Before the American Revolution, a woman’s aesthetic was to maintain a perfectly pictured home for their husbands and care for their children while the men were expected to work and provide for their families. Yet, when the Revolutionary war hit the colonies and the men were drafted into war, the women had no choice but to step up and perform the duties that their husbands or sons had done. The Revolution brought about a new era for women, on both sides.
When the British Parliament imposed the Stamp Act in 1765, the first call for women was put into motion. Since women were the primary consumers of British goods, the colonists believed that in order to repeal the Stamp Act their best option was to extend their pleas to women all across the colonies, “…women became crucial participants in the first organized opposition to British policy” (Berkin, pg. 13). The women reveled in this ideal and ordered their first act of resistance by saying “No.” They said no to merchants, manufacturers, and even their fiancés’ by declaring, “…they would marry no men who applied for a stamped marriage license” (Berkin, pg. 14). Because of the powerful effect of the word “No.” told by women to sellers of British goods their sales plummeted and on March 1766, the Stamp Act was repealed.
The issue of boycotting was brought up, and yet again, women were asked to use their consumerism as a weapon in their arsenal. Many committees were pressuring women to refrain from purchasing British goods like sugar, fabrics, tea, clothing, and many other goods. According to Revolutionary Mothers, “What a woman bought…ate…drank, and the clothing she [wore] could all signal a political commitment” (Berkin, pg. 16). So, many women chose to create a spinning circle in which they could create homespun clothing in order to show a visual political statement. And, yet again, the lack of consumerism from the colonies forced the British to repeal their revenue-raising effort. In the early stages of the Revolutionary War, the issue of boycotting was what initiated the start of the war. Without the women’s role of saying “No.” to consumerism, the states could’ve been very different from as we see them today. Although some women might have only participated in the boycotting out of a duty to their husbands, there were many others who claimed, “that it was a duty they owed to themselves” (Berkin, pg.22).
During the time of the Revolutionary War, many women were often found home alone without their husbands, sons, or fathers to do necessary work because they were in military service. So, the women had to find a way to balance their domestic duties with their absent males’ duties. Yet, try as they might women found it increasingly difficult to perform both actions of “maintain[ing] the farm or shop, protect[ing] their children and their homes, [as well as] expand their circle of affection and interest beyond their family” (Berkin, pg.27). Because of the struggle of juggling two different duties, many women had started to resent their feelings of patriotism that took their husbands and sons off to war. Yet, there were some women who encouraged men to enlist in the continental army. They issued public statements and appeals in the local newsletters that, hopefully, would encourage other wives to let their husbands enlist.
For many women the challenge to survive weighed heavily on them. When their husbands and sons left, they were pushed to their absolute limit and then pushed harder to do more. While General Washington’s troops were fighting for our freedom, they were also fighting for their own survival. The army was painfully short on ammunition and other necessities. So, women who contributed to the “public defense” didn’t need to be asked twice. They found time in their hectic schedules to find aid for their country’s troops by making saltpeter or clothing. Many women, “went door-to-door, soliciting clothes from neighbors, then cleaned and mended them” (Berkin, pg.43). Even when the army needed bullets and cannon shots, “women melted down their own pewter tableware, clock weights, and window weights, and solicited their neighbors to do the same” (Berkin, pg. 43). Many women even opened their homes up to wounded or sick soldiers and offered to take care of them, no matter the disease or sickness brought to them. During the Revolutionary war, women played a crucial role in supplying the army with anything they could ever need, all while performing their duties at home.
There were also women who started to follow the trail of the soldiers, they were called, “followers.” They seemed to carry baskets on their backs which were full of pots and kettles, furniture, and even sometimes children. Both the British and Continental armies saw these women as burdens yet, these women had a place in the camps, “as cooks, washerwomen, seamstresses, nurses, scavengers for supplies, sexual partners, and occasionally as soldiers and spies” (Berkin, pg.51). These women chose to follow the armies for the feeling of safety and security, as well as loneliness and poverty. And yet, even though they got meager rations of food and cramped tents, to them, it was better than to have nothing at all. They provided immediate services to the soldiers at their camps like cooking, sewing, and washing clothing that belonged to the soldiers. Although General Washington despised these women, they were a necessity for the men in his army. They brought soldiers to comfort that they would’ve received from their mothers or wives while at home. Even though they tended services to the troops they were paid although their profits were smaller than the soldiers, to them, it was better than nothing. Life as a follower was not glamorous, but it did offer support and morale to the troops, which at that time was desperately needed.
One of the most influential women of the Revolutionary War was the general’s wife, Martha. She lifted the morale of her husband, officers, and the troops, “she represented the prosperous and genteel life that officers were fighting to defend – and that many soldiers hoped would be theirs” (Berkin, pg.68). By showing her presence at the camps was a remarkable event that had everyone understanding that anyone, wealthy or poor, was willing to make sacrifices for their freedom the war would eventually win.
Over the course of the war, many women, young and old, chose to go behind enemy lines and risk capture or arrest, in order to receive or give information that was pertinent to their ally. Many call them ‘Revolutionary War heroines,” and that couldn’t have been a better name because passed down from generation to generation is a story of how women would chew and swallow documents in order to hide them from the enemy or to spy through keyholes and deliver messages to their allies of an impending attack. These women were spies, and they tipped the weight of the war in favor of their side. Their whole ploy was to play on the stereotypes and expectations that men had set for women by acting innocent and showing charm to gain the trust of their enemy. One woman named, Harriet Prudence Patterson Hall and three other friends deceived enemy soldiers, yet when they were stopped, Hall feigned a false story and the redcoats saw nothing that gave them a reason to be suspicious because, “standing before them were four well-dressed matrons, on an errand that took them to the city” (Berkin, pg.138). So, the soldiers waved them on, and without realizing it, the redcoats had let an important message slip through their fingers, that was meant for the American commander, all because of their unwillingness to think that a woman could be capable of deception.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, women played a crucial role while the men were off in battle. Left to fend for themselves, they stepped up to the plate and accomplished what no man in that era could’ve thought possible. Women were nurses, caregivers, spies, general laborers, and some even soldiers. In many ways, without the support of women, the continental army would’ve been torn apart by the British troops. They provided ammunition, clothing, cooked meals, cannon shot, and vital information that would’ve never made it past enemy lines without the quick cleverness of the women who bravely crossed over with nothing but fierce determination and a willingness to succeed as well as to not be caught. Women changed the Revolutionary War, everything they did was to help ensure their freedom once this war was over and that hopefully their husbands and sons would eventually return. They sparked the Revolutionary War, and none of this would’ve been made possible if women didn’t step outside their comfort zones and tend to what needed to be done. The war was won because women were a major part throughout the entirety of it.