In our well developed, better than ever society, we are still fighting for women’s rights and equality between genders. Waiting for a police officer or a neurologist to come, we are usually surprised when we see a woman approaching. While reading an article about the death toll in the Syrian Civil War, we easily assume all late soldiers were males. Does this approach differ from the one that was two hundred and fifty years ago? The role of women was crucial during this colonial revolt leading to the independence of the United States.
The need for human force made all people equal and essential to succeed and gain autonomy. Starting with their active participation on the frontier, through the artistic expressions of their feeling, and the comforting appearance. The Revolutionary War forced women to change, previously they were considered as weaker than men, and like their mother Eva, dangerously prone to sin. However, during the War, they were the ones that had power “to make our young men, not in empty words, but in deed and in truth, Republicans” From the Revolutionary War to the time of reforms following the Spanish-American War, women served unofficially with the military.
This situation changed in the years preceding World War I, when American War, leaders finally concluded that military women were not just a poor substitute for men but, rather, a talented reserve of capable and highly motivated people. However, even after the Revolution women weren’t considered a full citizen. Nevertheless, they were always present in the world of the army. At the end of the American Revolution in 1783, more than 20,000 women provided support, sustenance, or active service for the military. The first woman to officially be a part of America’s armed forces was Deborah Sampson.
However, it was only partially true, because the Army wouldn’t easily enlist her if she was a woman. Deborah needed to become a man, she practiced for months; changed her way of walking, speaking and acting. On May 20, 1782, she joined Washington’s hard-pressed Continental Army, as a ‘smock-faced’ boy with handmade uniform hiding her female figure. She participated in several battles for eighteen months, however during a battle near Tarrytown she got injured. While being hospitalized in Philadelphia, her doctor revealed her gender to a commanding officer, who had no idea what to do in the following situation. Deborah was sent to Washington’s headquarters with the explanation letter, where she received the advice to give up soldering.
A few years after discharge from the army at West Point, George Washington invited her to the nation’s capital, where Congress officially recognized her as a Revolutionary War heroine. However, the rejection of Deborah Sampson didn’t stop other women from willing to help and be a part of American Revolution. Their situation on the frontier was harder and required more endurance than anyone could expect. First of all, very little or even no provision was prepared from them. The lack of food forced the army to provide the nourishment only to the essential units. Furthermore, their appearance relied mostly on their husband-soldiers. Madame de Riedesel was the well-known loyalist camp-follower, who traveled with her husband during the war.
Lastly, they were granted very few concessions, including usage of baggage wagons as a mean of transport. Even though women faced many, various difficulties on their way to prove their importance on the frontier, they never gave up and became a fundament of the overall success. As George Washington once remarked, “without the Army’s women, many more men would have deserted”. Not everyone was able to actively help at the battlefield, and without the help from the outside, soldiers wouldn’t survive long. Winter was especially challenging for troops stationing in barracks. Albigence Waldo, the surgeon at Valley Forge described in his diary the winter of 1777. On December, 21 he wrote about universal Thanksgiving dinner in the soldiers Camp – ‘Gentlemen the Supper is ready.’ What is your Supper Lads? ‘Fire Cake and Water, Sir.’
During that bleak, harsh winter the army ran out of food supplies. Finally, several large wagons filled with foodstuffs arrived at Valley Forge, however, there was no one to distribute it. Ten women from the nearby village decided to help, they had braved the elements and poor roads to delivered tons of precious supplies to the beleaguered Army. They not only delivered it to the frontier but also helped stem the tide of desertions by cooking, chopping firewood, building shelters and nursing wounded or ill men back to health. In the villages, the absence of males pushed women to take men’s responsibilities. Wives successfully coped with many new challenges, that occurred when their husbands were gone.
They managed farms, became politically involved, assembled munitions and, on occasion, helped to defend their families against Indian raids. In Burke County, North Carolina during the defend against Indians the soldiers’ gunpowder was nearly exhausted. The group was saved by one of the women, who possessed a good supply of the needed powder and decided to distribute it among the soldiers. Carrying the gunpowder in her apron, she went to each man and poured a small quantity into his upturned hat. The soldiers were able to sustain fire long enough to dissuade the Indians from pressing the attack. Women held the Army together. Women were the heart of the Army. “A number of females, some say a hundred, some say more” sieged Thomas Boylston’s shop, demanding the keys to his warehouse, which was a storage of his overpriced coffee.
The reaction of one of the women was unpredictable when Thomas refused to distribute the coffee without any charges, she “seized him by the neck, and tossed him into the cart… [they] opened the warehouse, hoisted out the coffee themselves, put it into trucks and drove off…” With delight, she concluded, “a large concourse of men stood amazed, silent spectators of the whole transaction.” This situation was described by Abigail Adams in her letter form June 31, 1777 to her husband, showing women’s need to fight for nearly everything. Neither writing, nor speaking, could be their way to express their feelings.
They weren’t allowed to publish during the American Revolution, because it was against the rules. A woman was a private being, by publishing broadsides or essays she became unfeminine and immoral. Most of the pieces published by females, all under a pseudonym ‘a woman’ were repressed in the name of patriotism and freedom. The first exception was probably the earliest American novel written in the form of a letter ‘The History of Maria Kittle’ by Ann Eliza Bleecker. In the letter written on December 15, 1777, to Miss Tenn Eyck, she expressed her devastating grief and loss caused by the death of her daughter.
In spite of the stamina and strength demonstrated by many American women in surviving the harrowing and often bloody events of the war with Britain, the feminine ideal was different. The women from the middle and upper classes met the requirement to be delicate, modest and non-assertive. Rebecca Frank described her social life during winter 1778 in a letter to her friend, Nancy Harrison Paca, emphasizing her clothing style. Elaborating on the details of hoops, feathers she encloses ‘six gauze handkerchiefs, two small pieces of gauze, and two sets of colored ribbons.’
However, doing this, she flaunted or ignored the fact that women chose to wear homespun fabrics as a patriotic gesture during the Revolution. John Adams outlined his idea of a woman in a letter to his wife on November 4, 1775, comparing her to Mrs. Hancock. Abigail was sometimes ‘too saucy’, while Dorothy was all he could ask for, ‘modest, decent… Her behavior is easy and genteel. She avoids talking upon politics. In large and mixed companies, she is totally silent, as a lady ought to be.’ However, most of them did not try to stick to the norms. Forming groups, such as Daughters of Liberty, women exerted considerable economic influence by boycotting British goods. They refused to buy tea or woolen goods and spun material for shirts and sheets on their own.
Sarah Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter showed him 2200 military shirts that had been sewn by the women of Philadelphia, as the Marquis de Chastellux reported. As Abigail Adams once told her husband “remember the Ladies”, we should keep in minds that women were a fundament of a society during the Revolutionary War. Their outstanding commitment at the frontier, a will to make lives of others easier and heart-warming appearance contributed to gaining independence by the United States. Even though the circumstances were adverse, women were always ready to help and their impact is undeniable. However, the question is how the revolution influenced women? Was the Revolution really a revolution, or was it just a change of a regime?