Women in the American Revolution
By Tara Kurup
Image via American Battlefield Trust
Americans wanted independence from Britain after being taxed relentlessly. America wanted independence, but it wouldn’t come without a battle. Men, or as we were taught, were fighting for their lives on the battlefield. Although it was mainly males who fought in the revolution, females were also involved.
Their stories are often untold and hidden in schools. They did the most they could for their time period. They tore down the walls placed around them of the traditional standard of woman. Whether it was spying, fighting, or taking charge of the house, women helped a lot in the revolution more than people like to talk about.
Before the revolution, women were assigned a role by society to help around the house and raise children. They could not fight or have any interest in politics. However, everything changed for them after the revolution. Some women still helped around the house, but took full control over their husband’s farm while the men were off fighting. Other became spies for the colonists to get British input. They would communicate to officials so the colonists could have an advantage.
One of the most famous females in the American revolution was Nancy Hart. Hart was a spy for patriots. She disguised herself as a man and snuck into British camps, getting information and reporting back to the continental army. She also caught many British spies and sent them to patriots. A famous act of hers was getting many British soldiers drunk and taking them hostage. It is rumored that Hart was present during the Battle of Kettle Creek on February 14, 1779.
Agent 355 was a female spy for the colonists. She used this name because 355 is a code name for “women”, and she wanted to keep her and her family safe. 355 was part of a group called the “Culper Spy-Ring,” which was filled with spies based in New York. She overheard British officers’ conversations while they were in her shop, and reported the information to George Washington. It was also believed that she was a member of an important British family, so she got easy access to many secret conversations.
Talking wasn’t the only form of communication for these spies. Anna Smith Strong used laundry to communicate with Abraham Woodhull who needed information inside a redcoats boat. Woodhull hid his boat in six different locations, each identified by a number. Smith would then hang clothes on the line in concordance with the code to show where the location was, adding a black cloth if the redcoat was nearby.
Some took the advantage of having British officers forced in their homes, since it was very common. Lydia Darragh was a spy for George Washington. On December 2, 1777, British officers forced Lydia and her family to be in bed by 8:00 p.m. so they could hold a meeting in her house with them not hearing. Lydia snuck out and overheard the conversation of the British soldiers saying they would make a surprise attack on the continental army. She gave this information to Colonel Thomas Craig, who then passed it on to George Washington. The British were surprised to see the continental army waiting for them during the failed surprise attack.
Although there were female spies, some women even decided to help by fighting, even though they knew they were forbidden to. They often had to use disguises, or some excuse to get into the battlefield. Some got a pension from the continental congress for their bravery. For example, Margaret Corbin. Her husband had died in battle, and she took his place by firing his cannon against the British troops. She was shot three times and was awarded by the Continental Congress for her courage.
Another woman who fought in battle was Mary Hays, or Molly Pitcher. Hays had been bringing water for the soldiers, hence her nickname, “Molly Pitcher.” One day, as she was bringing water to the battlefield, her husband was shot and she took his place, firing a cannon at the British soldiers. She was observed by George Washington and was awarded for her bravery with a pension in 1822.
Deborah Sampson was a teacher who also fought in battle. She had a different identity on the battlefield, known as Robert Shurtleff, and disguised herself to fit in. She served for three years and sustained many injuries. Sampson led many raids on British officers and attacks. She was known to be the stronger soldier in her group. Later, she was revealed to be a woman and Washington gave her a pension and land for her service and bravery.
Women after the revolution
Many females who weren’t spies or soldiers still helped in the revolution. Many made uniforms for soldiers and bullets out of metal for ammunition. Some started showing interest in public affairs according to their letters and diary entries. Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, insisted the government take account of women’s rights while writing the new code of laws. She wanted them to be favored more than ancestors to help for their fight for equality. In her letter, she threatened for females to have a rebellion if they were still being forgotten.
Society’s view of women changed too. They were viewed more than just caretakers. They could start businesses or run farms with their experience when their husbands were away. Many schools expanded the curriculum for females, instead of just having them learn about marriage. Some even realized that marriage wasn’t made to be their destiny. They were able to postpone marriages or not have one. They could marry whoever they wanted. Overall, the revolution changed the way society viewed women by breaking down many barriers that were made.
Liem, Emma. “The 4 Female Spies Who Shaped the American Revolution.” We Are The Mighty, We Are The Mighty, 21 Oct. 2020, www.wearethemighty.com/articles/female-spies-american-revolution.
Kelley, Mary L. Did the American Revolution Change the Role of Women in American Society? Lamar University , www.erhsnyc.org/ourpages/auto/2012/10/23/32640151/Women-Yes.pdf.
Glass, Andrew. “Letter Recounts Abigail Adams’ Feminist Initiative, March 31, 1776.” Politico, 31 Mar. 2018, www.politico.com/story/2018/03/31/this-day-in-politics-march-31-1776-491169.
Roberts, Cokie. “Women in Battle.” Museum of the American Revolution, 28 Jan. 2014.
Michals, Debra. "Nancy Morgan Hart." National Women's History Museum. National Women's History Museum, 2015. Date accessed
Maggie. “Lydia Darragh.” History of American Women, 24 May 2020, www.womenhistoryblog.com/2010/09/lydia-darragh.html.
Written by writer Tara Kurup