Women generally did not fight in the revolution, and the traditional status of Eighteenth Century women meant that they were not publicly able to participate fully in the debates over the revolution. However, in their own sphere, and sometimes out of it, woman participated fully in the revolution in all the ways that their status and custom allowed.
As the public debate over the Townshend Acts grew more virulent, women showed their support for the cause of freedom by engaging in certain “feminine” pursuits. A common practice was to publicly ban English imports, especially tea, from their homes. Creating homespun, that is, the tedious creation of homemade fabric from spinning and weaving their own cloth, was another public way of showing support for the cause of freedom.
During the American Revolution, many women were directly affected by the fighting since their father or brothers or husband or sons were off fighting. This meant that the women often had to take full responsibility for the family farm or business. More and more women became “deputy husbands” and represented the family in legal or commercial transactions. In some instances, as the fighting came close to their lands, women even had to take up arms to defend their person or property when the occasion demanded. Several women in Groton, Massachussetts, put on their husbands’ clothing, armed themselves with muskets and pitchforks and defended the Nashua River Bridge. They captured a notorious Tory carrying dispatches in his boots to the British in Boston.
Many women actively participated in the workings of the army. They opened up their homes to the wounded, raised money for and provided food and clothing to the Army. There are even several recorded instances of women serving as spies or soldiers in disguise. Most of the active participants however, were in the form of what was called “camp followers”. While some of these were women were prostitutes, many others were wives, daughters and mothers of soldiers who followed the Army because they were unable to support themselves after their men left for war. They served the Continental Army as nurses, cooks, laundresses, and water bearers. These women became the earliest American examples of women who supported the military to “free a man to fight” as they performed jobs usually done by male soldiers.
Women were generally not active in the political sphere, but there were some exceptions. A famous instance of this was Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams. She was intelligent and well read, and in her letters to her husband, she employs the rhetoric of the Revolution to address all the issues of power between men and women.
There was also the idea “Republican Motherhood”, as a way that women in the revolutionary era, while still staying in their accepted domestic sphere, could influence public affairs. Proponents of Republican Motherhood believed that boys should be schooled to become good citizens, thoughtful voters, and virtuous shapers of public institutions and industry, while girls were to become mothers of model citizens. Female education, therefore, was the best way to accomplish this. Educated women would raise virtuous children who would make contributions to the new republic.
Even confined to their own, limited sphere, women were able to participate in the American Revolution. They showed their support publicly by foregoing English goods, they took on greater responsibility for their family’s holdings, and they provided indirect and direct support to the Continental Army. It was a good beginning, but full participation in the public life of the Republic would take another long time.