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Women in the American Revolution

Martha Washington was the wife of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Martha is remembered for her assistance in the Continental Army camp and for the role she played during the Revolutionary War.

"I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.”
  – Martha Washington

Who was Martha Washington?

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was the foremost First Lady of the United States. She was born on June 2, 1731 on her parents’ plantation in the British colonial province of Virginia. During her lifetime, she was also known as “Lady Washington.” She died on May 22, 1802, of a severe fever.

What was her role in American Revolution?

Like other officers’ wives, Martha Washington joined the army as a camp follower. Since she did not join the army immediately, some people thought she was against the War, but those rumors were put to an end as she soon started serving in the continental camp.
Martha’s main role was to take care of her husband, General Washington. General Nathanael Greene wrote this of his commander: “Poor man, he appears oppressed with cares and wants some gentle hand free from deceit to soothe his cares.” In addition to this, Martha Washington was a hostess at the army camp, and looked after the soldiers enlisted in the War.
In a letter to Mrs Elias Boudinot on January 15, 1784, Martha Washington stated: “The difficulties, and distresses to which we have been exposed during the war must now be forgotten. We must endeavor to let our ways be the ways of pleasantness, and all our paths Peace.”

What were Martha Washington’s views on slavery?

Slaves played an important role in Martha's life. They did most of the housework and were considered an asset. When one of her slaves, a girl, fled the house, Martha tried her best to bring her back, which shows how vital she considered slaves to everyday chores. Although George Washington freed many slaves after he became the president, he stipulated that their household slaves would not be freed while Martha was alive.

What distinctions did Martha Washington receive?

As the First Lady of America, Martha Washington received numerous honors.

The USS Lady Washington was named in her honor, which was the first U.S. military ship to be named after a woman. In 1902, she became the first American woman to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp. She is also the only woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note.

Phillis Wheatley was an African-American poet who struggled in colonial America because of slavery and discrimination. She was the first published black poet of her time.

Grant To America's united prayer/ A glorious conquest on the field of war!
– Phillis Wheatley

Who was Phillis Wheatley ?

Phillis Wheatley was a slave and a poet in colonial America. She was born in Senegal in 1753 and was taken to America when she was seven years old. There, she was taught English and Latin. At the age of thirteen, she wrote her first poem about George Whitefield, the great Evangelist. In 1773, she published her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This book became quite famous and is well known even today. Wheatley died a pauper’s death on December 5, 1784.

What was her role in American Revolution?

Phillis Wheatley was a strong supporter of the Revolutionary War. In 1776, she wrote a poem to George Washington, praising his appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. She continued writing poems addressed to George Washington, to which he never responded.

Phillis Wheatley was the first published African-American poet. She used her poetry to influence people and felt strongly that the issue of slavery separated whites from true heroism. She had herself been a part of slave trade, and through her poetry she tried to make people understand this inhuman practice.

Her views on slavery are clear in her poem On being brought from Africa to America:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd and join th'angelic train.


Wheatley's letter to Reverend Samson Occom, dated February 11, 1774, contains her strongest anti-slavery statement:

“I have this day received your obliging kind epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in vindication of their natural rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine light is chasing away the thick darkness which broods over the land of Africa; and the chaos which has reigned so long, is converting into beautiful order, and reveals more and more clearly the glorious dispensation of civil and religious liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no enjoyment of one without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means; for in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call ~ it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance; and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same principle lives in us. God grant deliverance in his own way and time, and get him honor upon all those whose avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the calamities of their fellow creatures. This I desire not for their hurt, but to convince them of the strange absurdity of their conduct, whose words and actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the cry for liberty, and the reverse disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree - I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a philosopher to determine.”

What are some of the major themes in her poetry?

Patriotism, piety, and death are some of the most important themes in Wheatley's poetry. Wheatley drew from her own life experiences in her writing, demonstrated in the poems about her religious and political beliefs, which were a large part of her life and an influence in her poetry. Her poems often served as commentary about America and slavery, expressed through the filter of Christianity.

Molly Pitcher has become a legend and a symbol of the contributions of women to the Revolutionary War. Her real name was Mary Ludwig.

“Well, that could have been worse.”
  – Molly Pitcher, on narrowly escaping being hit by a British musket ball.

Who was Molly Pitcher?

Molly Pitcher was a nickname for Mary Ludwig Hays. She was born on October 13, 1774, in New Jersey, and was the daughter of a German settler. She was hired by Anna Irvine of Pennsylvania to be a servant in the Irvine house. There, Mary met William Hays, a local barber, whom she married later.

What was her role in American Revolution?

In 1777, William Hays enlisted in the Continental Army. Following her husband, that winter, Mary Ludwig Hays joined the army’s winter camp in Pennsylvania and became a “camp follower” like another Revolutionary woman, Martha Washington.

During the training of the troops, Mary and other women served as “water girls,” carrying drinking water for the troops. Mary Ludwig Hays got her nickname during this time. Since Molly was a common nickname for “Mary” in the eighteenth century, the troops would shout “Molly! Pitcher!” whenever they wanted water. Mary also took care of the wounded, and acted as a gunner when necessary.

What is the legend of Molly Pitcher?

During the Battle of Monmouth, on June, 28, 1778, Molly Pitcher risked her life on the battlefield to bring water to the troops. When her husband was wounded in the fight, Molly took her husband's gun and fought in his place for the rest of the battle.

This story became the Legend of Molly Pitcher, and Molly became a symbol to represent all the women who fought bravely and volunteered their assistance during the Revolutionary War. Some historians believe that there may have been thousands of women on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, who collected weapons and ammunition and assisted the troops.

Abigail Adams is remembered for her correspondence with her husband, John Adams, during the American Revolution. The letters contain her views on government, politics, and the rights of women.

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
  – Abigail Adams, 1780

Who was Abigail Adams?

Born on November 11, 1744, to a well-known political family, Abigail Adams was the wife of the second president of America, John Adams. She was also the second First Lady of the United States. Her letters to her husband serve as an eyewitness account of the Revolution. She died of typhoid fever on October 28, 1818.

What was her role in the American Revolution?

Abigail Adams is remembered for the letters she wrote to her husband during the Revolution. Her letters and ideas give perspective on the condition of women in America during the eighteenth century. Her political views were radical and progressive. She advocated property rights for married women and called for more opportunities for them. She believed that women should not serve merely as a decorous companion to their husbands, and wanted women to recognize their intellectual capabilities. She stressed female education because she knew that an educated woman could influence the lives of her husband and children.

In one of her letters to her husband, she wrote, “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.”

In addition to her views on women’s rights, Abigail Adams was also against slavery. Adams believed that slavery was a threat to the American democratic experiment. In her letter dated March 31, 1776, she wrote that Virginians’ “passion for liberty” was doubtful since they “deprive[d] their fellow creatures” of freedom.

What was the condition of women and slaves in America in the eighteenth century?

Women in America were relegated to the domestic sphere. They were taught to read the Bible, but formal education was not available. They were expected to be subservient to their husbands.
The condition of slaves was even worse. Slave trading was rampant and legal. During the decade of the Revolution, an anti-slavery movement started in the northern colonies. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, African Slavery in America, begins with these words: “That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising.”

Excerpts from letters written by Abigail Adams:

March 31,1776
To John Adams

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you 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.
Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex; regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

May 17, 1776
To John Adams

I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.
But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.

Mercy Otis Warren wrote numerous plays, pamphlets and books reflecting her views on politics during the Revolution. At that time, politics was supposed to be only for men.

“Democratic principles are the result of equality of condition.”
 – Mercy Otis Warren

Who was Mercy Otis Warren?

Mercy Otis Warren was born to Colonel James Otis and Mary Allyne Otis on September 24, 1728. In 1754, she married James Warren, a prosperous merchant farmer, who later became a distinguished politician. Mercy was the only woman who published books during her times, initially writing under a pseudonym. In 1805, she published the earliest histories of the war. She died at the age of 86 in October 1814.

What was her role in American Revolution?

Through her works, Mercy Otis Warren voiced her opinion on the politics of her times. In some of her plays she depicted pro-British officers as greedy, tyrannical traitors while she praised Boston radicals as noble heroes. She was unhappy with America under the Articles of Confederation. She called America a- “restless, Vigorous youth, prematurely emancipated from the authority of a parent, but without the experience necessary to direct him to act with dignity or discretion.”

Warren's views on the government are illustrated through her famous quote:

“Our situation is truly delicate & critical. On the one hand we are in need of a strong federal government founded on principles that will support the prosperity & union of the colonies. On the other we have struggled for liberty & made costly sacrifices at her shrine and there are still many among us who revere her name to much to relinquish (beyond a certain medium) the rights of man for the dignity of government.”

According to Warren, the British failed to understand the rights of the colonists and felt that women could have more rights if the colonies were granted independence. Both Warren and Abigail Adams—the second First Lady of the United States—urged the leaders to “remember the ladies” when they spoke of equality and liberty. Warren stressed the need for formal education for women and believed in intellectual equality between men and women, though she did not push for political rights for women.