List the ways that Daughters of Liberty protested.


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Answer

-Organized spinning bees/created cloth 

-brewed tea 

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Question

What event did the Daughter of Liberty participate in regarding a wealthy merchant?


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Answer

The Coffee Party 

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Question

What significant events did the Daughters of Liberty organize?


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Answer

Spinning Bees 

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Question

What group was the Daughters of Liberty fashioned after?


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Answer

Sons of Liberty 

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Question

When was the Stamp Act repealed?


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Answer

1766

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Question

List the British items that the colonists boycotted


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Answer

-Tea 

-Cloth/Linen 

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Question

Who was one of the most notable members of the Daughters of Liberty?


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Answer

Martha Washington

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