AP®︎/College US History
Women in the American Revolution
Women supported the American Revolution by making homespun cloth, working to produce goods and services to help the army, and even serving as spies.
- Women performed crucial tasks in the American Revolution, organizing fundraising drives, supplying the troops, working in the military camps, and tending to the wounded soldiers.
- One of the most common ways that women supported the war effort was by making homespun, home-made cloth that took on revolutionary symbolism after the colonies imposed boycotts on British goods, including textiles.
- Some women even acted as spies, and there is at least one documented case of a woman disguising herself as a man to fight in the war.
The American Revolution
By the time the British imposed the Coercive Acts, or the Intolerable Acts, as they became known in the North American colonies, revolutionary sentiment and activism had been on the rise.
The Coercive Acts, passed in 1774 as punishment for the Boston Tea Party, during which Boston radicals dumped over 300 crates of British tea into the harbor, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back of continued loyalty to the mother country. These acts convinced many colonists that they could no longer afford to live under the increasingly tyrannical rule of the British and contributed to uniting the colonies in opposition to continued colonial control.
The Daughters of Liberty and homespun
After the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Daughters of Liberty was formed. Established in 1765, the organization was comprised solely of women who sought to demonstrate their loyalty to the revolutionary cause by boycotting British goods and making their own. Martha Washington, wife of George Washington, was one of the most prominent Daughters of Liberty.
Not only were women at the forefront of efforts to impose boycotts on British goods, they also spearheaded domestic production efforts. Because most textiles in the colonies were imported from Britain, weaving homespun cloth became an act of political rebellion. The Daughters of Liberty made public demonstrations of their spinning, such as the one at Newport, Rhode Island, where 92 women gathered in a meeting-house and produced 170 skeins of yarn.
Women served the war effort in other important ways, sewing uniforms and blankets for the soldiers, making bullets, and raising funds for the war effort. Many women who were left home to tend their husband's business affairs and property began to relish the extra responsibility and to view themselves as successful managers, thereby widening the scope of what was considered “women’s work.” Some women organized relief efforts to gather much-needed supplies for the soldiers. For instance, Esther DeBerdt Reed, the wife of George Washington's former secretary, organized a volunteer association for clothing the troops. She spearheaded a fundraising campaign that raised $300,000. Her association expanded into six states and inspired many local churches to join the support effort.
Although women were barred from serving in the army or in the militias, they assisted the cause in crucial ways. Wives, girlfriends, daughters, and sisters of soldiers and officers joined their camps to perform important tasks. Martha Washington accompanied her husband, General George Washington, during much of the war. These camp followers, as they were called, cooked, cleaned, sewed, mended uniforms, tended to the ill and injured, and even herded farm animals, milked cows, and foraged for food. One observer described the women as akin to "beast[s] of burden, having bushel baskets on their backs, by which they were bent double."
Some women showed their dedication to the cause by putting their own lives in danger. There are documented cases of American women acting as spies. These women would enter the British camps and places of recreation so as to ferret out information they could pass on to the rebels. British General Thomas Gage was married to an American woman, Margaret Kemble Gage, who possibly served as a conduit of information about British plans to the rebels. Though it has never been decisively proven, Mrs. Gage seems to have served as a spy for the Americans.
In the Battle of Monmouth, women—usually the wives or girlfriends of the American soldiers—delivered water to the troops to keep them cool in the heat. One of the gunners, William Hays, was wounded in action, and his wife, Mary Ludwick Hays, took over his position. She had also served in the battle at Valley Forge, and may have actually fought in the battles. She later received a pension from the government for her wartime service and has gone down in history as Molly Pitcher.
Print depicting Molly Pitcher helping to operate a cannon
One woman, Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts, disguised herself as a man so that she could join the army. Enlisting under the name Robert Shurtliff, she was wounded in a skirmish in Tarrytown. While being treated by a doctor, she refused to tell him that she had taken a musket ball in her thigh because she was afraid of being found out. Instead, she cut it out herself and sewed the wound back up. Sampson was later discovered, honorably discharged, and awarded a pension for her service.
What do you think?
What was so subversive about homespun?
In your opinion, what was the most important way that women contributed to the American Revolution?
How do you think women’s wartime service might have affected their view of gender roles in the post-revolutionary period?
Want to join the conversation?
- Who was the woman that made the American Flag with the 13 stars?(15 votes)
- "The story of one of the most famous revolutionary women, Betsy Ross, is likely just that - a story. Ross is often credited with sewing the first American flag, thirteen red and white stripes with thirteen stars in a field of blue in the corner. Subsequent research, however, shows that the story only surfaced around the Centennial, 1876, and was promoted by Ross’s grandson William Canby. Given that Congress passed the Flag Act in June of 1777, nearly a year after Ross is purported to have made the flag, the story is likely apocryphal."
- Were any of the spies ever caught?(13 votes)
- It's very likely that some were caught. It's very very dangerous to be a spy(19 votes)
- Specifically, how about the role of women of color in the revolution?(13 votes)
- Phyllis Wheatley was an African-American poet, and she also wrote plays.(19 votes)
- Were any of the Daughters of Liberty arrested for treason? I know that being a revolutionary at this time was dangerous, but how dangerous for women? Would they be tried for treason just like the men, or did they have a measure of safety because of the gender roles at the time?(21 votes)
- What obstacles do you think a women would have to overcome as a soldier in the American Revolution?
Was Molly Pitcher her real name or was it just a nickname?(9 votes)
- "Molly Pitcher" was the nickname given to Mary Ludwick Hays, who delivered pitchers of water to American soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth. As for obstacles that female soldiers could have faced if allowed to join the military during the Revolution, it could have ranged anywhere from some men feeling that a woman did not belong on the battlefield and to something else entirely, depending on a person's opinion. I'm not going to speculate further as this is a hypothetical situation and I was not there to understand the sentiments of the time. Hope this helps!(15 votes)
- why were woman not allowed to join the war back then?(7 votes)
- Because of strict gender roles, misogynistic culture, and men that believed we couldn't do anything worthwhile outside of the home. We have obviously proved we can, so now women are allowed to enlist in the military.(14 votes)
- 'Why did women put their selves in life treating situations for their husband's ?(0 votes)
- They loved their husbands, they loved their new nation, and they loved liberty. I think that's three good reasons right there. What about you?(12 votes)
- What obstacles do you think a women would have to overcome as a soldier in the American Revolution?(1 vote)
- All of the same challenges as the men, with added trials of hiding her gender.(5 votes)
- Why does no one know if Margaret Gage was a Patriot or a Loyalist?(2 votes)
- i wonder why women were helping the men get ready for battle and not help fight in battle? i mean the jobs they had were important but if they were at the battle field they might as well help fight.right?(1 vote)
- It had been the custom in the West (Europe and the Americas) to leave the fighting to the men. This was generally so until about 1980. Now, women have equal rights with men to suffer and die in war, but it wasn't always so.(3 votes)