Women in the Revolutionary Era: Domesticity and Public Protest
Women in the Revolutionary Era: Domesticity and Public Protest
The Revolution . Women were barred from most public roles in the eighteenth century; their lot was to maintain the household and raise children. Yet the revolutionary crisis brought political meaning to the everyday activities of women, and these activities became potent public demonstrations of solidarity with the Revolution. Women became crucial to the home manufactures movement, spinning and weaving cloth and observing boycotts of British goods. Although little progress was made in replacing the massive quantities of imports, women played an important symbolic role, stepping forward from their customary reticence and providing a rebuke to men who hung back from taking a more active role in the Revolution. The real trial for many women came during the years of the war, when men were absent as soldiers or refugees, and women adopted male roles such as managing farms and businesses. Women had to stand up in the face of food shortages and the depredations of occupying soldiers.
Spinning . Colonists launched various schemes to manufacture homespun cloth, and these were a vital part of resistance to British rule. The spinning crazes of the eighteenth century were unusual only in that they focused attention on an activity that occupied a great deal of women’s time and that normally was taken for granted as a common domestic activity. Girls were taught to spin from early childhood; toddlers at play on a Virginia plantation
would tie a string to a chair “and run buzzing back [and forth] to imitate the Girls spinning.” Teenage girls and young women spent days of drudgery at the spinning wheel turning out skeins of cotton and wool thread. Women took the cotton and wool thread they spun and wove it into cloth on hand looms. One teenage girl re-corded in her diary that she had woven 176 yards of cloth in a three-month period. Having completed this task, she wrote “welcome sweet Liberty, once more to me.” Women sometimes turned this mundane activity into a social occasion; spinning frolics and quilting bees could last several days and end with dancing.
Married Women and Spinsters . Women also contributed valuable cash income to the household by selling the thread and cloth they produced or by sewing and mending. The centrality of spinning and weaving to women’s lives is indicated in the term spinster, an unmarried woman. Married women, as their daughters grew up and became skillful at manufacturing cloth, could delegate these chores and spend their time in the hundreds of other tasks that went into managing a household.
“A LADY’S ADIEU TO HER TEA-TABLE”
In the months before the outbreak of the Revolution a short poem began to appear in colonial newspapers supporting the boycott of imported tea. The poem took the form of a tongue-in-cheek lament of a lady who preferred liberty to luxury. The poem portrays the tea table as the center of a social world.
FAREWELL the Tea-board with your gaudy attire,
Ye cups and ye saucers that I did admire;
To my cream pot and tongs I now bid adieu;
That pleasured all fled that I once found in you.
Farewell pretty chest that so lately did shine,
With hyson and congo and best double fine;
Many a sweet moment by you I have sat,
Hearing girls and old maids to tattle and chat;
And the spruce coxcomb laugh at nothing at all,
Only some silly work that might happen to fall.
No more shall my teapot so generous be
In filling the cups with this pernicious tea,
For I’ll fill it with water and drink out the same,
Before I’ll lose LIBERTY that dearest name.
Source: Rodris Roth, “Tea Drinking In Eighteenth-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage,” in Material Life in America, 1600-1860, edited by Robert B. St. George (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).
Urban Women . Wealthier women and those living in or near cities were not so much occupied with making cloth; they could buy mass-produced cloth from Great Britain cheaper than they could make it themselves. Housewives in the cities did not by any means live lives of leisure. They still faced endless chores of sewing, baking, cooking, preserving, butchering and salting meat, child rearing, and cleaning. City households were held to much higher standards of cleanliness than those of farmers. But in 1765 many of these women took to the distaff, in solidarity with the boycott movement, and returned again to spinning in the early 1770s with the renewal of conflict with Great Britain.
Wartime Disorder . The war brought added hardship to women who were left alone while their husbands were in the military or refugees. Other women became refugees, fleeing before the approaching armies. The soldiers and the disorder they wrought brought on epidemics of dysentery and smallpox, which added greatly to the misery of wartime. Women in occupied areas also faced the threat of rape; many female residents of Connecticut were assaulted by English and Hessian troops who passed through the area in 1779. British soldiers brutally and repeatedly raped women in New Jersey and Staten Island during several months of occupation in 1776.
Managing Farms . Women left in charge of households took on the business and legal affairs of their husbands, who often had little confidence that their wives could handle such matters. But most women rose to the occasion, selling crops and livestock and overseeing hired men and the harvests. Elizabeth Murray Smith Inman had to take over the management of her Cambridge farm when her husband Ralph was trapped in Boston during the American siege (1775-1776). Ralph was so frightened by the situation in Boston that he planned to immigrate to London. Elizabeth beseeched him to stay or to give her power of attorney so that she could sell the crop she had just harvested. Elizabeth Inman managed the farm during her husband’s absence and eventually convinced him not to flee the country.
Quartering Troops . Those women left alone to manage households often had the additional burden of quartering troops, American and British. Lydia Post, a Long Island farm wife with Patriot sympathies, was forced to quarter Hessian troops in her house. These soldiers lived in the kitchen, which was barred off from the rest of the house. They drank, gambled, and fought, dancing and playing music late into the night. The Hessians cut up fences for firewood, allowing cattle to stray into the woods. Post was most concerned for her children, of whom the soldiers, however, seemed fond. The Hessians made them baskets and taught her son German. She worried lest her children “should contract evil.”
Social Opportunities . Military occupation, even by friendly troops, was a trying circumstance, productive of many evils. However, some young women were delighted by the presence of soldiers and officers, whose presence provided opportunities for dances, parties, and socializing. Newport socialites gloried in the presence of “the flower of the French army, some very elegant young men,” whom they actively courted.
Loyalist Women . Loyalist women were in a particularly difficult position during wartime, faced with large and vigorous Patriot contingents within their communities. Unless they were protected by British military occupation, their situation was precarious. Former friends and neighbors shunned them and often seized their homes and property. A Virginia Loyalist, exiled to Canada, pined for her home: “Poverty there would have been much more tolarable [sic] to us, we sincerely wish we had never left that Country.” It was the lack of support that made the war particularly hard for Loyalists; Patriots under similar circumstances could turn to a much larger and more sympathetic community. Friendless and alone, Loyalists were forced to take refuge with the British army and eventually to immigrate to Canada, the Caribbean, or England.
THE PATRIOTISM OF AMERICAN WOMEN
The French general François Jean, Marquis de Chastellux, commented on life among Philadelphia’s elite during wartime.
December 1, 1780. The 1st of December commenced, like every other day in America, by a large breakfast.... A few loins of veal, some legs of mutton, and other trifles of that kind always slip in among the teacups and coffee cups at breakfast and are sure of meeting a hearty welcome. After this slight repast, which lasted only an hour and a half, we went to visit the ladies, according to the Philadelphia custom, where the morning is the most proper hour for paying calls. We began with Mrs. Bache . . . . She conducted us into a room filled with needlework, recently finished by the ladies of Philadelphia. This work consisted neither of embroidered tambour waistcoats,... nor of gold and silver brocade—but of shirts for the soldiers of Pennsylvania. The ladies had bought the linen from their own private purses, and had gladly cut out and stitched the shirts themselves. On each shirt was the name of the married or unmarried lady who made it, and there were 2200 shirts in all.
Source: Howard C. Rice Jr., ed., Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782 by the Marquis de Chastellux) 2 volumes (Chapel Hill: University of North Orolina Press, 1963
The Ladies’ Associations . Other women were in a position to take an active role in the war, not by fighting but by forming organizations to raise funds for the troops. As the fighting dragged into its fifth year, the Continental Army was living under deplorable conditions, badly fed and clothed and subject to disease. Esther DeBerdt Reed of Philadelphia exhorted local women to give up “vain ornaments,” fashionable clothing, and other unnecessary expenses and raise money to contribute to the troops. Reed published her broadside, Sentiments of an American Woman, in June 1780, and it met with an immediate response; influential women of Philadelphia organized with the aim of personally raising money for the troops. These women solicited contributions door to door, violating conventional norms of female reticence. They went among immigrants, the poor, and servants to collect even the smallest donations.
Reed and Washington . The Philadelphia organization collected more than three hundred thousand Continental dollars, which because of inflation amounted to about $7,500 in specie. News of their effort spread throughout the colonies. The press reported their accomplishment with a mixture of condescension and admiration. Ladies’ Associations formed in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia and collected substantial sums of money. In July 1780 Esther DeBerdt Reed presented her impressive contribution to Gen. George Washington. She then was so bold as to suggest how he should use it. She favored distributing the money among the men while Washington preferred to purchase shirts for the soldiers. Washington, of course, got his way, explaining that money in the soldiers’ pockets would quickly be converted into rum and discipline would suffer.
Vital Effort . Despite a great deal of male condescension toward the efforts of the Ladies’ Associations, the women involved were quite proud of their accomplishments and circulated Sentiments of an American Woman among friends and acquaintances. Women understood the vital part they played in the Revolution even if few men would acknowledge it.
Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds., Women in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989);
Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown, 1980);
Stephanie G. Wolf, As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).