The Changing Roles of Women in the American Revolution

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Women’s Rights and Dependence in the American Revolution

N. Gundersen, Joan R. “Independence, Citizenship, and the American Revolution.” Signs, vol. 13, no. 1, 1987, pp. 59–77. JSTOR, JSTOR, “Independence, Citizenship, and the American Revolution” “Single women had the independence of mind and property to qualify as voters, but except in New Jersey, the American revolutionary leadership failed to recognize this. New Jersey provides a single example during the Revolutionary era of a state where women were included in the body politic. Women had a constitutionally protected right to vote in New Jersey from 1776 to 1807” (Gundersen 65). “In 1796, the legislature excluded black men and women from voting but reaffirmed white women’s right to vote, using the phrase ‘he or she.’

In order to qualify to vote, a woman had to be a property holder and thus independent” (Gundersen 66). Women were considered dependent on British loyalty oaths, but a widow or spinster’s choice of allegiance was independent. Each state had to decide if women in this scenario were dependent. Before the Revolution, a woman was a legal dependent. However, there were other aspects of a woman’s status, including duties, rights, and privileges. The land was an important part of a woman’s dowry; when her husband died, the land would be passed down to her male heirs. She also had partial ownership of personal property if the family declared bankruptcy or when her husband died. Equity provisions were another part of a women’s dependent status prior to the Revolution.

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Equity provisions helped married women be independent in a legal sense. Women were citizens of the new U.S. government, and they had independent choices while staying in the same dependent status (67 & 72). It was common for a husband and wife to stand on opposite sides of the Revolution. This caused multiple property and dependency issues. Each state government had to decide which situations determined the ownership of property and how a woman who stayed home fit into a society ruled by men. Most women married between eighteen and twenty-one years old. In many cases, a woman would engage in premarital for her significant other to determine if she could produce his heirs. This made her closer to becoming a wife.

As a wife, her status is dependent on her husband. Prenuptials were common women who could have “separate independent estates during marriage” (Gundersen 72). However, they did not receive economic independence from this. Legally a wife is dependent on her husband. While a widow was independent legally. Women became leaders while their husbands fought in the war; some petitioned the state for economic support to survive. The dependent poor increased during the Revolution; families struggled to make ends meet without fathers and brothers home to work. Men were independent; they had the right to vote, own property and gain the benefits of liberty. Women were dependent, couldn’t vote because men brought them to the polls, and couldn’t own property.

Women’s Contributions and Changing Perspectives in the Revolution

Society compared women to slaves during the Revolution. Women were deputy husbands. They stayed home, managed the farm or business, and raised the children. This started to change the views society had on the women’s sphere. Cometti, Elizabeth. “Women in the American Revolution.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3, 1947, pp. 329–346. JSTOR, JSTOR, “Women in the American Revolution” Women had new roles during the war; they became the head of the household, acquired their husbands’ duties (while he was fighting in the war), and were employed in the husband’s business or farm. The charity was needed for most families’ survival because there was no common currency, soldiers’ pay was not distributed on time or regularly, and did not cover necessities.

Many women petitioned the government for economic assistance. Most families did not receive enough economic help from the state legislatures and revolutionary committees due to local officials being ineffective and not caring. State legislatures and revolutionary committees “sought remedies in a variety of resolutions and acts providing for the distribution of money and food to soldiers’ families, for limiting prices, for rationing essential commodities, and for state purchasing and marketing of goods” (Cometti 330-331). The textile industry hired a lot of women. This was similar traditionally to the work women would do at home. The other main jobs for women were as farmers in New England and the Middle States.

Women also volunteered by making clothes and food and collecting materials that could be used toward the war effort. Old clothes and lead-based objects (to be made into bullets) were passed along to the soldiers. Tea and other luxury items from England were in high demand but were relatively unattainable during this time. In some cases, hordes of females would attack a store and steal its luxury goods. Women generally enjoyed using British luxury items and rarely negatively commented about others using them. Patriotic women ostracized Tories, and it took little evidence for someone to be labeled a Tory. “At a quilting frolic, a group of young ladies stripped their lone male guest to the waist and covered him with molasses and the “downy tops of flags” because he had cast aspersions on Congress” (Cometti 338).

When women asked other women for charity, a song, a bribe of tea, or begging, kids allowed the beggars to receive charity. Wealthy women handed out food and drink to marching soldiers. Women took the roles of nurses, cooks, laundresses, and camp followers in the war. George Washington was dismayed by the camp followers; he was upset they were “riding on military wagons and eating at public expense instead of working in the country” (Cometti 344). Young women would only take patriot lovers and “met to sew regimental colors for their beaux” (Cometti 340). Women made and distributed packages of food, clothes, etc., to the soldiers too. When the French arrived to assist the patriots, dancing became a popular pastime for young ladies and soldiers.

Tea, Loyalty, and Women’s Changing Roles in the Revolution

Although balls were an extravagance, they were enjoyed by many wealthy women throughout the war. Some ladies courted British soldiers, which caused shock. (Whigs were not allowed to court the enemy, and Quakers had no rules about this.) When items from England were banned, wealthy women stockpiled these items, while poor women formed mobs, broke into stores, and stole them. Tea symbolized British sympathy. Women loved tea and made sure others did not get to enjoy it during the ban. “When the designated moment of sacrifice came, groups of ladies would sometimes assemble over a last ceremonial cup of tea to pledge farewell to the “pernicious weed.”

And they were vigilant in seeing that others should not have what they had given up, going so far as to denounce those who dared to relapse from their resolutions; for it was possible to obtain tea by such stratagems as whispering across the merchant’s counter and obtaining falsely labeled packages of tea.” (Cometti 337). Later, privateers sold tea illegally, and only the wealthy could obtain this luxury item. However, with other British goods, women did not engage in judgment. Tea was the only British good that women used as a sign of loyalty during the war, which was also appropriately used to determine one’s social status. Marsh, Ben. “Women and the American Revolution in Georgia.”

The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 2, 2004, pp. 157–178. JSTOR, JSTOR, “Women and the American Revolution in Georgia” Raids and plunders were common, the economy was decimated, rice was high in demand and low in quantity, and many families emigrated to South Carolina, abandoning and neglecting their plantations and homesteads to flee to safety. Many Tories lived in Georgia (the youngest colony). A lot of fighting occurred because the British wanted to take over Georgia. The population had a small number of planters. They were the elite, the highest social class, and well-to-do planters owned slaves. Most planters moved their families to South Carolina, usually to the Lowcountry. Their families continued to move throughout the war.

British soldiers and Loyalists plundered throughout Georgia destroying families’ livelihoods, and some wealthy families took refuge in South Carolina. Tory women mostly stayed with their husbands and children during the war. Women continued to be matriarchs after the war while their husbands determined “new locations for the refugees and tied up colonial business affairs” (Marsh 163). Planters moved their families to safety in the north, and women who remained in Georgia became the head of their household (deputy-husband) and economically responsible for their family during the war; this “re-emphasized the significance of women’s roles within the family” (Marsh 160). She became in charge of the remaining slaves and her children.

Women’s Resourcefulness, Loyalties, and Changing Dynamics Amidst War

Families that stayed behind had to have mobility for short periods of time and distances when they were finding ways to protect their homestead from the atrocities of war. Weapons and adult males were absent on the home front; women had to rely on their wits and resourcefulness to protect their property. Women were not involved in politics; their main role was to their family and household. however, because of this, they could safely be on the opposite side of their significant other. Their husband and son’s oath of abjuration (declaration of loyalty) determined which side women were part of in the war; if she sided with her husband, their land could be seized. Many women chose to remain neutral or did not side with their husbands and protect their property.

Emigration, attacks, and capture separated African-American slave families when their owners moved north; many slaves escaped during the confusion. The matriarch determined the destination and planned for her family to escape. Usually, babies and infants were not brought along on these trips; mothers would stay at their plantation with their children because it was safer than trying to escape. Courtship was difficult during the war; some young people switched sides in the war to be with their lovers! Quakers decided that instead of parents determining if their child could engage their significant other, Quaker meetinghouses would decide. During the British occupation of Georgia, Tories met to form social networks. All marriages were unlicensed; there were fewer potential partners because of the war.

“Lacking the social connections, economic power, and political weight of their elite neighbors, many had no choice but to remain in Georgia and face the consequences of revolution.” (Marsh 166). Some Tory women were spies during the war, which changed the role of non-elite white women from passive victims to helpful informants. Women were protected by their status. During the beginning of the war, they were extremely effective. Patriots focused on uprooting the Tory women to prevent the spread of Patriot military plans. Patriot women were also spying during the war. In the backcountry, elite landowning women wrote petitions to male authorities to leave in safety which tended to be granted based on their connections and how they determined members of their family (they left out the male members of their family for their own safety.)


  1. Gundersen, Joan R. “Independence, Citizenship, and the American Revolution.” Signs, vol. 13, no. 1, 1987, pp. 59–77.
  2. Cometti, Elizabeth. “Women in the American Revolution.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3, 1947, pp. 329–346.
  3. Marsh, Ben. “Women and the American Revolution in Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 2, 2004, pp. 157–178.

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