“The Indians are a Good deele dissatisfied on acc't of the Colo's hasty tempter which I hope he will soon drop Otherwise it may be Dissadvantageous I need not tell You whatever is promised or told them it ought to be perform’d.”
– Konwatsi-Tsiaienni, or Mary Brant, a Mohawk leader and supporter of the British,
October 5, 1779 letter to loyalist Judge Daniel Claus.
“Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. 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.”
– Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams, March 31, 1776
Revolutionary wars permitted a variety of women to act politically through fighting, boycotting, escaping enslavement, and rallying others to political causes. Many, including Mary Brant and Abigail Adams, knew that they represented significant constituencies. Yet revolutions raised political alternatives that subsequent nation-building often foreclosed or redirected, especially when women’s voices were not in the rooms where men signed treaties and composed constitutions.
Story Map: Atlantic Revolutions
Secondary ReadingsJarvis, Katie. “The Cost of Female Citizenship: Price Controls and the Gendering of Democracy in Revolutionary France.” In chapter 5 of Politics in the Marketplace: Work, Gender, and Citizenship in Revolutionary France. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Jarvis uses the concept of economic citizenship to understand how market women in revolutionary Paris used their work to claim citizenship for themselves. In Chapter 5, Jarvis explores a conflict that erupted between Parisian market women and political club women in 1793. While political leaders of the time used this conflict as an example of women behaving irrationally and as an excuse to ban women’s clubs, Jarvis traces the root of the conflict to economics. The club women lobbied for the government to set maximum prices for goods in a move that would benefit consumers but would hurt sellers, like the market women. When these groups of women fought in the street, they were not fighting about ideas of femininity, class, or political citizenship, but economic systems and their place within them.Landes, Joan B. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Landes argues that in revolutionary France, the overturning of aristocracy and formal recognition of “natural rights” led to greater restrictions on middling and elite women because “natural rights” concepts were rooted in beliefs about gender difference. One enduring result was the division of human endeavors into so-called separate spheres, with men properly involved in a realm defined as public and women in a realm defined as private. Politics, in the new republic, was a public, and therefore male, activity.Waldstreicher, David. “Women’s Politics, Antislavery Politics, and Phillis Wheatley’s America Revolution.” In Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World, edited by Barbara Oberg, 147–68. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019.
This chapter explains how Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman born in Africa and a classical poet, became Thomas Jefferson’s “kryptonite.” Wheatley’s poetry and her celebrity fastened slavery to the heart of the American Revolution and American identity, challenging the myth that in opposing its colonial bonds the United States was striking a blow for progress and civilization. Wheatley’s bid for freedom from enslavement used the British empire’s drive for political supremacy over its colonies and the colonies’ claims of republican liberty to stake out key battlegrounds. In response, American patriots such as Jefferson had to “rewrite” the boundaries of American liberty along gender and racial lines.Zagarri, Rosemarie. “The Rights of Man and Woman in Post-Revolutionary America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 2 (April 1998): 203–230.
Zagarri analyzes the ways post-revolutionary Americans discussed women’s rights and men’s rights as separate concepts. Americans engaged in lively debate about women’s rights, partly because of the language of rights that Mary Wollstonecraft used in the widely-read Vindication of the Rights of Women. Typically, though, women’s rights were based on Scottish Enlightenment ideas rooted in concepts of benefits and obligations, while men’s rights were rooted in ideas of personal liberty and innate prerogatives posited by philosopher John Locke. The tension between the idea of women having rights and the fact of their subordination to men led women to question why they were excluded from political rights. Thus, the very language of “rights” encouraged women to claim those prerogatives that were supposedly reserved for men.Colwill, Elizabeth. “Gendering the June Days: Race, Masculinity, and Slave Emancipation in Saint Domingue.” Journal of Haitian Studies 15, no. 1-2 (2009): 103–124.
This article examines how ideas of gender, race, and class intertwined in accounts of the chaotic violence that occurred during the insurrection at the port city of Le Cap in 1793. Both groups of French soldiers battling for political control used ideas of honorable masculinity to explain their actions. Both sides also decried the victimization of women, especially white women, to characterize the opponent as barbaric. Colwill points out that Black men who fought for the winning side used their military service to achieve their freedom and citizenship, but Black women could only gain freedom through marriage. Black women, however, participated in and suffered from the violence at Le Cap as much as or more than the white groups that instigated it.DuBois, Laurent. “Gendered Freedom: Citoyennes and War in the Revolutionary French Caribbean.” In Gender, War, and Politics: Transatlantic Perspectives, 1775-1780, edited by K. Hagemann, G. Mettele, and J. Rendall, 58-70. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
DuBois explores how emancipation during the 1790s and early 1800s in the French Caribbean opened up legal, social, and military opportunities for women. Plantation society was structured through highly gendered, but also unstable, categories. The revolutionary period created a moment when the enslaved and formerly enslaved could transform themselves into legal citizens. Female plantation laborers resisted practices in which they were paid less than men and managed their own garden plots. Women worked to take advantage of the possibilities of freedom and secured their individual freedom by documenting their emancipation.Earle, Rebecca. “Rape and the Anxious Republic: Revolutionary Colombia, 1810-1830.” In Hidden Histories of Gender and the State in Latin America, edited by Elizabeth Dore and Maxine Molyneux, 127-46. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
Earle examines the ways that women’s participation in 19th-century Columbian independence movements was a source of anxiety for male revolutionary elites. Women mobilized for the revolutionary cause through traditionally feminine activities such as sewing and also traditionally masculine activities such as fighting. Yet male revolutionary leaders were eager to maintain traditional familial structures even as they challenged the family-like structures of empire. While male leaders thus discouraged women’s public and active participation in combat, they relied on women’s symbolic participation. Descriptions of rape portrayed women as the symbolic and innocent victims of royalist violence. Female figures were also used as symbols of republican virtue, the independent nation, or independence itself, and this symbolic role persisted in the new republic.Brewster, Claire. "Women and the Spanish-American Wars of Independence: An Overview," Feminist Review, no. 79 (2005): 20–35.
This article highlights the ways that women participated in the Spanish-American wars for independence in both combat and non-combat roles. Brewster points out that although women in South America during this period are often believed to have been dependent or passive in these wars, many acted in very public, political, and dangerous ways, as spies, recruiters, nurses, or suppliers of funds, food, and information. Women also participated militarily, and many women commanded soldiers and fought in all-female brigades in the Tupac Amaru Rebellion in Peru. Other women in later wars for independence accompanied their husbands to battle, defended cities, and formed women’s battalions of their own. Brewster concludes that these actions did not necessarily go against established ideas of femininity but rather illustrated women's work to protect and support their families in violent times.
Primary SourcesLéon, Pauline. “Petition to the National Assembly on Women’s Rights to Bear Arms.” In Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions, edited by Lisa L. Moore, Joanna Brooks, and Caroline Wiggington, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
This ia a petition signed by over 600 women and delivered by revolutionary leader Pauline Léon to the National Assembly of France in 1791. This petition requests that women be allowed the right to fight with men in the national armies and bear arms themselves. Léon argues that fighting to defend the nation is an honor that all citizens, including female citizens, should be able to participate in.De Gouges, Olympe. Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. Open Book Publishers, 2016, 49–51.
This 1791 pamphlet is a direct response to the revolutionary French National Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which did not include women’s rights under the “rights of man” and portrayed women as only capable of nurturing roles, not political participation. French political activist Olympe de Gouges challenges this framing and points out the omission of the female citizen in the articles of the Preamble of the French Constitution. She argues that all people, regardless of gender or race, have natural rights that are inherent and universal and should be protected by law.Griffits, Hannah. "The Female Patriots." Edward Wanton Smith Collection, Haverford College Library. Reprinted in Milcah Martha Moore’s Book, Catherine La Courreye Blecki and Karin A. Wulf, eds. (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 172-73.
This poem, written by an unmarried Quaker woman in 1768, comments on the meaning of wartime patriotism for white women who had “no Voice, but a negative here.” She refers to women’s activities in the commercial boycott of imports, part of the pre-revolutionary anti-imperial protest in British North America.