The American Revolutionary War was from 1775-1783; it caused many changes which influenced the lives of women. While the men were away at war, women had to take on many responsibilities running their homes, farms, and small businesses. Other important roles included those of nurses, spies, soldiers, and public activism. During the war, women took on these roles to gain equality and other rights they were longing for.
Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, was born in 1774. She was well known for standing up for women and slaves and speaking on their behalf. She was also known for advocating education in public schools for girls, equal to the boys. While John Adams was away, she maintained the household, cared for their children, the farm, and business affairs. While her husband was at Congress let wrote each other constantly and she would ask if the new government was considering the rights of women to be equal with those of men. In one of her letters she told her husband, ‘Remember the ladies.’ (Schomp) She also recommended that men should willingly give up ‘the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.’ (Foner)
During the war, she and her children melted down all the silver and metal they had to make bullets for the army. Other woman’s roles ranged from camp followers to frontline fighters. Wives of soldiers followed the husband’s units providing laundry services and cooking duties. They were paid small wages or in half rations. Rations consisted of meat, bread, cider, and vegetables. When available, a small bottle of alcohol was included.
Mary Ludwig Hays McCaully followed her husband and passed out pitchers of water to the soldiers on the front line and earned the nick name ‘Molly Pitcher.’ During the Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778 it was a brutally hot day and Molly was busy carrying pitchers of water to the soldiers to drink and cool their cannon when her husband John (William) Hays collapsed on the battlefield. She immediately put down her pitchers and took her husband’s place on the cannon for the remainder of the battle. The story goes that an enemy cannon ball was placed between her legs. She observed the incident when the cannonball tore her petticoat and said, ‘Lucky it didn’t pass much higher.’ She continued her occupation despite. (Hewitt)
Deborah Sampson (Gaarnnett) took being a soldier one step further. She disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Army. She served 17 months as ‘Robert Shurtleff” of Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Deborah fought in many battles and was wounded in the thigh. Attempting to hide the wound, a story is told that she removed the musket ball herself. Eventually, her commanding officer discovered her true identity but let her return to battle. She was discharged from the Army as Deborah Sampson and received a military pension. When she passed away on April 29, 1827, her husband received spousal benefits. (Foner)
Nancy Hart played a different type of role in the war. She worked the family farm and raised 8 children. Six British soldiers stopped by her cabin in search of a Whig leader which she denied seeing. The soldiers knew she was lying and in retaliation killed her turkey and ordered her to prepare it for them. They entered her cabin, stacked their weapons and ordered her to serve drinks. Nancy obliged them. As they began drinking and eating their food, Nancy sent a message to her daughter to retrieve her father by blowing a conch shell she had set up for just this purpose. (Ouzts)
While the soldiers continued to eat and drink, Nancy began stealing their weapons by moving them outside to her daughter. One of the soldiers noticed and confronted her. She responded by saying she would shoot the next person that moved. A soldier challenged her, made a move, and she shot him dead. The remaining soldiers tried to rush her and she shot and wounded another. Being out gunned the soldiers thought it best to remain seated. Nancy held them at gun point until her husband arrived. Her bravery and ingenuity became legend and an example to all. (Ouzts)
These women and many more had a major impact on the way George Washington viewed women during this time. George Washington identified a problem with his soldiers. George didn’t want to take his men off the front line to care for other injured soldiers that were suffering needlessly from their war injuries. General Washington came up with a useful way to utilize the camp followers. He petitioned Congress and received authorization to pay for (1) one nurse for (10) soldiers (1) one matron for (100) soldiers. Although a female nurse received regular pay throughout the war, it could be quite hazardous. Yellow Fever, Small Pox, and camp fevers could easily cause death. Accompanied with all the dirty tasks no one wanted women that showed great bravery and fortitude. (Bellafaire)
During the Revolutionary War both sides used women for cooking and maids. With easy and unrestricted access to the soldiers they were able to learn a great deal of information. Women used their homes and the battlefront to keep their eyes and ears open for military leaders. Lydia Darrah, a house wife, and one of many spies, allowed for British officers to hold meetings at her home. Ifnot, they would have made her and her two children move. Lydia would hide out in her closet and listen to stories being told. She would write them down and travel miles in the snow and hand deliver them to the American troops. (Museum)
Sybil Ludington was known as ‘the Female Paul Revere.’ She was born in 1761. Known for her midnight ride, she rode forty miles through the dense woods for her father, who was too tired to make the trip. She arrived letting all her father’s men that the British were coming. Miss Jenny was a spy for the British. She spied on American’s by intercepting private messages. She was a French speaking Loyalist who was captured by the French and brought to General Washington. Miss Jenny kept to her story of looking for her father and was returned to the French and eventually let free. (Weatherford)
Any female who followed the army, was expected to perform some type of duty to benefit the troops. Women took on some of the most common jobs. A woman’s job before the war was to look after the home and her children. They knew what it was like to be organized, clean, and to make sure others were taken care of. They wanted to do more for the war and soldiers. Many women followed their husbands. They were known as, ‘camp followers.’ Besides taking care of their homes, they had to keep the farms, workshops, and gardens going while their husbands were off fighting the war. Getting food to the soldiers was a task in itself. The nation was dependent on women. They needed to plant crops, make butter, cheese, and bake bread. It was up to women and their children to make sure soldiers were fed and well taken care of.
Esther Reed, wife of Patriot leader, Joseph Reed, and Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin, organized the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. Women would go door-to-door on campaigns to help raise funds for American soldiers. They would collect money and turn it over to the governor’s wife or mistress. This organization was committed to aid support to the military. Esther Reed, wrote a broadside and it was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette under the title, ‘Sentiments of an American Woman.’ Many women got together to talk about how to help the troops with the money collected. They rose over $300,000 and used that money to purchase materials and make uniforms for the army. The Ladies Association became an activity for women to participate in. They were recognized for their hard work and determination by the Federal Government. (Foner)
Daughters of Liberty were formed after the Townshend Act of 1765. Women, who sewed and made clothes at home, used their knowledge and chose to boycott British goods. It was an opportunity for women to help out during the Revolution. It was a group of 92 women who rebelled against taxes and started spinning their own yarn to make uniforms, blankets, and clothes for soldiers. In addition, they also made clothes for their families. Women were used to drinking teas and after the boycott, were able to produce their own tea using basil leaves. During this time, it was patriotic for women to make American products. That is when women were asked to help aid in the Revolutionary War. (Foner)
After the Revolutionary War, women began taking on new social roles. This led to the Republican of Motherhood. Judith Sargent Murray was one of the women who belonged to the Republican of Motherhood. She empowered women through her plays, poems, and essays. She believed women could learn from the way they were raised. The Revolutionary War changed the living conditions in colonial America. Families now consisted of parents and children. Before, indentured servants, slaves, and apprentices lived with the family. Hired workers were no longer considered part of the family. Women still lived in the private sphere and didn’t have the right to vote. (Foner)
Throughout the Revolutionary War women proved that they had the abilities to do what men accomplished. Women were successful soldiers, administrators, nurses, and fundraisers.
Shown by, ‘Molly Pitcher’, Lydia Darragh, Deborah Sampson, and Nancy Hart as female soldiers. Abigail Adams and Sara Franklin Bache, as administrators creating Daughters of the Revolution, actions allowed women to improve their status by participating in discussions of politics and educating and teaching their children the principles of liberty and government. (Foner) Even though they did not gain the right to vote or be directly involved in politics women made huge advances in their independence. If not for their many roles in the war it may have been lost.
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