The American Revolution was not much of a revolution in the lives of women, at least in a political or legal sense. Much like other so-called dependent groups (servants, slaves, non-propertied men) women were generally understood to lack the independence required of republican citizens. Despite the Revolutionary promise of liberty and equality for all, neither was extended to women, although their lives were transformed in myriad other ways.
The vast majority of white women in the eighteenth century spent their days performing tasks within and around rural households. Without the aid of modern labour-saving devices, household management and upkeep required tremendous amounts of backbreaking labour. Women spun wool and flax into cloth, sewing and laundering clothes by hand. They fed, tendered, and butchered animals; milked cows and churned the milk into butter and cheese; raised fowl and sold the eggs, brewed beer and preserved vegetables, as well as cooking for their families and producing household necessities, such as candles and soap. By far the most dangerous and arduous work they performed, however, was bearing children. The average eighteenth-century women gave birth to between five and eight offspring, often in between additional pregnancies that ended in miscarriages. Roughly one in eight could expect to lose their lives in childbirth, and numerous others lived through the experience only to watch their infants die.
The Revolution politicised many of these household activities. Women were first drawn into the struggle as consumers, with male patriots urging them to participate in the movement to boycott British goods in the 1760s and 1770s. As a result, traditional domestic tasks, such as making cloth and purchasing food, came to be newly defined as patriotic activities, evidenced, for example, in the way homespun clothing or the refusal to consume tea and other imported staples became symbols of national defiance against British measures. Non-importation associations that pledged to curtail the use of luxuries and stimulate local industry particularly appealed to rural women, bringing them into the resistance movement for the first time. Their more privileged urban counterparts similarly organized themselves into groups (often called “Daughters of Liberty”) in which they held sewing bees to spin cloth and vowed to renounce the use of imported silks and finery. It did not take long to see results. The non-importation movement, coupled with provincial legislation banning certain foreign goods, quickly resulted in a 41% decline in the value of British imports. “The industry and frugality of American ladies are contributing to bring about the political salvation of a whole continent,” proclaimed one editor writing for the Boston Evening Post. More commonly, orators praised women as patriotic mothers and wives, urging them to “sacrifice” male kin to the struggle and celebrating the virtuous sacrifices of those who did so without complaint.
Revolutionary violence also confronted women directly. As male household heads took up arms, many women assumed the burden of running farms and businesses alone. Across the colonies, war led to steep inflation, generating a growing militancy among those incapable of feeding their families. Riots broke out in many towns, often directed at merchants who were thought to be hoarding food or unfairly inflating prices; and women led roughly a third of these actions. More threatening still, families coped with waves of epidemic disease and marauding soldiers. A few chose to disguise themselves as soldiers (Deborah Sampson, for instance, took the name of Robert Shurtleff in order to shoulder a musket). More commonly, women became “camp followers”—either accompanying husbands to the field, or offering their services as cooks, laundresses, and prostitutes. Wars like this one, fought in and around populations and forcing all to take sides, never confine themselves to battlefields. Almost every American was drawn into the struggle, whether they faced the enemy directly or not.
Despite their active participation in the Revolution, women gained few new political or legal rights as a result. This was not for lack of discussion around the issue of white women’s roles as citizens. Eighteenth century revolutions were inspired by an Enlightenment faith in universal human rationality and a promise of progress and improvement. Whereas earlier thinkers traced differences among human beings to an immutable and God-given order, Enlightenment writers tended to emphasize the importance of environmental factors, such as upbringing and education. Doctrines like these opened the way for reformers to argue that differences among women and men, particularly in intellectual capacities, were alterable rather than permanent. Both white male and female authors in the Revolutionary period had begun to call for improvements to female education, arguing that many major differences between the sexes hinged on access to learning. This was a point that Judith Sargent Murray, the first avowedly feminist American, made when she asked: “Will it be said that the judgment of a male of two years old, is more sage than that of a female’s of the same age?” Likewise, few learned Americans had not heard of or read the work of English feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman pointed to the necessity and justice of improving women’s education and social status. Her text was excerpted in several periodicals and, according to one scholar, approximately eighteen percent of private libraries in America contained a copy of her book, giving it a far wider circulation than most other publications of the era, including works such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Many male citizens were willing to countenance improvements in female education, given their belief in the importance of an educated and virtuous citizenry to a healthy Republic. But most drew the line at changing marriage laws. Marriage had long been understood not simply as a personal commitment between two people, but as the underpinnings of the social and political order, as well as a system of governance in its own right. Traditionally, a man derived his civic status by becoming a father and household head. As such, he was understood to represent his dependents in public. Upon marriage, women ceased to have any independent legal, political or economic existence. Under the legal doctrine known as coverture, a wife became what was known as a feme covert, that is, her identity was subsumed under or covered by that of her husband, symbolized by the taking of his name. Under the law of coverture, a wife could not, strictly speaking, bring suit in court, sign a legally binding contract, vote, or acquire property or income in her own name (although under common law, widows were entitled to the use of one-third of their deceased husbands’ estates for the remainder of their lives), nor was she considered legally responsible for herself in civil or criminal court proceedings.
Although the Revolution failed to bring significant changes to women’s rights as citizens, there is evidence of subtle changes taking place in white women’s status in the immediate post-war years. The law of coverture remained intact, yet courts began to look slightly more favourably on women’s claims to property and on their petitions for divorce in the wake of the Revolution. Access to education for white women expanded as well, as did the number of female teachers. The nineteenth century would bring about a seismic shift in understandings of ideal white womanhood. Arguably, this revolution took place not at the level of government, but through the pages of novels. One of the most striking changes at the beginning of the new century was the massive increase in demand for books appealing to female readers—books that promulgated new ideas about companionate marriage and romance, and explored the victimization of women seduced by rakes or burdened by unenviable marriages.