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Political Women in the Revolutionary War

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina,” a 1775 satirical depiction by a London caricaturist of an American women’s boycott meeting.

The new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening Fall 2016, will include a computer interactive exhibit that tells the stories of men and women, Patriots and Loyalists, who played a role in the American Revolution.  Although many women supported husbands, children, fathers and brothers in the army or on the home front, some voluntarily sought an active role in the politics of the day, using their abilities to make a positive impact to the Patriot or Loyalist cause.  The three described here came from widely different backgrounds, yet each had an influence on the fortunes of war.

Esther De Berdt Reed was a Patriot who formed an organization called The Ladies of Philadelphia and through donations raised a large sum of money to benefit the Continental Army.  This is more remarkable because Reed was born in England and moved with her husband to the American colonies shortly after their marriage.  She loved books and believed that women could take a role in politics and political discourse. After moving to Philadelphia she became a fervent Patriot, making clear that her cause was freedom. She and her husband entertained George Washington and others in their home, and she became aware of the chronic shortage of funding for the army, which was not supported by taxes as it is today.  Her successful fundraising efforts among the people of Philadelphia not only helped purchase materials for the Continental Army, but encouraged women in other states to form organizations to likewise contribute.

Mercy Otis Warren grew up in Massachusetts and was educated with her brothers, although she didn’t have the opportunity to attend a university.  She married farmer and attorney James Warren, who believed in liberty as she did, and he encouraged her efforts to support the Patriot cause through poems, plays and prose that she wrote and published anonymously during the war.  Friends with Samuel Adams, John Hancock and John Adams, who mentored her as an author, Warren’s writing inspired debate and discussion that helped move the colonies toward rebellion.  After the war she was able to begin publishing under her own name.

As the daughter of a Mohawk warrior, Mary (Molly) Brant was encouraged to speak out and take active roles in tribal political matters.  When she was a teenager Molly participated in a Mohawk delegation to Philadelphia to negotiate land rights.  She received some education and was raised to be comfortable in both the Mohawk and British colonial cultures.  As wife to Sir William Johnson in New York, she hosted English as well as Mohawk guests. After her husband’s death in 1774 left her a widow with children, she used some of the inheritance she received to start a successful store at Canojoharie, the main northern Mohawk settlement in New York.  When war broke out, she risked her safety and fortune to support Loyalists in hiding and spoke eloquently to the Mohawk council to maintain their alliance with the British.

Though from different backgrounds and with different talents, each of these women and many more had the courage to act on her own political views when the culture of the time did not allow civic participation through voting or holding office. Enlightenment philosophy during the Revolutionary era encouraged ideas of liberty and equality, but it was nearly 150 years – 1920 – before the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to put their political views into direct action through voting.

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