Roles of Women in the Revolutionary War

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Men fought bravely during the Revolutionary War to defeat the British and form a new nation, but women were also essential to the war effort on both sides of the conflict. Learn more about women's bravery and sacrifices during the war.

'Remember the Ladies'

In 1776, Abigail Adams implored her husband, future president John Adams, to 'remember the ladies' when crafting the laws of the new nation. Indeed, women contributed much to the revolutionary effort that should be remembered but is sometimes overlooked. So, in the spirit of remembering the ladies, this lesson explores the ways women helped the revolutionary cause, as well as the loyalist cause. During that time period, women were traditionally responsible for managing the household. This role remained largely the same after the war, but during the war, women showed that they were just as courageous, resourceful, and patriotic as men. Whether at home or on the battlefield, the roles of women in the Revolutionary War were an integral part in helping America achieve its independence.

Painting of idealistic Revolutionary family
Painting of idealistic Revolutionary family

Women at the Home Front

Men of all ages were desperately needed to fight in the American Continental Army against the British. This meant that husbands and sons would leave their wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters at home while they fought on the front lines for independence. Think of it: with no cell phones or email back then, women really had no idea when their men would return - if at all.

In the meantime, the women who remained at home managed all of the household affairs as well as earned income (which was typically earned by the man) to sustain the family. Many middle and upper class women had to take on their husbands' responsibilities of managing farms or businesses while their husbands were away, in addition to raising children. With no men at home, this also meant that women were more vulnerable to pillaging British (and sometimes American) troops.

But women were not altogether powerless or defenseless at home. In fact, many of them had a direct impact on the revolutionary cause by joining the informal yet effective group called the Daughters of Liberty. The Daughters of Liberty existed from 1765 through the Revolutionary War, and they helped stimulate patriotism as well as decrease the colonists' dependence on British-made goods. They organized boycotts of British goods and encouraged women to make homemade supplies for their families and the soldiers. This goes to show that even from home, women had a big impact on the course of the Revolution.

Women in the Army Camps

Though many women remained at home during the Revolutionary War, some women could not or did not want to. In particular, poorer women did not have large estates or businesses to run while their men were away, and they had no way to provide for their children without their husbands. So, many of these women and their children, who came to be known as camp followers, actually traveled with the army camps, on both the British and the patriot sides. In addition, many patriotic women volunteered to assist the soldiers in any way they could, so they traveled with the army as well.

Camp followers had to endure the harsh conditions of army camps, like that depicted here at Valley Forge
Painting of Valley Forge

Having women and children at the army camps could be dangerous, distracting, and expensive (the army could barely feed and clothe the soldiers, let alone anyone else!). However, having their families with them helped boost soldiers' morale. Plus, many women took up indispensable roles at these army camps. The female camp followers would cook, clean, and care for the wounded and sick. Many of them even started small cooking or cleaning businesses and would charge for their services. This arrangement gave women a way to earn money, and it also freed up men to stay on the battlefield.

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