Women of Revolutionary Era: Camp Followers, Fighters and Social Activists.

American Revolutionary war (1775-1783) was a war between Great Britain and the American colonies. Though, war is a “male” responsibility, women of America took an active part and greatly contributed to the outcomes of American Revolution. Indeed, women played a specific role at that time.

Revolution promoted changes in the society, as well as changed the ideology of the “woman sphere”. Revolution brought changes to the meaning of women’s everyday activities, and they acquired political meaning. Women became not only wives, mothers and mistresses, they became social activists, fighters and camp followers. When men were fighting at the front, women adopted their roles, and managed business.

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At the same time, many female patriots joined army and fought side by side with men. Thus, the role of women in American Revolution was great, they performed the crucial function in civilizing men and help them be worthy citizens of their country; they also protected their homes from British troops, many of women participated in battles as well.

There are many written record that provide information on important role of women during the American Revolution. Many women became well-known characters of American folklore, such as Molly Pitcher, many women supported patriotism in the country and founded organizations that provided support for military troops, such as Esther Berdt Reed, many women proved themselves as brave soldiers, Deborah Sampson, devoted wives and nurses.

Many women even conducted chronicles of war. For example, Mary Katherine Goddard made a great contribution to the raising of patriotic feelings in the country when printed official copy of the Declaration of Independence. Another writer Christian Henrietta Caroline Acland produces a record of her experience when she was travelling from England to America.

This writing became one of the most credible sources of information about events of the American Revolution. History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution is a three volume record of the events that was created by one of the first historians of Revolution, who was also a woman. Education became very important part of women’s lives, and became a major prerogative of the fight for women’s rights.

Though, there is an opinion that role of women in American Revolution was unimportant and they often became threat for troops. For example, many troops did not want to accept women because they were considered to be a burden and often were main “distributors” of venereal disease. In addition, social structure and norms did not let women to be independent, as their major role was to be obedient to their husbands.

Thus, many men of the time considered that women simply used Revolution to change common way of life and become emancipated that would impact accepted social order. However, positive influence of women’s activities cannot be underestimated and this point of view can be supported while analyzing primary sources.

The first primary source that confirms positive influence of women’s social activity and their great contribution to Revolution is “The Sentiments of An American Woman”. This piece of writing was created by Esther DeBerdt Reed. It was aimed at encouraging American women participate in struggle against Great Britain invasion.

She argued that women had to be involved and do everything possible to help men change the situation for better. This appeal resulted in a fundraising campaign that bought clothes for soldiers and made shirts. In the Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia). 21 June 1780, the writing was published and it claimed:

“Our ambition is kindled by the fame of those heroines of antiquity; who have rendered their sex illustrious, and have proved to the universe, that, if the weakness of our constitution, if opinion and manners did not forbid us to march to glory by the same paths as the men, we should at least equal, and sometimes surpass them in our love for public good” (Reed 191).

The Ladies’ Association took an active role on the war. Before the association was establishes, the soldiers of the Continental Army lived under very poor conditions. They were badly fed, suffered diseases and had bad clothes. The money was raised to enhance living conditions in the troops which greatly supported the army.

Indeed, women felt that can change society for better and they felt their power, Eliza Wilkinson, in the letter to a female friend (1782) writes:

“The men say we have no business with [politics], it is not in our sphere! I won’t have it thought that because we are the weaker sex as to bodily strength, my dear, we are capable of nothing more than minding the dairy, visiting the poultry house, and all such domestic concerns. . . . They won’t even allow us the liberty of thought, and that is all I want….” (Wilkinson n. p.).

Thus, women understood that their role is important and war was not a time for staying at home and wash dishes. The new that everyone’s contribution was important and that they were responsible for maintaining social stability in the country while men were fighting for the rights of the nation. The same idea is expressed in the Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband John Adams:

“…by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation” (Adams n. p.).

One more document that proves the importance of women’s social activities and their role in providing patriotic spirit and support to soldiers on the front is “The Ladies of Lancaster to Captain Mosher’s Volunteer Light Infantry Company”. The aim of the writing is to encourage men fight for their country:

“Incapacity by our sex to bear arms in the defense of our country’s rights, we with cheerfulness and confidence submit that sacred charge to you”. (“The Ladies of Lancaster” 195).

The subject of the role of women in the Revolution was examined by many writers and historians. Walter A. Hazen in the book Everyday Life: Revolutionary War, Provides many examples of how women charged their daily responsibilities at home and being “camp followers”.

He also provides histories of famous women who participated in military actions. Mary Beth Norton in Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, explores the subject of social role of women and how their social activities helped soldiers and contributed to revolution.

The role of woman in the 18th century society was determined as “domestic and private”. Society was based on strict hierarchy:

“At the top was the man, the lord of the fireside; next came the mistress; his wife and helpmate; following her, the children, who were expected to assist the parent of their own sex; and finally, any servants or slaves, with the former taking precedence over the latter” (Norton 3).

A woman was expected to follow the orders of her husband. Thus, when Revolution began, women’s main responsibility was to stay at home while their husbands left for military service and keep the household responsibilities. However, Revolution put everything upside down and the role, particularly, the attitude to women, changed.

The understanding of mistress as a provide activity was became different. Thus, women asserted the political meaning of domesticity. Women of Revolution were expected to perform the educating activity, in other words, their function was to civilize men to be worthy republican citizens.

Regardless their domestic opportunities, many women followed their husbands and joined army as nurses and “camp followers”, “wives who accompanied their husbands served as cooks, bakers, laundress, and seamstress” (Hazen 35). They received payment for their work and were given housing.

History knows many women who contributed to war against British army. The not only served in army as nurses or cooks, many of them took an active part in battles. The two most famous “women soldiers” were Deborah Sampson and Molly Pitcher.

Deborah Sampson of Plympton was only twenty years old when she joined the Continental Army naming herself Robert Surtleif, “She fought alongside her male fellow soldiers for almost a year and a half before her true identity was discovered in November 1783” (Hazen 36). She was honorably disgorged from military service.

Another example of “soldier woman” is Molly Pitcher. She is considered to be one of America’s founding leaders. Many tales about this woman are regarded by historians as folklore, and it might be a “collective” image, however, historians prove that a historical fact that such person was real has a right to exist. Her name was Mary Ludwig and she was one of the “camp followers” who joined the army together with their husbands.

Some sources provide that she took part in battles and fired her husband’s carom after he fell in battle. However, it is not a proved historical fact. What she did was, “carry pitches after pitches of water to the thirsty Continental troops at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. That is how she acquired the name Molly Pitcher” (Hazen 36). Originally, the woman who really fired her husband’s cannon was Margaret Corbin. When her husband was killed, she “continued to blaze away until she was severely wounded” (Hazen 36).

Thus, we can come to a conclusion that women played crucial role in American Revolution. They participated in military actions together with men, they supported troops providing them with food, clothes and medical services. They also followed their husbands to support them.

One of the most important “activities” that women performed was social activity aimed at supporting men in their fight for the rights and encouraging them follow their calling. Women had brave hearts and strong spirits, they contribution to Revolution will always be a honorable page in the book of American History.

Works Cited.

Adams, Abigail. “Letter to Her Husband John Adams, 1776”. A Website for Student Discovery. Web. 3 May, 2011.

DeBerdt Reed, Esther. “The Sentiments of an American Woman” in The Revolutionary Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1776 to 1800. Ed. Carol Sue Humphrey. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. p. 191 – 195.

Hazen, Walter A. Everyday Life: Revolutionary War. New York: Good Year Books, 2000.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750 – 1800. New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.

“The Ladies of Lancaster” in The Revolutionary Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1776 to 1800. Ed. Carol Sue Humphrey. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. p. 195 – 196.

Wilkinson, Eliza. “Letter to a Female Friend, 1782”. A Website for Student Discovery. Web. 3 May, 2011.

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