Women of the American Revolution
“In the Women of the American Revolution, the author educates the reader on much about the general feminine experience of the times.”
Samantha Wilcoxson’s Women of the American Revolution is a collection of biographical sketches of eight of the most famous women of the American Revolution, including three later First Ladies. Each chapter includes an individual biography but also the mention of other women with similar experiences. This work can serve as an introduction to broader, much more encyclopedic inclusive works on this subject.
Researching women of this period is always problematic as they “lived in a patriarchal society that had clearly established gender roles.” “The women’s story often winds up evolving into a story of the men in their life.” This conflict and other American wars were fought over family, and women played as much or more of a role in that outcome as any soldiers.
The author illustrates the spectrum of the war in terms of loyalties.“Women’s political opinions both before and during the Revolutionary War were diverse.” Some women, however, “did not have the luxury” of choices or opinions but “had to do the best that they could for themselves and their children as war waged around them.”
“The women’s stories are as varied as the women themselves.” They maintained businesses and farms; supported or did not support the war effort; they sometimes followed their men to war; and women worked as spies. Deborah Sampson, and other women, even dressed as men and enlisted in the military.
Women could find themselves victims from being on the path of war or from the presumed politics of community, family, or husband. Peggy Shippen suffered because her husband was Benedict Arnold but also as a Loyalist in exile after the Revolution. Dolley Madison’s Quaker family was persecuted by their neighbors because they were pacifists.
One of the sketches involves Agent 355, a “lady” who aided Benjamin Talmadge in his intelligence work with the famous Culper Ring. She is still not identified and may not have existed. The author does use the opportunity to discuss examples of some of the female spies during the Revolutionary War.
Similarly, Wilcoxson explores the legendary ride of Sybil Ludington as a myth or reality. In the course of that chapter, the author examines the stories of proactive women in the war and the influence those tales have had. Whether the story of Betsy Ross has any basis in fact, for example, it tells us much about women’s employment of the period.
“So many other stories remain untold” but Wilcoxson also uses the chapter on Sybil Ludington to discuss Phyllis Wheatley and other African American women. The chapter on historian and pioneer feminist Mary Otis Warren includes female writers of the era as well as Warren’s particular struggles during the Revolution.
The author admits that “this selection of Revolutionary women is incomplete.” Of the main personalities in Women of the American Revolution, the eight who are assigned chapters are white and six come from privilege, but the author constantly educates the reader on much about the general feminine experience of the times.
Women, whatever their status, ran their households, a daily struggle even without a war or a husband’s absence. They became pregnant, gave birth, buried children, and sometimes did not survive the experience themselves. Women such as Martha Washington raised children, grandchildren, and relatives’ children. She also had to work as a hostess, sometimes as a representative of the new country.
Martha Washington had a miniature of her husband’s portrait “to have when George was away and in case he never returned.” She and so many other women of her generation had also to deal with not only being legally limited by marriage but also with being a widow.
In the Women of the American Revolution, the author educates the reader on much about the general feminine experience of the times. The prose is an easy read that could become a good first book for the young future historian. This work includes annotation, a bibliography, and illustrations.