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Reed, Esther de Berdt (1746–1780)

Reed, Esther De Berdt (1746–1780)

Co-founder of the first relief organization during the American Revolution . Born Esther De Berdt on October 22, 1746, in London, England; died of dysentery on September 18, 1780, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; daughter of Dennys De Berdt and Martha (Symons) De Berdt; married Joseph Reed (a lawyer), on May 31, 1770; children:

Martha, Joseph, Esther, Theodosia (d. 1778), Dennis De Berdt, George Washington.

Moved to America (1771); was hostess to many delegates to the First Continental Congress (1774); published the broadside The Sentiments of an American Woman (1780); co-founded the Philadelphia Ladies Association and led a fund-raising campaign to support the Continental Army (1780).

Born in London, England, in 1746, Esther De Berdt was exposed to Americans and their interests early in life. Her father Dennys De Berdt, an agent for the colonies of Delaware and Massachusetts who helped win the revocation of the Stamp Act, often hosted Americans in his London and country homes. In 1763, one of these visitors, New Jersey lawyer Joseph Reed, met and fell in love with the dainty but lively Esther. After enduring Dennys' objections and Joseph's five-year stay back in America, Esther and Joseph were married in 1770. Dennys De Berdt's death less than two months before their wedding had put the De Berdt family under financial strain. As a result, Esther and Joseph decided not to settle in England, as they had planned, but moved to Philadelphia instead.

As American resistance to England intensified and her husband Joseph became a leading patriot, Esther Reed swiftly and wholeheartedly supported the American cause. In 1774, she hosted delegates to the First Continental Congress, among them George Washington, John Adams, and Samuel Adams, and another delegate enthusiastically referred to her as a staunch "Daughter of Liberty." In 1775, with three children of her own, she wrote to her brother, "if these great affairs must be brought to a crisis and decided, it had better be in our time than in our children's." When the American Revolution erupted, she saw those words realized, and though Joseph was often away serving as Washington's aide, Esther had three more children. One of them died of smallpox in infancy, and the family had to flee Philadelphia three times due to the war.

In 1780, as Esther herself was recovering from smallpox, she founded and industriously led a women's campaign to raise money for Washington's Continental Army. On June 10, 1780, she wrote a broadside, The Sentiments of an American Woman, in which she discussed how American women wanted to do more than sit at home and wish the best for the soldiers. Women were determined, she declared, to be "really useful," like "those heroines of antiquity, who have rendered their sex illustrious." Knowing that some men might disapprove of such female enterprise, Reed cleverly hinted that any criticism of such efforts would be "unpatriotic." Her words were so compelling that three days after the broadside appeared, 36 women met to plan ways to implement its ideas. The Philadelphia Ladies Association was formed and set to work.

The association speedily collected about $7,500 in precious-metal coin. Reed wished to give money directly to soldiers, but Washington said the Army, unable to supply uniforms, needed shirts instead. Reed's association produced over 2,000 linen shirts and delivered them by the end of 1780. Sadly, Reed did not live to see the work of the Philadelphia Ladies Association, or the American Revolution, completed. In September 1780, she died suddenly at only 33 of acute dysentery. The work of her innovative association, which demonstrated that women could play an effective role in civic actions, was carried on by Sarah Bache , the daughter of Benjamin Franklin.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Norton, Mary Beth. "The Philadelphia Ladies Association," in American Heritage. April–May, 1980, pp. 102–103.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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