Today’s post accompanies “The Revolutionaries’ Army,” episode 158 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.
By Holly A. Mayer
Women have volunteered service in all American wars, but they have always been exempt from the civic obligation to serve in the military. As Linda Kerber has argued, that meant that they found themselves “outside the boundaries of [civic] reciprocity and entitlement.” If the definition of “citizen” included bearing arms as a communal obligation, but one could not or would not bear arms for the state, could that person be a citizen entitled to all attendant rights and privileges? When that question arose well after the Revolution in debates over giving women the right to vote, suffragists argued that the obligation entailed more than bearing arms: it was “risking one’s life for the republic, and that childbearing women repeatedly satisfied that obligation.” Rights activists then and later also contended that women preserved the republic in other ways.[i] Nonetheless, activists accepted the premise that willingness to meet the obligation to sustain the nation, meaning to risk life and property, was key to full citizenship. One may also argue that it was key to full representation in history.
Women who warred, whether at home or with American armed forces, risked lives, livelihoods, and property during the American Revolution. Perceptions of their actions, however, reflected and confirmed gendered distinctions among the republic’s citizenry. Following the army, in practice then and through interpretations later, showed how service could connect subordination and empowerment.
The revolutionaries sought to establish a virtuous republic, but some women’s wartime actions seemed to challenge that. Nineteenth-century Americans celebrating women’s historical agency also did not want to salute actions that other women might follow to the detriment of gender order. Their solution, as seen in Elizabeth Ellet’s 1848-1849 The Women of the American Revolution, was to applaud extraordinary actions for special circumstances, especially if the women who performed heroically did so within prescribed female bounds or quickly returned to the private sphere after their public service.[ii]
American society’s ambivalence continued as later generations, acknowledging Abigail Adams, “remembered” the Revolution’s “ladies.” First, women were more likely than men to write about women’s contributions. Second, women’s roles tended to be remembered more in popular rather than academic histories. Finally, most authors, whatever their gender, wrote histories to secure a national identity founded upon “masculine” ideals, leaders, and strategies rather than “feminine” material contributions.
In the late twentieth century, the new social history and women’s studies engendered new scholarship on women, race, class, and the Revolution. And as historians continue to delve into gendered issues intrinsic to war and revolution, they have included more on the very women that revolutionaries and the first generations of Americans preferred to ignore, forget, or refigure.
The female warrior was a character in eighteenth-century literature, but the reality of cross-dressing women bearing arms was a social threat. Therefore, most female warrior stories reinforced gendered norms in their conclusions. A common plot in the fictional tales had the young woman leave her father’s house and adopt male clothing to follow her love through battle, but afterwards become proper by donning female dress, marrying her love, and making his home and family.Deborah Sampson may not have left her father’s house or followed a lover, but her story fits the canon. The young woman joined the Continental Army as Robert Shurtliff and served for over a year before being discovered. After resuming her female identity, she married Benjamin Gannett, raised children, and eventually sold her story, first to Herman Mann who wrote her tale in 1797 and then on an 1802-1803 lecture tour. Mrs. Gannett took care to show herself to be a feminine patriot, one who shed a proper woman’s role when an eager revolutionary, but who championed the importance of women acting within their own stratum to support America. As Alfred Young noted in his excellent book Masquerade, she affirmed separate spheres while invading the male sphere.
Americans, however, long preferred to imagine and celebrate an iconic “Molly Pitcher” instead of the cross-dressing Deborah Sampson or others like her. The only followers of the army commemorated, besides the generals’ ladies, were the “Mollies”: Margaret Corbin and Mary Ludwig Hays (later McCauley). In both cases the honors grew in the retelling of their stories.
Margaret Cochran Corbin followed artilleryman John Corbin . A 1926 author justified her service on grounds that she had no children or other family and then praised her womanly virtues, which included cooking and tending the sick and wounded. Those virtues, however, paled beside her heroism at Fort Washington on 16 November 1776. With her husband and other gunners wounded or dead, she started firing one of the guns until she too was wounded and taken prisoner. The Board of War later commended her “fortitude and virtue” to the Continental Congress, which awarded her a lifetime pension. In effect, it recognized a reciprocal relationship: her actions serving its cause entitled her to its support. After the war the Commissary of Military Supplies maintained “Captain Molly” at West Point, where she was known for being dirty and offensive until early twentieth-century writers scrubbed her image.What about Molly Pitcher? Was her tale fiction or fact? In 1911 John B. Landis confirmed lore of the courageous “lass” who assumed her fallen husband’s role at a cannon at Monmouth on 28 June 1778. Landis attributed the title to Carlisle, Pennsylvania’s choice: Mary Ludwig Hays. In 1822 the Pennsylvania legislature had awarded Mary Hays McCauley not a widow’s pension but a service pension. In effect it not only helped create the national tale of Molly Pitcher but acknowledged reciprocity.
The two Mollies represented the women with the Continental Army. Most of those women were partnered with a soldier and provided services—not gunnery fire—that helped sustain the force. Their numbers varied over time, but on average the ratio of women with the army was likely one for every thirty to thirty-five men. They cooked meals over open fires and washed clothes in cold creeks. They nursed, peddled goods, and carried provisions, gear, and babies while trudging alongside the troops. As laborers for their families and the army, female followers served social and military needs, and yet neither the military nor society initially deemed that service worth reciprocating. That was because the women did both what they had to do and what they were not supposed to do. Following for adventure or financial advantage was untoward. Following because of family ties or fleeing the enemy was accepted but not celebrated because it was family duty or necessity. Only decades later, following Continental veterans receiving some of their reciprocal due, could the remaining widows receive pensions. They did not, however, receive the citizen’s right of suffrage. It took a while longer for their stories and those of others to have that effect.
Holly Mayer is presently serving as Interim Associate Provost for Academic Affairs at Duquesne University. She is also following “Congress’s Own” in a study of the Continental Army’s 2nd Canadian Regiment.
[i] Linda K. Kerber, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 223-224, 243-245.
[ii] Much of this essay is excerpted from my “Bearing Arms, Bearing Burdens: Women Warriors, Camp Followers and Home-Front Heroines of the American Revolution” in Gender, War and Politics: Transatlantic Perspectives, 1775-1830, eds. Karen Hagemann, Gisela Mettele, & Jane Rendall (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 169-87. Please see that for references.