HERstory: Feminism, Freedom and Family

By Anna Sklyarsky

When some hear the word “feminism” they immediately think of “Marcy” from the hit TV show “Married with Children”.  Others flash back to the 60’s and leaders like Betty Friedan who challenged society’s “notions” of the role that women played at home, in the workforce and in the political arena. Some might recall the success of the Suffrage Movement 90 years ago – or at least that great song “Sister Suffragette” from “Mary Poppins”.  Or perhaps you thought of the never-ending struggle to break through the “Glass Ceiling”? Well before Roe v. Wade and before Oprah, there were “feminists” like Abigail Adams, “Molly Pitcher,” Martha Washington, and Deborah Sampson.  They were the example and the exception of the “roles that women play.”  Their legacies are often overshadowed by the more “effective” modern waves of the Feminist Movement, but what made these women real feminists was that they could support their families and their husbands, put the needs of others before themselves, serve their country, all the while defying the so-called female stereotypes.

Part One – Colonial America and the “Founding Mothers”

Coloni al America was a climate of extremes, especially for women.  On the one hand, there were an enormous amount of obstacles that women had to overcome to survive in the New World.  “Tobacco brides” who arrived in Jamestown in 1619 were auctioned off to settlers that could pay the shipping company 150 pounds of tobacco to cover the cost of the expedition.  After the Mayflower reached the shores of America, most of the women (as opposed to the men and children) did not survive their first winter.  Some believe that their comparatively high mortality rate was in part due to the fact that, while the men were out of the ship, building houses, and breathing in the fresh air, the women were on the docked and crowded Mayflower treating the sick.


An early example of a feminist is Anne Hutchinson.  Anne was a native from England who came to Massachusetts in 1634. She was a religious leader, a position very few women held, who preached inner-faith and spirituality rather than adherence to the strict Puritanical belief system.  Some of her followers included affluent young civil officials. When some of them refused to join the militia in pursuit of Pequot natives, Hutchinson became a target of the colony’s authorities.  In 1637, she was tried as a heretic for “troubling the peace of the commonwealth and the churches.” Hutchinson was ultimately convicted, excommunicated, and moved to the new colony of Rhode Island.  In 1642 she went with her family to a Dutch colony (now New York) where in a sad twist of fate, less than two years later, she and most of her children were killed by Mohican Indians.  Her story is one of constant struggle and of perseverance for one’s beliefs, no matter the cost.

Although many women were oppressed and condemned for speaking their minds, as was often the case during the Salem witch trials, some were respected and prominent members of their communities. One such example is Anne Dudley Bradstreet who in 1650 became America’s first published poet, with the publication of her book of poems titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. The subject of her writings included religious and spiritual messages and the love she had for her husband, Simon, and for her children.  Another example is Lydia Chapin (Taft) who, in 1756, was given the right to vote at a town meeting in Massachusetts. Because she was the executor of her husband’s large estate, the community needed her permission to help fund the French and Indian War.  In 2004, Massachusetts designated State Highway 146A as Lydia Taft Highway, “in recognition of Mrs. Taft’s unique role in American history as America’s first woman voter.”

Twenty years after that vote, the colonies declared their independence from the British Empire.  While most students learn about the contributions of the Founding Fathers, few know the important role that their wives played during this time.  Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was influential in shaping her husband’s role in and opinions leading up to his presidency.  While John was away in Philadelphia, Abigail ran the household and schooled the children.  Abigail and John kept in constant contact through letters.  These letters tell the story of a strong woman who was not afraid to offer her advice on everything from slavery to independence.   We learn from their letters that she at times offered intelligence from the front in Massachusetts, she comforted and attended to the sick and wounded, she greeted visiting delegations that included such giants as George Washington and she pleaded for news from Philadelphia so that she could comfort her family and closest friends.

In one famous letter, Abigail Adams implored her husband to “Remember the ladies”.  Her intent was to have the rights of women acknowledged by the emerging American government:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. .. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Her husband responds to her, brushing off her serious concern, by playfully intimating that man is a master but in title only and that wives already have power outside of the law over their husbands.  He writes:

“Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.  We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”

Abigail did not respond as playfully:

“I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives. But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”

While Abigail, like so many other women during that time, was raising her family and maintaining her property as her husband was away laying the foundations for our republic, some women were actively participating in the Revolutionary War.  The story of “Molly Pitcher” is taught to school children across the U.S., but no one is actually certain of who she really was.  Some say it was Margaret Corbin of Pennsylvania who, like other “camp followers” (wives of the Continental soldiers), was on or by the side of the battlefields cooking, washing clothes and tending to the wounded or dying soldiers.  Her husband, John, an artilleryman, was killed by the Hessians during an assault on November 16, 1776.  Margaret immediately took John’s place at the cannon until she was hit by enemy fire in the arm, chest and jaw. Impressed with her courage and service to her country, on July 6, 1779, Congress’s Board of War granted Margaret a pension. Margaret was the first woman in the U.S. to receive a pension. Others think that the real “Molly Pitcher” was Mary Ludwig Hayes of New Jersey. She was also a “camp follower” (under the direction of Martha Washington) and a “water girl” (who brought water to troops on hot summer days) during the Revolutionary War.  On June 28, 1778 during the Battle of Monmouth, Mary’s husband, William, who was also an artilleryman, fell next to his cannon because of heat exhaustion.  Mary continued her husband’s duties at the cannon, amid heavy attacks from the British. In honor for her courage, General George Washington issued Mary Hays a warrant as a non commissioned officer.

General Washington’s wife, Martha, was more than our first First Lady, she was also a dedicated army wife who would accompany her husband throughout the Revolutionary War.  Martha supported Washington, both emotionally and physically.  General Nathanael Green wrote this about his commander:  “Poor man, he appears oppressed with cares and wants some gentle hand free from deceit to soothe his cares.” This “gentle hand” was Martha.  When she was with him on the battlefields, she made clothing for the soldiers who had none and she led the other wives as “camp followers.” At times, Martha also entertained the wives of the senior officers at Valley Forge.  Her efforts were so appreciated that a row galley (armed naval craft) was named after her in 1776 – the USS Lady Washington. It was the first U.S. military ship named in honor of a woman and the first honored for a person still living.

Although women were not officially allowed to fight as soldiers during the Revolutionary War, this did not stop Deborah Sampson from becoming the first and only female soldier in the Continental Army.  This Massachusetts native disguised herself as Robert Shurtlief and on May 20, 1782 she enlisted for three years of service in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.  During that summer, Deborah was wounded while she and other soldiers were driving out the Tories.  While she was hospitalized, Deborah hid the fact that she was shot in the thigh and amazingly she was able to extract the bullet herself.  She returned to active duty immediately.  After arriving in Philadelphia, Deborah contracted a terrible fever from which she almost died.  Her attending physician, Dr. Barnabas Binney, ultimately discovered that she was a woman yet despite her misrepresentation he and his family welcomed Deborah into his home.  Before she left for West Point, Dr. Binney gave Deborah a letter to be delivered to General Paterson.  The letter revealed Deborah’s secret but praised her morals and intellect.  She was honorably discharged from the military on October 23, 1783. Nine years later, Deborah successfully petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for back pay from the army. In 1802 she began making public appearances and speaking throughout the colonies about her military service.

These are just a few documented examples of women who centuries ago took up the feminist banner and answered a call to serve their community, their faith or their country.  They did not need picket lines or signs.  These women knew what was right, knew that they had the capacity not as women, but as people to do what was right and they did it generally without hope of being recognized for it.  Their acts were conceived in selflessness and would lay the foundation for a larger push for gender equality.

One Response to “HERstory: Feminism, Freedom and Family”
  1. Rita says:

    Great article!

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