As New York City, and the world at large, take unprecedented steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, I find myself thinking about the generations of women who’ve faced moments of national crisis. Over the last year, I’ve spent my time researching and writing the Settler Colonialism and Revolution, 1692-1783 unit of Women & the American Story. The curriculum guide provides our students and teachers with many examples of women rising to the occasion when their communities and families needed them most. Although it was a very different kind of crisis from today, the outbreak of the American Revolution upended every aspect of daily life for the women who lived through it. By studying their example, we can find models for our own response to modern challenges.
Model One: Lean In
The history of the American Revolution is full of women who became directly involved in political disputes and the war in a variety of ways. Even before the outbreak of the fighting, women across the colonies were taking action to express their displeasure with the British Government. In New England, women gathered at spinning bees, where they produced homespun thread that could replace British imports, utilizing a traditionally feminine form of labor to express their political beliefs and alter the economic relationship between crown and colony. The women of Edenton, N.C., took their activism a step further, publishing a petition in support of their patriot husbands, fathers, and brothers’ boycott of tea in the local newspaper. Moreover, they justified their boycott by staking a claim to their own citizenship, arguing that their political and economic action was “a duty which we owe, not only to our near and dear connections who have concurred in them, but to ourselves.” This was the first time in the history of the British colonies that women came together to make such a public political declaration. Writer Mercy Otis Warren also published inflammatory rhetoric intended to inspire those husbands, fathers, and brothers to ever greater acts of rebellion, three years before the war began.
Once fighting did break out, women were active participants in every part of the war effort for both the British and the Americans. Women were especially valuable spies, as the stories of Lorenda Holmes and Peggy Arnold attest. They fearlessly served as couriers; gathered and passed on military intelligence; and more, often taking advantage of men’s assumptions about their innocence and feminine virtue to carry out their missions. Camp followers like Margaret Corbin not only cooked, sewed, and did laundry for the troops, but also took up arms against the enemy whenever the need arose. Congress awarded Corbin a lifelong pension in recognition of her service in the Battle of Fort Washington, where she took over firing a cannon after her husband and other soldiers were killed. These stories and more provide us with examples of women’s crucial engagement with war.
Model Two: Get Organized
As we’ve all learned in the last few weeks, rapidly-evolving crises can have many unexpected ripple effects, and a community’s ability to get organized to meet these challenges can make or break a response effort. One of the stories of the American Revolution that absolutely blew me away and has stuck with me again today is the organizing work of Esther Reed and the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. Four years into the American Revolution, Esther Reed realized that the Continental Congress was not able to properly provide for the American soldiers, and their circumstances were growing so dire that the entire war might be lost. She called on the women of Philadelphia to come together and raise funds. Breaking social expectations of acceptable female behavior, the mostly wealthy and middle-class women of the association went door to door seeking donations, and in a single summer raised more than $300,000 (roughly the equivalent of over $4.5 million today!) Her success inspired similar movements in Maryland and New Jersey.
Model Three: Seize the Opportunity for Radical Change
One of the less-acknowledged aspects of national crises like wars, economic downturns, and public health crises is that they lay bare social inequalities that can otherwise go unacknowledged and create new opportunities for positive change. In the case of the American Revolution, the rhetoric of liberty that fueled the patriots also gave birth to a newly radicalized movement to abolish slavery.
Poet Phyllis Wheatley made the ties between revolutionary rhetoric and abolitionism obvious to the predominantly white readers of her poems celebrating the war effort, forcing them to confront the hypocrisy of the war even as they celebrated it. Enslaved women like Deborah Squash and Peggy Gwynn took full advantage of the chaos the war created, taking their own freedom when the opportunities arose. Squash ran away from George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, to seek refuge with the British, eventually making her way to freedom in Nova Scotia; Gwynn was less fortunate, and eventually forced to returned to a life in slavery in Virginia after the war’s end. Elizabeth Freeman in Massachusetts, meanwhile, set the precedent for the total abolition of slavery when she went to court and argued that the brand new state constitution, which declared that “all men are born free and equal,” made the practice of slavery unconstitutional. The actions of these women during the crisis of the American Revolution laid the foundation for a new abolitionist movement that would slowly but inexorably erode the practice of slavery in the new United States (until another national crisis nearly a century later, the Civil War, would settle the question permanently).
Americans have faced countless challenges and crises in the centuries since the Revolution, demonstrating time and again that we have the capacity to adapt and persevere. Examining revolutionary women highlights lessons of the past: by leaning into the challenges at hand, organizing for the better of our community, and seizing opportunities for radical change, women have been able to survive, and help society as a whole thrive. Given our current crisis, perhaps it is simply our turn to take up that mantle.
Written by Allyson Schettino, associate director of school programs, New-York Historical Society