Women in colonial America

Women’s Rights After the American Revolution

Status of Women in the New United States

In the American colonies it was not uncommon for women to pursue various occupations, such as printers, innkeepers, merchants and teachers. Women were excluded from political activities, but a few women, like Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams, entered the political arena as public figures. Were women always treated fairly?

Remember the Ladies
On March 31, 1776 Abigail Adams wrote a celebrated letter to husband John, who was in Philadelphia serving in the Continental Congress, which would produce the Declaration of Independence three months later. In an age when women were seen as strictly domestic beings, the letter shows Abigail’s boldness and insight as she urged her husband Remember the Ladies, to grant women more rights, as he helped shape the new national government.

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Sarah Wentworth Morton

18th Century Poet and Writer

Sarah Wentworth Morton, poet of the American Revolution, is remembered for the long, sentimental, narrative poems in which she considers the make-up of the new nation, inter-racial relationships and heroism, both male and female. In her own time she was renowned for her poetry about the virtues of freedom. Though too invested in the idea of submission to be a feminist, she had the status and role of women very much at heart.

Sarah Apthorp was born in Boston, Massachusetts to the wealthy Boston merchant, James Apthorp and Sarah Wentworth Apthorp. She was baptized at King’s Chapel on August 29, 1759 (the exact date of her birth is unknown). Her family eventually numbered eleven children.

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Rebecca Young

Maker of the First United States Flag

Image: Grand Union Flag
Stitched by Rebecca Young

Rebecca Flower Young was a Philadelphia flag maker during the American Revolution. She has been credited with making a flag that became known as the Grand Union Flag, which is considered our first national flag. The flag she sewed had thirteen red and white stripes to symbolize the unity of the American colonies and the British Union Jack in the upper left hand corner. This flag was in use from late 1775 until mid 1777, making Young one of the earliest verified makers of the Flag of the United States.

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Agent 355

Female Spy in the American Revolution

A group of spies known as the Culper Spy Ring operated from 1778 to 1780 in an intricate network from British-occupied New York City to Setauket, Long Island, north to Connecticut, and then west to George Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh, New York. Agent 355 was the code name of a female spy in the Culper Ring. Her real identity is unknown. The spy network was particularly effective in gathering valuable information from careless conversations between the British and their sympathizers.

In 1778, Benjamin Tallmadge, a young American officer who was General George Washington’s new intelligence chief, organized an ingenious top-secret network of spies. Washington ordered that not even he himself should know who they were. For recruits, Tallmadge turned to old friends and acquaintances in his hometown of Setauket, Long Island.

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Betty Washington

Sister of President George Washington

Betty Washington (1733–1797) was the first and only daughter to live to adulthood of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, and the younger Sister of President George Washington, who was born in 1732. Betty and George grew up at Ferry Farm, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington from her first marriage, described Betty as…

a majestic-looking woman, and so strikingly like the brother [George Washington], that it was a matter of frolic to throw a cloak around her, and placing a military hat on her head, such was her amazing resemblance, that on her appearance, battalions would have presented arms and senates rise to do homage to the chief…

She was born Elizabeth Washington on June 20, 1733, at Little Hunting Creek (later named Mt. Vernon) in northern Virginia. In addition to George, Betty had three younger brothers: Samuel, John Augustine and Charles and two half brothers by her father’s first marriage, Lawrence and Augustine Jr.

When Betty was five years old, Augustine Washington moved his family to the 600-acre Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, for the community life and the educational advantages it offered. This was one of several farms owned by her parents. Her mother had brought several properties to the marriage as her dowry.

Here the Washington children grew up and received their education – Betty at a “Dame School” and George under the tutelage of Parson Marye. Betty and George were especially close because of their nearness of age and their similarity in personality and character.

After her father’s death in 1743, life became difficult for Betty and the family because of their financial situation. In 1754, her brother George moved to Mount Vernon while their mother, Mary Ball Washington, stayed on at the farm until 1772, when she moved to Fredericksburg to be closer to Betty.

In 1750, at age 16, Betty married Fielding Lewis, a wealthy and prominent businessman in the nearby village of Fredericksburg. Her wealth and social status increased, and she immediately became stepmother to two young children from Fielding’s first marriage.

Fielding Lewis was born July 7, 1725, at Warner Hall in Gloucester County, Virginia, to John and Frances Fielding Lewis, the third of seven children. His uncle Robert Lewis was the grandfather of famed explorer Meriwether Lewis.

Lewis owned and leased ships that carried tobacco, produce, wood products and European-made goods to the West Indies, then returned to Virginia with fruit, sugar and salt, rum and occasionally slaves. Profits from trade were good because Fredericksburg was close to the wealth of the Virginia Piedmont.

After the wedding, Betty moved into a large brick house in Fredericksburg where she and Fielding lived together for the next 25 years. In 1751, Betty gave birth to their first child, Fielding Jr., followed by ten more children over a twenty-year period. Only six children survived to adulthood.

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Kitty Floyd

James Madison’s First Love

Image: James Madison

Born in 1751, James Madison was the oldest among the eleven children of James Madison Sr., the wealthiest man in Orange County, Virginia. Even as a child, Madison had been unusually studious. As a young boy, he left his father’s plantation to attend an advanced school in a neighboring county. After five years studying astronomy, French, logic, mathematics and philosophy, he returned to his family’s plantation, Montpelier, to be tutored for two more years by a local minister.

James Madison
By Charles Willson Peale, 1783
Oval portrait miniature given to Kitty Floyd as a pin in a velvet-lined container.
From the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

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Mary Dowd

North Carolina Loyalist

Image: Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge

“King George and Broadswords!” shouted Loyalist forces as they charged toward Moores Creek Bridge on February 27, 1776. Just beyond the bridge nearly a thousand North Carolina Patriots waited quietly with cannons and muskets poised to fire.

Everyone who lived in the colonies was part of the war for independence. North Carolina women contributed and suffered much on both sides. At that time, the population of North Carolina was mostly rural. Men lived with their wives and families on farms. Like women everywhere in those days, all the women in the household had established roles within the family. A woman’s life centered on her family and home – cooking, washing clothes, sewing, caring for children and the sick, and tending gardens.

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Anna Maria Lane

Woman Soldier in the Revolutionary War

Anna Maria Lane is best known as Virginia’s only female soldier in the Revolutionary War. Anna Maria followed her husband, when he joined the Continental Army in 1776. Although many women worked as cooks or laundresses at the military camps, Anna Maria dressed in men’s clothing and performed the duties of a soldier. John and Anna Maria fought in battles in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

The Lanes were with New England troops under General Israel Putnam when he linked up with General George Washington‘s army near Philadelphia after the Battle of Brandywine.

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Anna Smith Strong

Member of the Culper Spy Ring

Image: Map Showing the Routes Taken by the Culper Spy Ring – Long Island, New York

The British occupied New York City in August 1776, and the city would remain a British stronghold for the duration of the Revolutionary War. The Culper Ring, also known as the Setauket Spy Ring, was a group of operatives whose purpose was General George Washington aware of the movements of the British in New York City and Long Island.

Some credit Nathan Hale’s capture and execution with having launched the Culper Spy Ring. Nathan Hale, a young Patriot, volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission to the city, but the British captured Hale carrying drawings of their fortifications in his shoe and hanged him on September 22, 1776. He is best remembered for his last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Hale’s death illustrated the grave dangers inherent in spying for the Patriots.

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Ann Bates

Spy for the British during the Revolutionary War

Ann Bates, a schoolteacher in Philadelphia, was married to Joseph Bates, a British soldier and artillery repairman in General Henry Clinton’s army. In 1778, her husband joined the British troops who evacuated Philadelphia and marched to New York City. Claiming to be a patriot, Bates passed through the American lines and followed the army to New York.

Bates felt it was her duty to seek out information on illegal colonial activity and report back to her husband’s superiors. From her husband she learned to identify the weaponry and report on important military information such as the numbers of cannons, men and supplies.

In New York, Major John Andre was appointed an aide to General Henry Clinton, the new commander-in-chief. Clinton had confidence in Andre’s resourcefulness and discretion, and assigned Andre the coordination of British intelligence activities in the New York area.

Under the cover name ‘Mrs. Barnes,’ Ann Bates became a Loyalist spy in Major Andre’s spy ring. Andre sent her to American army headquarters at White Plains, New York, where she listened in on conversations, checked gun emplacements and assessed the strength of the American units. She also taught other spies how to locate safe houses as they made their way back to British-held territory.

Bates was brazen enough to walk into the headquarters of General George Washington in White Plains. She later wrote:

I had the opportunity of going through their whole army remarking at the same time the strength and situation of each brigade, and the number of cannon, with their situation and weight of ball each cannon was charged with.

At that time women were allowed to come and go where they pleased because military authorities did not think that women could comprehend the significance of what they saw. This particular thinking gave Bates the ability to wander throughout American camps, recording vital information concerning equipment and logistics. Her information was accurate and her missions were dangerous.

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