What did it mean for women to exercise “leadership” in the American Revolution? Before that conflict, the question itself would probably have baffled most American women and men. Living within a staunchly patriarchal society, they assumed that in any political conflict men would be the leaders and women, if they had any role at all, would be the followers. Politics, war, and governance were considered the exclusive province of men. Women had no political rights, few legal rights, and limited potential for employment outside their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Women who dared to express political opinions were often jeered, derided, or dismissed for their views. How, then, could women act as political leaders, or even make significant political contributions, at a time when their political and legal roles were so constricted? The short answer is this: the American Revolution gave certain women—especially those who were white and literate—new opportunities to draw on their untapped potential and turn their talents toward the service of the public good.
More than just a rebellion against Great Britain, the American Revolution was a civil war—a conflict that tore apart American families, communities, and individual colonies. If American revolutionaries were to be victorious against Britain, first during the resistance of the 1760s and then during the war for independence of the 1770s and 1780s, they needed to win the support of as much of the population as they could. In an effort to secure that support, patriot leaders needed to appeal to new constituencies, to move beyond the narrow circles of elite political leaders, educated white men, and propertied male voters who dominated colonial political life. Through speeches, public demonstrations, newspaper articles, political tracts, and word of mouth, patriot leaders began to invite propertyless white men, white women, and even, at times, free blacks to join the movement to resist British policies. This expansion of the political sphere created the space that allowed women to enter the political arena and make significant contributions to the American cause.
Three specific instances provide a sense of the range and character of women’s leadership in the American Revolution: the writings of Mercy Otis Warren of Massachusetts; the Edenton, North Carolina, Ladies’ “Tea Party”; and Esther DeBerdt Reed’s Ladies’ Association of Philadelphia.
Mercy Otis Warren’s leadership emerged from her facility with the pen. Born in 1728 in Barnstable, Massachusetts, Warren had the great fortune of receiving a highly sophisticated education at a time when most girls of her generation were barely taught to read. Tutored alongside her brother James Otis, Warren studied Greek and Roman classics in translation and mastered history and literature by Shakespeare, Sir William Raleigh, Dryden, Pope and others. After her marriage in 1754 to James Warren of Plymouth, with whom she had five sons, she continued to read widely and started to write poetry, mostly for circulation among her close circle of family and friends.
As political tensions mounted with Great Britain in the 1760s, Warren’s father, brother, and husband all became engaged with the resistance movement. Knowing of her literary abilities, they encouraged Warren to employ her pen for the American cause. From 1772 to 1775, she published a series of plays—The Adulateur, The Defeat, and The Group—that warned against British attacks on colonial liberties and savaged the venality and corruption of royal officials in the colonies, especially Thomas Hutchinson, the American-born governor of Massachusetts who was regarded as an evil tool of British oppression. In 1773, at the urging of family friend John Adams, she published a poem celebrating the Boston Tea Party, hoping that the action might “bid defiance to the servile train, /The pimps and sycophants of George’s reign.” Soon she published other literary works in local newspapers, calling upon American women and men to boycott British tea and other goods, to be vigilant and virtuous, and to be prepared, if necessary, to take up arms to defend their liberties. Like their British forebears, they must, she said, be ready to “fight for freedom, and for virtue bleed.”
Warren, like many male writers at the time, published her pre-revolutionary works anonymously or under a pseudonym. Nonetheless, among the tight-knit group of political leaders centered around Boston, Warren’s authorship of these political publications was well known. Although Warren herself sometimes expressed concern about writing about masculine matters such as war and politics, patriots supported her efforts. John Adams, for example, assured her that her “poetical pen [had] no equal that I know of in this country.” In her own fashion, then, Mercy Otis Warren emerged as a female leader of the American Revolution. Through her powerful literary productions, she inspired colonists with her words, mobilized sentiment against British injustice, and incited the citizenry to defend their rights against British tyranny.
Another kind of female leadership emerged in the town of Edenton, North Carolina. In October 1774, fifty-one women in and around that rural community signed a document agreeing that they would neither buy nor use consumer goods imported from Britain. Because they were not “indifferent” to the “Peace and Happiness of our Country,” the women said, they thought it was “necessary, for the publick Good” that they express their position publicly. Their action represented the culmination of a long train of boycotts against Britain in which women had played a crucial role.
When male colonial leaders had first contemplated how to demonstrate their opposition to Parliament in response to the Stamp Act of 1765, they knew that elegantly worded petitions would go only so far in ridding Americans of the unjust taxes imposed upon them. At the Stamp Act Congress, however, delegates realized that one way to put teeth into their resistance was to hurt the mother country economically. As Britain’s largest trading partner, the colonies exercised a great deal of influence over the British economy. Once British merchants were deprived of colonial business, they would begin to suffer. Then, presumably, they would put pressure on Parliament to repeal the hated act. The strategy worked so well in 1765-1766 that Americans deployed it again after the Townshend Acts of 1767-68 and the Intolerable Acts of 1774.
The discovery of this successful new economic weapon created an opening for “the ladies.” Women, it was well known, often did much of the purchasing for the entire household; they were often the primary consumers of imported goods. If women did not consent to the boycotts, and the boycotts were a failure, then repealing the unwanted taxes would become much more difficult. As a result, from 1765 onward male political leaders reached out to women, hoping to persuade them that they too had a role to play in the resistance against Great Britain. In sermons, poetry, broadsides, newspapers, and public orations, women were asked to refrain from buying luxury items, such as china, silverware, hats, ribbons, and fine textiles. A harder challenge was that they forgo more basic everyday items, especially their beloved beverage of choice, tea.
Despite the sacrifices that the non-importation agreement entailed, many women did respond to these pleas for support. In certain places, women formed groups that called themselves the “Daughters of Liberty” as a female counterpart to the male “Sons of Liberty.” In other places, women gathered in small groups to make homespun fabric so that they need not purchase the proscribed British cloth. Elsewhere, they made a point of protesting against local merchants who violated the boycott, ostracized neighbors who continued to use British goods, or proudly wore dresses made of homespun fabric. They even signed agreements of their own making. In 1770, for example, over three hundred “ladies” in Boston met to sign a non-consumption agreement in which they promised to totally relinquish the consumption of all tea, whether imported or not.
The “Edenton Ladies’ Tea Party,” then, represented just one of the best-known examples of women’s pre-revolutionary leadership. It came to be famous because the event received significantly more publicity than most other women’s protests. The Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg first reported the event, which was then picked up by a London newspaper. In 1775, Philip Dawe, a London printer and engraver, produced a mezzotint engraving which he entitled, “A Society of Patriotic Ladies.” Satirizing the gathering, Dawe depicted the Edenton women as hags, harlots, or masculinized wretches. In his rendering, the women were negligent mothers and disreputable flirts who degraded themselves by consorting with low-life men and slaves—all in an effort to plot against the King and Parliament. By signing the agreement, Dawe implied, the women acted as double traitors, betraying both their sex as well as their country. Dawe offered the print for sale. As the image began to circulate, news of the Edenton ladies’ political activities began to spread to a wider audience. While this development excited some, it disgusted others.
A final example suggests how yet another woman carved out a distinctive leadership role for herself—as well as for other women—in response to the American Revolution. Born in 1747, Esther DeBerdt Reed was the daughter of a prosperous London merchant. Through her father's business connections, she met her future husband, Joseph, who was in England training to be a lawyer. After marrying in 1770, the couple returned to settle in Joseph’s native Pennsylvania, where he was a highly successful attorney. Although Esther was a reluctant emigrant, she soon found a new life in Pennsylvania that centered around her children and her husband’s career as a rising leader of the American Revolution. Over the subsequent decade, Joseph would become a close associate of George Washington and assume prominent positions in the Continental Army, Continental Congress, and Pennsylvania state government, in which he served as chief executive. These developments transformed the reluctant emigre into a proud, patriotic American.
Proximity to power made Reed acutely aware of the shortages and deprivations faced by the troops in the Continental Army. Soldiers often failed to receive their pay. In fact, they even often lacked basic amenities to keep them healthy, such as good shoes, warm blankets, or clean clothes. Soon after the birth of her sixth child, Reed herself decided to take action. On June 10, 1780, she issued a broadside called “The Sentiments of an American Woman,” which challenged other women to renew their commitment to American patriotism and do something “really useful” for the American cause. Because women as well as men were “born for liberty,” women, she said, must “be engaged to offer the homage of our gratitude at the altar of military valour . . . [so that] the irons with which they are loaded, receive with a free hand our offering, the purest which can be presented to your virtue.”
Within days, Philadelphia women devised a scheme that was shocking in its simplicity but bold in its conception. Dividing the city into districts, the women fanned out in pairs, knocking on doors, and requesting monetary contributions for the support of the Continental Army. Within a short time, the “Ladies Association of Philadelphia,” as it was called, raised over $300,000 in paper currency from over 1600 donors. Similar female organizations emerged in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Martha Washington and Martha Randolph Jefferson even contributed to the campaign—though they themselves did not knock on doors.
Certain critics found the women’s actions scandalous, a violation of proper feminine etiquette and deportment. Nonetheless, General Washington was grateful for the women’s efforts. He did, however, countermand the women’s desires to give the funds directly to the troops. The men, he insisted, might waste these precious funds on rum and other vices. To work around his objections, the women decided to purchase fabric to supply the men with better clothing. They spent many months making shirts for the soldiers, inscribing their names into each individual item so that the soldiers would know who their benefactors were. Unfortunately, Reed herself did not live to see the full results of her efforts. After a dysentery epidemic swept through Philadelphia, she died on September 18, 1780, at age thirty-four. Esther’s good friend and collaborator, Sarah Franklin Bache (Benjamin Franklin’s daughter), saw the project through to completion, making sure the shirts were delivered to the troops.
This “offering of the Ladies,” as Reed had put it, represented one of the clearest and most audacious examples of women’s leadership in the American Revolution. Yet in their own ways, many other American women had also contributed to the revolutionary movement. Taking advantage of new opportunities for political activity, they were not content to sit on the sidelines. Through their activities, they helped rally patriotic sentiment, mobilize popular resistance against Britain, and win the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. They were political ciphers no more.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Ireland, Owen. Sentiments of a British-American Woman: The Story of Esther DeBerdt Reed. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017.
Kierner, Cynthia. Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1750–1835. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Kierner, Cynthia. “The Edenton Ladies: Women, Tea, and Politics in Revolutionary North Carolina,” in North Carolina Women, ed. Michele Gillespie and Sally G. McMullen. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014.
Merritt, Jane T. The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women. Boston: Little-Brown and Co., 1980.
Young, Alfred A. Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. 2nd. ed. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: WileyBlackwell, 2015 [orig. pub. 1995].
Rosemarie Zagarri is University Professor of US History at George Mason University. An expert on women and the Founding Era, she is the author of Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic and A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution, among other books. She was appointed Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians in 2011.
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