Essay on Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkins
United States History.
In many occasions, the story of the Revolutionary War, a war that put race against race and neighbor against neighbor, is told and portrayed as a male event with outstanding figures such as Commander in Chief George Washington, but women that were neither statesmen or generals and their amazing contributions, sacrifices and participation in the struggle for independence are often forgotten or neglected. ‘’Their presence was crucial in the most effective protest strategy of all: the boycott of British manufactured goods.’’ (Berkin, XIV). Some of these women’s efforts were more recognizable than others: as there were stories of elite women stepping forward against the Stamp Act that paid and maintain the British Empire, stories of women raising funds through female-run organizations, nurses that wounded the soldiers, daughters and wives that spied on the enemy, there were also stories about housewives from the lower class that their names went unrecorded and remain unknown. The young farm girls and other soldiers’ wives, as well as the elite women like Abigail Adams or Martha Washington, were ‘’a virtuous, self-sacrificing, unassuming group of mothers and daughters’’ (Berkin, XII) who were devoted to their country, children and husbands.
When the war broke out, women added to their list of peacetime domestic labors such as taking care of the house or farm, wartime activities like spying on the enemy and traveling with the army as they served as cooks, laundresses or nurses. They had faced many atrocious realities like the death of their husbands, parents and children, and the destruction of the life they knew. But prior to the Revolutionary War, and before America dreamed of Independence, a woman’s identity was compatible with the roles she played: mother and wife, a feme covert (a woman protected that was her husband’s property), a helpmate that possessed skills that were crucial to the support of the family. Among these skills were producing materials for her husband’s use, the care of the farm or the house, and her fertility. Rural housewives like Mary Holyoke spent her days washing, ironing and growing vegetables, while wealthy women like Eliza Lucas Pinckney were more concerned about the pursuit of femininity linked to their personal appearance. ‘’For women were now to be charming companions to their husbands rather than useful workers.’’ (Berkin,9). They were obedient matrons and caring wives whose ‘’bodies moved to the rhythms of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and weaning.’’ (Berkin,9).
But when the wives stepped into their husband’s shoes and operated the shop or worked the field, they started to think of themselves as proprietors rather than helpers, as their husbands were away serving the military.
Women’s opinion were not taken into consideration when colonists presented their concerns and arguments about the Stamp Act, but women’s first action was to say ‘’No’’. Refusing the consumption of those goods, despite how much they were needed, had a powerful effect: plundering the sales of the British. The women became self-sustained, making clothes of their own spinning, like Anna Green Winslow who referred herself as a ‘’daughter of liberty’’. There were other poor and humbled women who felt the boycott as a burden when food grew scarce, and others like Mary Fraier of Chester County, that went from door to door soliciting clothes for the army. Women also volunteer to provide care for the sick and injured soldiers. Esther Reed and Sarah Franklin Bache organized the Ladies Association, a domestic fundraising campaign. A call to every young girl to be useful during war.
These women had supportive jobs from nurses and cooks, to spies and secret soldiers. Deborah Sampson was one of the soldiers that fought under a male alias until she was discovered. Lydia Darragh sent military intelligence to Washington’s camp when the British troops occupied her house. Ann Bates recollected information about troops movement in order to support the Patriotic cause by hiding important letters in her clothing or delivering messages in person, and a Negress, Mammy Kate, offered her services as a washerwoman to the redcoats to free her Patriot master by trickery. Sybil Ludington warned soldiers of the oncoming British forces.
But not every women applauded the sudden change of women taking the streets in a radical manner. Anna Rawle, a loyalist, criticized the Ladies campaign, saying the effort they were putting was impertinent. Other loyalist women were persecuted for their husband’s political choices when their houses and farms were seized by the Patriots, who considered them traitors. ‘’Accounts of such attacks can be found in the petitions to the Crown for compensation filed after the war by women like Isabella MacDonald of North Carolina or Sarah Winslow of Massachusetts.’’ (Berkin,97). A loyalist woman in patriot territory could provide information of the enemy to loyalist raiders.
Family houses were transformed into military quarters and it was not the women’s decision whether to remain or leave their homes. Their lives were profoundly affected by the proximity of the British troops inside their homes. ‘’The presence of the military always meant the possibility of rape of physical humiliation.‘’(Berkin, 39). Some women driven by a deep desire for revenge joined the camp followers, and others decided to stay where they lived and face the consequences of front-door violence. A Pennsylvania woman was reported to declare, she ‘’would stand by her Property until she should be kill’d.’’ (Berkin, 37). Women found themselves managing the farms or the shops as British troops continued to occupy land.
With husbands and sons gone and with children to look after, some women choose violence to protect their loved ones, while others destroyed their own property to prevent its use for the British army. Along with the new roles women were adopting during the war like traveling with the army camps, their economical efforts and fundraising campaigns became essential to the support of the Continental Army.
To be sufficient, they created organizations as they passed intelligence in order to support the boycotts of British goods. When the first taxations began to take place, Esther Reed’s organization displayed their commitment to the Patriots by collecting and making donations on the lack of supplies among the soldiers of the Continental army.
’’Women’s participation in the war had given concrete, empirical evidence of their ability to think rationally and make ethical judgment.’’ (Berkin,152). Women who participated in politics like Abigail Adams, were very straightforward, about the political right’s of women. ‘’There was no room in John Adam’s masculine system for female legal or economic independence. Nor was there any room in his new republic for female participation.’’ (Berkin,159). With her statement ‘’Remember the Ladies’’, Abigail Adams ‘’was not asking for woman suffrage, but a revision of the laws that deprived a married woman of most of her legal identity, placing her in the same dependent category as children and the insane.’’ (Berkin,158). Judy Murray insisted that women were ‘’capable of supporting with honour the toils of government as men.’’ (Berkin,159).
African slaves endured difficult conditions, for American slavery was an accepted forced servitude in every American colony. ‘’Slaves learned the meaning of freedom every day by its absence.’’ (Berkin,121). Free black women who worked as servants were not allowed to have an independent house with their children. Enslaved women were sold to work on the plantations, separated from their family. In the midst of battlefield, some slave women chose not to leave their plantations after their masters died or were taken away, because they did not felt safe. Runaway slaves and free slaves were captured a second time, and the violence and chaos left them vulnerable.
Many slaves escaped and supported the Patriot cause with a promise of freedom, but service in the military did not guarantee freedom. While some of them were emancipated, nameless african american women were convicted and killed. During the debate of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, it was stated that African Americans could not pretend to get any benefits from the ‘’all men are by nature equally free’’ article.
In Native American’s society, women held power and diplomacy as chiefs or Councillors. ‘’Most of the Cherokee, and Choctaw believed that an alliance with the British held out the greatest hope of protecting their lands and sustaining trade with white society.’’ (Berkin,107). This meant living between two worlds. Molly Brant, an Indian woman, put a great among of effort to coexist with the white society by keeping her society loyal to the British. ‘’The victory of the English in the French and Indian Wars left the Iroquois of the northern region with no alternative but to negotiate an alliance with the Crown.’’ (Berkin, 111).
Most African American women won their freedom and lost it again through trickery and unjust actions, and Indian Women’s political voice and power began to fade as they lost their lands to the armies. Like white women, ‘’their only political tactic was the petition.’’ (Berkin,119). Free white women gained a more prominent role in political and economic matters.
Many women did not seat and waited to the war to pass. As they started to rebuild, they were adopting a variety of roles during the American War. They were providers, as they gave logistical support to the armies, both Loyalist and Patriot. They were camp followers and nurses, who cooked, did laundry and cured the soldiers, some of them did it to be near their husbands. Camps followers were usually dressed in rags and seen among dead soldiers to remove their personal possessions, weapons, or clothing. Others served as warriors and hid their gender identity in order to fight, like Deborah Sampson, who served until her gender was discovered and the army discharge her. They were spies and political activists, but the first role they adopted was the role of victims, especially in the south, because the absence of their male counterparts had left them without protection.
Women proved themselves useful and capable of handling the disasters of the American War no matter in what conditions they were . However, after the war and when conditions were restored, they wanted to return to the normalcy they had attending their feminine chores, even if this meant forgetting about the freedom they gained during wartime. Their intellectual abilities were not questioned anymore, but the fight for their rights and equality was still impregnated in their minds. These women were as brave and honorable as the men who won the war, and without them, who knows what might have happened.