Economic Support of Women during the American Revolution

The Involvement of "The Ladies" Economic Support of Women during the American Revolution

By Keith W. Parker


During the American Revolution, several groups contributed to the needs of the Continental Army, whether it was militarily, politically, or economically. In the light of economics, one of the more influential groups that supported the army was colonial women who, in a time in which women had few rights, rose victoriously with their passion for giving. Throughout the various states, there were a number of women's organizations which stood for the gaining of independence from the British, and distributed significantly to the cause. The women who participated in these groups produced essential supplies, especially clothing, as well as monetary donations. Public fundraising was crucial for them to be successful in raising money. This economic realm of participation of women also created a sense of political involvement which in turn, created an idea of female patriotism to erupt. There are a few questions, however, that must be answered in order to get the full effect of how women acted in this economic realm. First, how did the women go about raising the money, and what rules applied? Secondly, how effective were the women at this fundraising? Finally, how did their actions link them to an informal life in politics? By answering these questions, the image of what some organizations will call "American Women," can be illustrated.

Views of Women from Pre-Revolution to War

It is important to get a glimpse of the roles of women during this period. These women typically had their decisions made for them by a male counterpart, whether it was their husbands or fathers. These women did the basics of maintaining the household, which consisted of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. 1 When the war came, however, this assumption of women having their decisions made for them was modified. The jobs that men normally did in their homes and other work places were then placed in the hands of women. This created a huge increase in females being involved in articulating judgments for themselves, which led to an increase in political participation. Since many males were out in the field of battle, it was necessary for women to support the troops on the home front, from their own communities. There were also women, who spent their time with the men out in the field. Some of these were the wives of officers and soldiers, and others served simply as prostitutes. Depending on who the commander of the unit was determined whether women would be near the battlefield at all, because there was a general notion that women and children were to be protected at all costs.2 With the new roles of women during the war, the ideas of them began to temporarily change to views of strong women who would be admired by both genders.

The Economics of War Support

To better understand the correlation between women and economic support, one might consider supply and demand. In general, demand is the buyer's wanting to buy a particular product, and supply is the willingness for the seller to sell the product. In terms of the women involved in the American Revolution, it can be seen that the demand was the Continental army's need for them to raise funds and the making of other furnishings for them, and the supply was the women's enthusiasm in doing this. In this process the army must first set forth that demand, which is very prominent in many of the generals' letters to the organizations. The next step is for the supplier to make efforts to provide for the demand. Once again, it is clear that the women were very active in providing for this role. Another approach is to see the demand as being American independence and the supply for that being money and provisions for the army. From this perspective, the women once again were essential because of their fundraising and logistical support. In essence, the women seem to service a strong tie to the gaining of independence in an economic sense, because in both studies the women have to be involved for achievement to take place. Therefore, the women of these contributing organizations can be connected with being a market, which in general refers to a setting where trading transactions exist. The type of trade the women were involved in was both visible, with physical items being transferred back and forth, and sentimental, with the acts of patriotism being extended to attain independence.

The Development of Women's Organizations

Before the start of the War of American Independence, there developed a growing need for women's involvement in the economic politics of the colonies. To be sufficient to the cause, women formed organizations, such as one in Edenton, North Carolina, that were prominent in the boycotting of British goods, a symbol of the colonies petite tolerance with the English. In a continuation of this matter, women during the American Revolution formed several groups in light of making the difference by presenting themselves as patriots. Starting in June of 1780, one month after the fall of Charleston, South Carolina to the British, which may have served as a symbol of the possible failure of the Americans due to a lack in supply for the soldiers, Esther Reed, the wife of the President of Pennsylvania, formed the Philadelphia Ladies Association.3 The organization was promptly started after George Washington relayed information to Congress on the lack of rations and other supplies among the soldiers of the Continental army, which caused a stir in society because there was a great need to win this war. The purpose of the women's group in Philadelphia, as stated in their Sentiments of an American Woman, was "to contribute as much as could depend on them, to the deliverance of their country."4 To do this, the group employed volunteer women to go out and display their commitment to the cause by collecting money from various donors and making other supplies. After the establishment of their group, other organizations similar to it began to spread across the states. In New Jersey, for instance, women there established an organization much like Philadelphia's. Like the Sentiments of an American Woman, the anonymously written Sentiments of a Lady in New Jersey, established a point that is almost identical to Esther Reed's. 5 The basis, for instance, is for a stance for liberty to emerge among those women there, so that they visibly support the army. To express their point, the author reflected upon several actions of British that endangered the Americans, such as the burning of Charlestown in New England.6 This may be considered a propaganda tool used to get women involved, but at any rate, it does state the motives for that organization. Either way, the women of New Jersey were to do the fundraising and participate in other activities to support the American cause. Other organizations were also inspired by Philadelphia's. One prominent example was in Maryland. The Pennsylvania Gazette reported, "We hear from Maryland, that the most liberal contributions have been made by the women of that state, for the assistance of the army."7 From Maryland, some citizens had donated up to 15 guineas, which equaled about two British pounds, a very large sum of money for the time. It is also reported that some of the communities, or counties, had collected up to sixty thousand dollars in Continental currency for the army to purchase supplies. These organizations became very important in the processes of supporting the Continental army. The Philadelphia Ladies Association was connected to these other smaller social groups. For instance, whenever they collected their money, they shipped it to Philadelphia. One instance is with a small sect of women that Sarah Bache was working with, located just across the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. Bache worked with a Mrs. Gray, who she begged to use the "Cause of Liberty" to influence the women in her social network to raise money. Bache wrote, "I now…beg you will make use of it to collect the donations of the good women on that side of the water or as many as you can conveniently call on."8 In return for these good deeds, Bache promised her "many thousand of blessings." These organizations were forms of political activism amongst women, which in itself raised mixed emotions among both men and women. Their economic support caused this transition, because they began to have a voice in what was done with the money collected, as well as, having their own groups that functioned like governing bodies, in the sense of decision making. Plus, their involvement in military affairs, the war, was political in itself. Therefore, it can be stated that women were indeed involved in politics and did become political activists in their time.

The Process of Fundraising

The money that women collected to aid the Continental Army was often impressive. On one occasion, the women of the Philadelphia Ladies Association collected several thousands of dollars in Continental currency and nearly 181 British guineas. Inflation of the Continental currency in 1778 caused the value of the money to decline, making the usefulness of its worth debatable in terms of the women making profit for the army on it. The value of a one hundred dollar bill went down to around sixty-eight dollars.9 At any rate, to be effective at raising the money, "the Ladies," as they were often called, had to break up into smaller subgroups and scatter about the entire city. This job was very organized, with certain groups covering certain areas. For instance Sarah Bache, Francis, Mitchel, Caldwell, and Mrs. Cleanaskan surveyed the area of Philadelphia from Market to Chestnut Streets, whereas Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Wilson traveled amongst Walnut and Spruce Streets in search of donors. This process would ensure that every street in the city was covered efficiently. Overall, in this report, there were eleven different small groups of women, and more money was added by women who simply gave out of their own pockets. One such example of this is Marchoness de La Fayette, who contributed 100 guineas.10 A common element among the women who gave these large amounts is that most of them were wives of military generals. After the fundraising, the ladies compiled the money, then transferred it to the army, a largely informal process, but had a few rules attached to it. In order to get the money to the army, selected women from each association counted the donation and transported it to the wife of the governor or president of the state in which they lived. For the case of the Philadelphia's Ladies Association, Esther Reed acted as the unceremonious treasurer. From there, the money was moved from their hands to that of the wife of the commander of the Continental Army, who in turn gave them to her husband, who would use it as he saw fit.11 Later, Gen. Washington added a rule that all money from the states women's organizations should be sent to Philadelphia's, and that Reed would take care of the transfer of the money to his wife. In a letter to Mary Dagworthy, a member of the Trenton, New Jersey group, Washington first of all congratulated them on developing an organization that mirrored Philadelphia's association, and then asked for their cooperation in sending their funds by way of the Philadelphia Ladies Association.12 This decision by Washington seems to have put ladies' organizations under one umbrella, Philadelphia. This in turn would make the transfer process to the army easier, as it was not coming from several different locations.

Using the Funds

After receiving the donations, the army was, sequentially, grateful for what the women had provided. In a letter, General Marquis de La Fayette extended his thanks to the ladies association at Philadelphia for their contribution. He wrote, "In admiring the new resolution, in which the fair ones of Philadelphia have taken the lead, I am induced to feel for those American Ladies who being out of the continent cannot participate in this patriotic measure."13 La Fayette suggests a few concepts about women during the American Revolution, despite the fact they are givers. One of the major notions is that the women were not able to "participate in this patriotic measure," meaning they could not participate in the military operations of the army's duties, even though general histories regarding women of the American Revolution indicate that there were a few that broke this rule and did participate militarily. There loomed the question, however, of what should the money be used for. Often times, the women of the associations helped determine what was to be financed by this money. Even after transfer, Reed was still very involved in asserting what the money should be used for, mainly shirts for the soldiers. In July of 1780, she wrote to General Washington in a very persuasive and assertive letter explaining her thoughts on the armies need for the shirts.14 In response, Washington wrote, "It was not my intention to divert the benevolent donation of the Ladies from the channel they wish it to flow in,"15 meaning that he would favor their request to use the money for shirts. Washington soon after called upon the women to make over one thousand shirts, "eight hundred…for the [Pennsylvania] Line…two hundred to Colonel Sherive for the Jersey Line [and] the remainder to the deputy [clothing general] at Newburg."16 This desperate need of shirts was also expressed by other military leaders. General Anthony Wayne, for example, wrote to Joseph Reed around mid-October of 1780 in a desperate letter asking for shirts for his soldiers so they would be more proficient in doing their job.17 In some cases, the ladies themselves used the money to buy materials to make items needed by the army, which was more efficient and led to greater involvement. Sarah Bache wrote to her father Benjamin Franklin, explaining the actions and efforts put into the shirt production. "I am very busily [employed] in cutting out and making shirts, and giving them out to make to the good women of my acquaintance, for our Brave Soldiers."18 The reason that Bache gives for the ladies making the shirts themselves is so they will not loose money in the long run by having someone else make them. Their idea was if they used the money to buy the material and then made the shirts themselves, then their expenses would decrease and the rest of it could go into some type of fund for the military. An alternative reason for this activity could very well be linked to the decline in the value of the money. If they were to raise one thousand dollars in the Continental currency to buy the material, the spending value for them would only be around six hundred and eighty. In theory, the women had to do this on their own, because they didn't have the appropriate funds to pay someone else.

The Prominence of Esther Reed

Esther DeBert Reed died in September of 1780 at the age of 33, only about four months after forming her organization. In that brief time, she displayed acts of prominent leadership in the ladies association. Reed was the sole author of the Sentiments of an American Woman, which she signed as "An American Woman."19 Coincidentally, she had only been a so called American for ten years. Being a native of England, she came to North America after her marriage to Joseph Reed, who was studying law in London, even though some sources indicate that she was simply his fiancée when coming to America. Either way, they did settle in American when Joseph Reed became a lawyer in New Jersey. Her family's connection with the colonies, before actually moving to the area, was very strong, because of her father's mercantile trading. One might say that she too had close ties to the processes of economics, because of this, which would later make her a success in America. Her husband, after the start of the war, enlisted in Washington's army, and Esther had great hopes that he would soon be back home with her; but this idea was shattered when he was chosen to be Washington's secretary, a job that would keep him in the field much of the war. After his departure, she debated whether or not to go back to London, in correspondence with her brother. She made the decision, however, to stay in America and soon would form her organization.20 Reed was indefinitely prominent, because her husband was exceptionally influential in Philadelphia as its president, and thus she became, in effect, its first lady. She remains particularly interesting to both historians and feminists because of her commitment to gain American independence, even though she was a fairly recent immigrant herself. Some sources indicate that the only reason she had waited so long to form the ladies organization was pregnancy with her sixth child, whom she named George Washington. Most women would have simply stayed at ease adjusting to their newborn babies, but in an attempt to gain peace among the states with their English parent, she formed the ladies group, which consisted of several women of a prior informal social society.21 It could be speculated, that the reason Ester Reed died at such an early age was complications from her quick stride from child birth to stressful political work, but there is not enough evidence to prove that this contributed to her death. It is only known from her obituary that she died from a few weeks of illness.

Women as Political Activists

Economic support of American troops ultimately led to political participation among American women. So, whether they wanted to admit it or not for social purposes, the women were tied to politics. Some modern women's historians imply "the notion that politics was somehow not part of the woman's domain persisted…even by women whose own lives were…directly dependent on political development."22 This suggestion that some women didn't realize they were involved in politics was practiced by many women because they feared a loss of reputation or even retaliation by men who said politics was not the business of the women. Other women, however, also became involved politically in prominent ways, in which they directly knew what they wanted and how they were going to get it.

Abigail Adams, for instance, was very assertive with her husband John throughout their marriage when it came to the political rights of women. In her famous letter to John that coined the phrase "remember the ladies," she is very persistent when asking him to do so and to "be more generous and favorable [to the ladies] than your ancestors." She continues to point out that all of the power should not be put in the hands of the husbands.23 This example of Abigail Adams has more to do with the coming of a new nation after the Revolution, but it does serve as an illustration that women with this attitude were still involved in the achievement of American independence.

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