Commentary - July 3, 2013
12:47 pm
Wed July 3, 2013

Revolutionary Women

In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen levels a scathing criticism at the subject of American history as it was taught back when most of us were in high school.  Christopher Columbus was not the first explorer to discover America, and his treatment of the New World’s indigenous people is pretty hard to condone.  The Pilgrims were not benefactors to the Indian tribes in Massachusetts; the reverse was the case.   Manifest destiny, slavery, war … all were sugar-coated beyond recognition and peopled by a monolithic parade of white male heroes.

As we approach our nation’s most treasured holiday, Independence Day, we trot out that old parade.  We picture Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin … the founding fathers.  We don’t picture the women who did so much to inspire, support, and fight for the independence of the United States of America.   It’s quite a story.

We’ve all heard of Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet “Common Sense” fueled American resistance to the tyranny of Great Britain.  But we haven’t heard of Mercy Otis Warren, whose satirical plays and impassioned poems had the same effect in pre-revolutionary Boston.   We haven’t heard of Esther Reed, whose essay imploring American women to support the cause fueled a hugely successful funding drive in Pennsylvania that spread to several other states, when the resources and morale of the Revolutionary Army were at a dangerous low.

We’ve all heard of Paul Revere, but other midnight riders aren’t quite so famous.  Emily Geiger was captured by the British while carrying a message from one American general to the other.  She swallowed the note rather than relinquish it to the enemy.  Sixteen-year-old Sybil Luddington rode 40 miles to alert the Danbury militia of an impending attack.  Another 16-year-old, Dicey Langston, forded a river that rose to her neck to bring news of the enemy to her brother’s camp. 

Women were accomplices in the war effort.   Lydia Darragh observed the movements of British troops, recorded them in code, and hid them behind her son’s coat buttons.  Mrs. Robert Murry plied British officers with food and wine to keep them in her home long enough for heavily outnumbered American troops to pass by unnoticed.   Catherine Schuyler rode miles to set fire to her own fields lest the British reap the wheat flourishing there.  Margaret Corbin joined her husband in the fray at Fort Washington.  When he was killed, she took over the artillery and sustained wounds that left her an amputee.  Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man and joined the troops.  She was injured twice, but continued to volunteer for hazardous duty for three years.

Martha Washington left her home and children behind to winter with George and the troops year after year.  Her kindness and industry inspired men and women alike in the camps.  Abigail Adams tended her husband’s farm, business, family and political career for years while he worked in Europe to establish allies and ultimately negotiate a peace agreement.  While Benjamin Franklin was in London for a dozen years, his wife Deborah managed all his properties, and after her death, daughter Sally did the same when Franklin went to France for another decade. 

But heroism and sacrifice weren’t confined to those whose names are now part of the historical records.  With their homes commandeered or their towns besieged by enemy troops, countless women scavenged as they could, with their kids and elderly in tow.   Many women took in the families of relatives and friends.  Most participated in the economic sanctions that left them without basic necessities.  And all, regardless of station in life, continued to be vulnerable to the life-threatening health issues of the day – smallpox, dysentery, childbirth. 

Martha Jefferson lost three children in their first year of life.  She died giving birth to another.  While John Adams was away with the Continental Congress, Abigail lost her mother to dysentery and delivered a stillborn child.  And Esther Reed, she who wrote the remarkable fund-raising essay, lost a two-year-old to smallpox the day after she delivered her fifth child.  Her 6th child, George Washington Reed, was born a month before her famous essay hit the presses.  Although she started a successful movement, Esther herself didn’t live to deliver the bounty to the troops.  She died 3 months after the essay was printed, a victim of dysentery.  She was only 33 years old.

Small wonder that the losing general in the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis, uttered in despair, “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”   As we celebrate the courage of our founding fathers tomorrow, let’s honor Abigail Adams’ famous request, too, and remember the ladies.

This is Mary Sheehy Moe, retired but still advocating for free quality public education in Montana.

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