Women Also Know Revolution

Rebecca Brannon, Lauren Duval, and Kacy Tillman

[Welcome to part one of a conversation among three historians of the American Revolution, focusing on the political agency and experiences of women. In the second part, Brannon, Duval, and Tillman turn their attention to new directions in loyalist studies. The titles for these posts are an homage to the impressive database showcasing women historians, Women Also Know History. – Editors]


Brannon: Opening up a discussion of women in the Revolution is a great way to make us reevaluate and reshape our thinking about the American Revolution in general. Nice pieties fall away along with certainties. At the same time, when historians of the American Revolution really assess the loyalist experience, the American Revolution begins to look very different—a civil war in an age that proclaimed itself the age of revolutions. So, let’s really upset the apple cart and talk about female loyalists in the American Revolution!

Duval: I agree. Recent scholarship on the Revolution has re-centered the war as a military conflict, and increasingly recognized the implications of the conflict far beyond the battlefield—indeed, as Rebecca notes, this framing has pushed us to consider the lived experience of the Revolution as a civil war that took place in American cities, homes, and farms and to trace out the implications of this conflict for Americans of all classes, genders, races, and states of freedom. The renewed attention to the societal aspects of the military conflict has the potential to reshape traditional narratives of the Revolution by adding new voices and new experiences to our understanding of war—to tell the stories of ordinary people (including female loyalists) who were simply trying to survive the war and protect their families.

Borealia: How did 18th-century North American people understand the possibilities and limitations of women’s own political commitments?

Tillman: It’s hard to generalize on this one. John Adams considered the political implications of the letters/essays/poems that people such as Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and Judith Sargent Murray wrote because of his affiliation with them and their privileged social status, which gave them a freedom and platform they might not otherwise have had if they weren’t white, politically connected, and well-off. So it isn’t that all women were silenced or invisible, but they did have to navigate the political sphere in different ways than men did in order to avoid being considered “unsexed.” And the ways in which people considered women’s political identities shifted as the war progressed. Initially, neither women nor enslaved people were offered the loyalty oaths that would publicly declare their political affiliations because they were considered property or dependents without a mind of their own; after several women became spies or assisted in the transference of information, the policy-makers had to come to the realization that women could be political, after all.

Brannon: Kacy is such an authority on this and I always enjoy reading what she has to say about the complications of female agency and political activism from women. In my own work, I am more cynical, but that is partly the nature of the topic and sources I study. I looked at how women acted as petitioners seeking very real financial advantages from their efforts. They were petitioning their state assembly (South Carolina, in my case) for clemency from anti-loyalist legislation. The female petitioners I read hoped to reclaim family properties—often sizable family properties—by petitioning the legislature. Many of them were still living in their homes on these farms and plantations, asserting their claims to land by the squatter method. They were willing to use any strategy that they thought might work. Some of them relied on complicated legal arguments about dower rights. Others tried arguments of political “nothingness”—that while their husbands and fathers might have had clear political ideologies as loyalists, women were a void into which ideologies could not be assigned. A small handful of petitioners tried to argue that women could have clear and important political ideologies. Petitioners claimed they had always been patriots married to loyalists, and that their female political adherence to the patriot cause should override the more publicly recognized allegiances of their husbands. It would be tempting to read these as assertions of female political independence. Yet the only women who tried the strategy of asserting their own independent political bona fides were married to men who had repeatedly petitioned for themselves and been denied. Their families essentially tried a final Hail Mary—get their wives to petition as good patriots. Given the circumstances, it is unsurprising that the South Carolina state legislature said no to all such cases. Perhaps they were unimpressed by the arguments. More likely they were unreceptive to the only people who were so desperate as to choose such a strategy.

Duval: Rebecca’s point about families’ manipulation of loyalty thus gets to the heart of this conundrum; during the war, politics and loyalty were often strategies of survival. We tend to think of the Revolution as loyalists vs. patriots—which was, in some instances the case—but there are also several examples of families who were flexible in their allegiances and willing to deploy them strategically in their own interests. To be sure, there were committed partisans on both sides, but many people simply acted as they felt was best to protect their families and their interests. Given the general instability of politics during this period, getting to women’s politics is even more difficult due to the limitations of coverture (and I would add here that Kacy’s work does an excellent job dissecting women’s own politics versus the politics that others imposed upon them). I agree that it’s hard to generalize about women’s politics and I would also hasten to add that we should be cautious of defining “politics” here solely within the formal realm. Obviously, contemporaries did not imagine that women would serve in office or debate in the halls of Congress, yet, it was also widely accepted that women could—and should—act in support of political causes (though of course, actions as defined by male politicians). The Revolution marshaled women’s labor to an unprecedented degree—to do so required an implicit recognition of women as political beings.

That being said, as Kacy and Rebecca point out, women’s access to platforms to voice their political opinions outside of these determined avenues, especially in public, were shaped by intersections of race, class, and gender. Elite women exerted political influence in informal ways as wives and mothers; Abigail Adams is a prime example of this. Particularly for patriot women, there were “acceptable” ways for women to embrace and perform political sentiments: they could participate in spinning bees, boycott British goods, care for prisoners, light candles in their windows during illuminations, or as the Philadelphia Ladies Association did in 1780, organize fundraisers. Spearheaded by Esther De Berdt Reed and Sally Franklin Bache, the effort was a rallying cry to American women, as illustrated by Reed’s “Sentiments of an American Woman.” Like Mercy Otis Warren or Judith Sargent Murray, Reed made her argument in gendered terms and conformed to gendered expectations in order to carve out a specifically feminine contribution to the revolutionary cause. Now, of course, the flip side of this dynamic is that loyalist women had far fewer sanctioned avenues for political action. Even so, we know that throughout the war women took actions that can only be described as political. A Charleston shopkeeper named Elizabeth Thompson, for example, drove a disguised British officer around the American fortifications in her chaise so that he could observe their progress. Indeed, many women manipulated gendered stereotypes about women’s supposed isolation from the political sphere to accomplish these aims.

Borealia: How did women advocate for themselves and their families during the Revolution?

Tillman: Many used their pre-war connections. Grace Growden Galloway had access to a series of influential politicians when her husband — also an influential politician — sailed to England without her and left her to be kicked out of her house. She appealed to every man in every position of power she could in order to regain her daughter’s inheritance. Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson delivered two treasonous letters for the British and nearly lost her house over it. She also was married to a loyalist exile. She used her relationship with George Washington to convince the government that she was actually an ardent patriot to regain her property. Sarah Logan Fisher and Elizabeth Drinker utilized the considerable power of the Quakers in Philadelphia to free their husbands from imprisonment for their loyalties. Friendships, kinships, and associations were paramount for loyalist women trying to survive with their properties and families intact.

Brannon: As Kacy, Lauren, and others show, many women wielded exquisite pens. Women exploited the possibilities of the literary arts—in my research, the petition, and for others, the letter. (To be fair, many of the women’s petitions I used were almost certainly filtered through male lawyers who shaped them as well.) Women almost certainly also used personal appeals and the intricacies of social conversations. Most of that kind of face-work almost certainly happened, but is largely lost to the historical record. G. Patrick O’Brien has picked up on snippets of it in the letters of loyalist refugees to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Duval: In addition to prewar connections and existing communities, women were also quite direct in petitioning British officers in British-occupied regions. Women strategically used their position as dependents to advocate on their own behalf; they manipulated ideas about women’s helplessness to ask for support for their families, to be paid rent for their houses, or to gain access to resources in the occupied city. On an individual level, women also were quite adept at negotiating with officers to protect their families. Kacy mentioned Elizabeth Drinker, who’s a fabulous example of this. Drinker met with the officer who was eventually quartered in her house three times before finally accepting him as a lodger; she also laid out rules for behavior that he seemingly abided by while residing under her roof. And so on an individual, personal level, women could at times advocate quite effectively for their families. This was also, of course, a very class-based strategy, one that was typically utilized by married women of middling or elite status. In other instances, single women, as well as poorer women and enslaved women, formed relationships with British soldiers and officers—connections that provided them with some semblance of security and access to food in a resource-scarce city, and if they were lucky, companionship and love, perhaps marriage (and the potential to elevate their social status). Although some of these relationships resulted in lasting unions, many of them were transitory, leaving a trail of pregnant and destitute women in the army’s wake.

Borealia: Where should women’s early North American history go from here?

Tillman: There’s a lot more work to be done on Native allyship with the loyalists, and the Native women involved in those political negotiations. I’d love to read a new book about Molly Brant, for example. I also came across several stories (and sometimes myths, which were interesting) about Black political women during the war — loyalists and rebels — and I think more could be written about them. So much of the emphasis on black women’s political identity in the 18th century is about Phillis Wheatley, then a gap during the war, and then the abolitionists in the 19th century, but texts like The Book of Negroes (which is my next project) suggest that several free black and formerly enslaved women in the 18th century considered themselves independent political agents with the right to liberty. My next article, “The Limits and Liberty of Loyalism: Black Loyalists in the Book of Negroes” talks about the ways in which that text codifies Black loyalists as property while it simultaneously signals their entrance into British citizenship; I’ve just received an NEH grant to study the subject at the National Archives at Kew in England this June, where I hope to find more information about the subject. I feel like I have another decade in front of me with research about loyalist writers of color, which is a promising avenue of scholarship that needs to be done carefully, respectfully, and with the help of descendant communities, whenever possible. And, finally, books like Greta LaFleur’s The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America are opening up all kinds of possibilities for discussing queerness in our histories of women in the 18th century; I look forward to reading more interdisciplinary projects like LaFleur’s that blend literature, history, and gender studies to open up further possibilities for the diversification of women’s early history.

Brannon: I’ve gotten interested in the use of age as a chronological category of analysis that we should keep alongside others such as race, class, and gender.  (I keep posting things on Twitter with the hashtag #agehistory. I began to think this was like trying to make fetch happen—but this April’s American Historical Review made age as a category of analysis the central theme of the issue.) I am researching and writing a history of men’s old age in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I began to think about a history of old age, I was struck by how much better early American women’s historians (and European/English early modern women’s historians) have done in considering the entire life cycle. I was able to find wonderful books on the experiences of elderly women, and wonderful books that included thoughtful material on women in the last stages of life alongside other material. The “new” history of masculinity, however, focused almost exclusively on young men who were trying to assert themselves as men. Women’s history has long paid attention to the overlooked parts of the human experience. I have really loved seeing recent books on motherhood, nursing, and childbirth gain popular attention and critical praise such as Nora Doyle’s Maternal Bodies and Sarah Knott’s Mother is a Verb. I hope that early American women’s history continues this great strength of seeing the historically relevant in the overlooked ordinary.

Duval: I love Rebecca’s phrasing of “seeing the historically relevant in the overlooked ordinary”—very eloquently put! And I agree wholeheartedly with Kacy’s point about diversifying our understanding of political loyalty. I’m eager to hear more about her new project! I am actually on a panel this summer (now postponed to Summer 2021) at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic conference addressing this very question. I think, especially for the Revolutionary period, there is still more work to be done on the gendered nature of warfare, for both men and women. There has been some excellent work on this topic for later wars, notably the American Civil War and World War II, but far less for the American Revolution. War is something that happens to societies and that is premised upon gendered assumptions; likewise, men and women experience warfare as gendered subjects. Putting gender at the center of our study of war can help us understand new perspectives and gain a fuller understanding of what it was like for men and women to endure the Revolution as well as its consequences for American society.


Rebecca Brannon is Associate Professor of History at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, teaching courses on Early America, the American Revolution, childhood, and old age. Her academic research focuses on the consequences of the American Revolution and how it shows us the imperfect, rocky transition to modernity, and the bedeviling complications of revolution. She is the author of From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016), and the co-editor of The Consequences of Loyalism: Essays in Honor of Robert M. Calhoon (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019). You can find her on Twitter at @rnbrannon.

Lauren Duval is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. She is a historian of early North America and the Atlantic World, specializing in women’s and gender history and the era of the American Revolution. She is the author of “Mastering Charleston: Property and Patriarchy in British-Occupied Charleston, 1780–82,” WMQ, Vol. 75, No. 4 (October 2018), 589-622, which received the journal’s Morton Prize, as well as the Coordinating Council for Women in History’s Chaudhuri Award.  Her current book project examines revolutionary households, gender, and military occupation during the American Revolution. You can find her on Twitter at @Duval_Lauren.

Kacy Tillman is the Co-Director of the Honors Program and Associate Professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa. She teaches courses on early American literature and research-based writing. Her research specialties are letters, journals, loyalists, the American Revolution, 18th-century novels, and early American gender studies, and is the author of Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019). You can find her on Twitter at @kacytillman or at kacytillman.com.

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