American Athenas
Women in the Revolution
by Tina Ann Nguyen

"Actuated by the most glorious cause that mankind ever fought in, I am to defend this post to the very last extremity."1 The words of an American soldier during the American Revolution. However, this soldier was different from all the other soldiers. This soldier's name was Margaret Corbin, who survived the British attack on Fort Washington. Most importantly, she was a female participant in a war where the chief fighters were men.

Most history textbooks overlook women's roles in the American Revolution. Little is covered on women's contribution to the America's independence. The truth is, women were fiercely active in the independence cause and made gains for themselves.

Women's roles were limited in the colonial times. Marriage and motherhood were the primary goals for women. They lost property and legal rights upon marriage.2 Therefore, women were not expected to participate in the war.

Despite their low positions in society, women did participate. On the home front, they sewed uniforms and knitted stockings for the soldiers. With their husbands away fighting, some women had to take over as weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, or shipbuilders. Others transformed their homes into hospitals for the wounded. One famous caretaker was Margaret Hill Morris. Because she demonstrated great expertise in medicine and herbal remedies, the sick depended on her. Every morning she made rounds to sick or wounded soldiers lodged in area homes.3

Like their male counterparts, women held protests against British goods. The Edenton Tea Party is one example. On one October day in 1774, fifty-one women signed Penelope Baker's declaration to ban English imports. They renounced drinking British tea and wearing clothes made of British cloth. However, unlike the Boston Tea Party, the signers did not attempt to hide their identities, and boldly signed their true names.4

Paul Revere was not the only one who announced the British's arrival. Sybil Ludington rode through Connecticut on a chilly April night and yelled that the British were burning Danbury and warned soldiers to prepare for a raid. Thanks to her daring actions, the British were halted at Ridgefield, Connecticut on April 27, 1777 and were forced to retreat to Long Island Sound5

Both men and women fought on the battlefield. Hundreds of women served as nurses, laundresses, cooks and companions to the male soldiers in the Continental Army.6 In addition, there were some that actually engaged in battle. Seeing "no reason to believe that any consideration foreign to the purest patriotism,"7 Deborah Sampson put on men's clothing and called herself Robert Shirtliffe in order to enlist in the Army. "Robert Shirtliffe" fought courageously; "his" company defeated marauding Indians north of Ticonderoga.8 There is also the valiancy of the water carrier Mary Hays, otherwise known as Molly Pitcher, who took up arms after her husband fell.9 As a six-foot tall woman, Nancy Hart was considered an Amazon Warrior. Living in the Georgia frontier, this "War Woman" aimed and, with deadly accuracy, shot British soldiers who invaded the area.10 Mentioned in the beginning of this essay was Margaret Corbin, another woman on the battlefield.

There were many American spies during the war, but the most remarkable one was Lydia Darragh of Philadelphia, a Quaker. Tricking the British soldiers conferencing in her home into believing that she was asleep, Friend Lydia learned that they were going to surprise Washington's army at Whitemarsh. Shocked, she proceeded the next day to Frankford pretending to fill her flour sack at a flourmill there. After clearing the British outposts, she ran into the American army and revealed the British's strategy. With this vital information, the Continental Army was able to thwart the British's plans.11

In the end, the Americans won the American Revolution and independence from the British. In the spirit of the Revolution, women also gained some independence from their confining roles because of their efforts in the war. Greater numbers of young girls were allowed to go to school. More women held jobs, campaigned against slavery, improved prisons and poorhouses conditions, and advocated women's rights.12 Abigail Adams, a fervent advocate of women's rights, wrote to her husband John Adams at the Continental Congress that "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."13

In conclusion, women contributed a great deal to the American Revolution. Their actions on the home front and on the battlefields relieved the men from the extra planning, mobilizing, and combating that they would have had to execute without the help of the women. This allowed the Continental Army to fully concentrate on defeating the British and acquiring sovereignty. America could not have been the powerful independent nation it is today without the service of the women.

1Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 1976.

2Zell, Fran. A Multicultural Portrait of the American Revolution. New York: Benchmark Books, 1996.

3Zell, Fran. A Multicultural Portrait of the American Revolution, New York: Benchmark Books. 1996.

4Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 1976.

5Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 1976.

6Zell, Fran. A Multicultural Portrait of the American Revolution. New York: Benchmark Books. 1996.

7Ellet, Elizabeth F. The Women of the American Revolution. New York: Haskell House. 1969.

8Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women and War. New York: Basic Books, Inc,. Publishers. 1987.

9Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 1976.

10Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 1976.

11Bakeless, Katherine and John. Spies of the Revolution. Philadelphia and New York: JB Lippincott Company. 1959.

12Zell, Fran. A Multicultural Portrait of the American Revolution. New York: Benchmark Books, 1996.

13Gells, Edith B. "First Thoughts": Life and Letters of Abigail Adams. New York: Twayne Publishers. 1998.

Related Websites

Women of the American Revolution

Amazing Women

Heroic Women

Liberty's Daughters

The Women of the British Army in America

Female Camp Followers With the Continental Army

The number of rations issued to the women in camp

An Examination of the Numbers of Female Camp Followers With the Continental Army

Recommended Further Reading

Alt, B. and Ston, B. Campfollowing: A History of the Military Wife.

Benson, Mary Sumner. "Women in Eighteenth Century America - A study of Opinion and Social Usage"

Berkin, Carol. "First Generations"

Blumenthal, Walter. Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution.

Bodle, Wayne. "Jane Bartram's "Application": Her Struggle for Survival, Stability, and Self-Determination in Revolutionary Pennsylvania," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 115 No. 2 (April 1991).

Brandt, Donald J. "Rochambeau's Army, and Women in America" Brigade Dispatch Vol. 25 No. 3 (Autumn 1995)

Buel, Joy Day and Richard Buel, Jr. The Way of Duty: a Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America. The Diary of Mary Gold Silliman. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984. ISBN: 0-393-30225-3

Chartrand, Rene. "Notes Concerning Women in the 18th Century French Army," Brigade Dispatch Vol. 25 No. 3 (Autumn 1995)

Cleary, Patricia. ""She will be in the Shop": Women's Sphere of Trade in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia and New York." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 109 No. 3 (July 1995).

Davey, Frances & Chambers, Thomas. ""A Woman? At the Fort!": A Shock Tactic for Gender Integration in Historical Interpretation." Gender & History Vol. 6 No. 3 (November 1994).

De Pauw, Linda Grant, "Women in Combat - The Revolutionary War Experience", Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter 1981

Dexter, Elisabeth Anthony. "Colonial Women of Affairs"

Gelles, Edith B. Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1992. ISBN: 0-253-32553-6; ISBN: 0-253-21023-2

Gundersen, Joan R. To Be Useful to the World: Women in Revolutionary America, 1740-1790. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 0-8057-9916-8

Hagist, Don N. "The Women of the British Army during the American Revolution." Minerva Quarterly Report on Women and the Military Vol. 13 No. 2 (Summer 1995).

Hoffer, Peter Charles ed., "Early American History: Colonial Women and Domesticity"

Hoffman, Ronald and Peter J. Albert (editors). Women in the Age of the American Revolution. Published for the United States Capitol Historical Society; Charlottesville, Va.: The University Press of Virginia, 1989. ISBN: 0-8139-1216-4; ISBN: 0-8139-1240-7

Hood, Adrienne D. "The Gender Division of Labor in the Production of Textiles in Eighteenth-Century, Rural Pennsylvania (Rethinking the New England Model)" Journal of Social History Vol. 27 No. 3 (Spring 1994).

Juster, Susan. Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994. ISBN: 0-8014-2732-0; ISBN: 0-8014-8338-3

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va.; Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press,1980. ISBN: 0-8078-1440-7.

Klaver, Carol. "An Introduction to the Legend of Molly Pitcher." Minerva Quarterly Report on Women and the Military Vol. 12 No. 2 (Summer 1994).

Kopperman, Paul E., "The British High Command and Soldiers' Wives in America, 1755 - 1783," Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. 60 (1982)

Leonard, Patrick J. "Ann Bailey: Mystery Woman Warrior of 1777." Minerva Quarterly Report on Women and the Military Vol. 11No. 3/4 (Autumn/Winter 1993).

McDonald, Constance M. "There was a Molly Pitcher and her Name was Mary McCauly," Artilleryman Vol. 12 (Winter 1990).

Mayer, Holly A. Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and the Military Community during the American Revolution. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN: 1-57003-108-8

McKenney, Janice E. ""Women in Combat': Comment", Armed Forces in Society, Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer 1982

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: the Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980. ISBN: 0-316-61251-0

Potter-MacKinnon, Janice. While the Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women in Eastern Ontario.

Rees, John ""... the multitude of women": An Examination of The Numbers of Female Campfollowers With the Continental Army," Brigade Dispatch Vol. 23 No. 1, Vol. 24 No. 1-2 (Autumn 1993, Winter 1994, Spring 1994)

Roth, Randolph. "Wayward Youths: Raising Adolescents in Vermont, 1777 - 1815," Vermont History Vol. 59 No. 2 (Spring 1991).

Samuelson, Nancy B. "Revolutionary War Women and the Second Oldest Profession." Minerva Vol. V No. 7 (Summer 1989).

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. "The Schooling of Girls and Changing Community Values in Massachusetts Towns, 1750 - 1820" History of Education Quarterly Vol. 33 No. 4 (Winter 1993).

Spruill, Julia Cherry. "Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies"

Warren, Mercy Otis. History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations. In two volumes. Edited and annotated by Lester H. Cohen. Boston: Manning and Loring for E. Larkin, 1805; reprinted, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1994. ISBN: 0-86597-066-1; ISBN: 0-86597-069-6

Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1995. ISBN: 0-88295-924-7

Further bibliography at