We celebrate Independence Day this weekend, and Nancy Rubin Stuart, author of The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation, honors the often overlooked women of the American Revolution.
Traditionally, we celebrate our nation's birthday on July 4th with parades, fireworks and tributes to the Founding Fathers. Rarely do we recall the women who supported our patriots, those forgotten Founding Mothers who watched their men march off to fight for American independence, leaving them to struggle to support children, homes and farms.
Silence surrounds the lives of those nurturers. While we recall the names of "celebrity women" of that era-- Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams; Mercy Otis Warren, author of anti-British propaganda plays and historian of the American Revolution; Betsy Ross, who stitched the American flag; Deborah Sampson, disguised as a soldier who fought against the British, and Margaret Corbin, who loaded cannons on the battlefield-- we know relatively little about their personal sacrifices and those of their peers.
Before the Revolution, Abigail Adams and her historian friend, Mercy Otis Warren, shunned tea and proudly wore homespun garments in lieu of British finery. Living miles apart south of Boston with their children, the two friends spun dozens of skeins of wool which they collectively donated to the poor. So, too, did countless other women who gathered in private homes for spinning parties or participated in public spinning contests. To stir patriotic sentiment even hotter, patriotic newspapers offered suggestions about North American substitutes for imported teas, among them sassafras, raspberry and mint.
While patriotism required sacrifice, American women still needed certain manufactured goods and fabrics for their households. Since Abigail's husband, John, and Mercy's son, Winslow, lived in Europe during the last years of the Revolution, those matrons sent for certain household goods and fabrics which they sold or traded to friends and neighbors.
Many women and their children, however, no longer lived in old neighborhoods. Among those who fled from Boston during the British occupation was Abigail and Mercy's friend, Betsy Adams, wife of Samuel Adams, who hid in a humble cottage far from the city.
No less unnerving was the April 1775 flight of their friends, Hannah and Professor John Winthrop of Harvard College, as British soldiers stormed through Cambridge. After securing lodging in a "safe house," Hannah wrote about harrowing scenes of bloodshed in nearby fields and nights spent with weeping women and children crowded into a temporary shelter. Later, the Winthrops were transported in a rough wagon to rustic Andover. There, John Winthrop, 61, fell desperately ill from one of the epidemics then raging across Massachusetts emanating from the unsanitary conditions of the British soldiers in Boston. Months later, after Hannah finally called upon the Warrens to help her get him to Watertown, John recovered, but never fully regained his health.
That same April of 1775, Hannah's kindly sister and brother-in-law of Charlestown dressed wounds and provided food for British soldiers fleeing from Lexington and Concord. In June 1775 that couple was stunned to watch their home go up in flames when the British burnt Charlestown. As the Revolution moved to New York and the South, still other women wrote letters or left diary accounts of British and Hessian soldiers who broke into their homes, plundered their valuables, raped them and set their homes on fire.
Even those who escaped such a fate were plagued by loneliness. By the summer of 1775, Mercy's long absence from her husband, James Warren, the first Quartermaster General of the Continental Army and president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, finally impelled her to leave her young sons with servants in Plymouth and ride thirty-five miles over rough roads to Revolutionary headquarters in Watertown. Shocked by James's harried and overwrought condition, Mercy made five solo trips that summer and fall to Watertown to serve as his private secretary and to write reports to their friend John Adams in Philadelphia.
In Braintree, meanwhile, Abigail not only skimped and schemed to maintain her home, children and family finances, but became an astute manager of the Adams's farm. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of other Revolutionary-era women, whose husbands left home either to fight or serve in Congress, were similarly compelled to assume their husband's former responsibilities.
Among them was Mary Bartlett, wife of a New Hampshire Congressman, who initially balked at running her husband's farm but later became so adept at it that she regarded it as "our farm." A still more famous and lonely "war widow" was Deborah Read, wife of statesmen Ben Franklin, who spent most of the Revolution abroad in his diplomatic duties, leaving her to live and die alone in Philadelphia.
While Abigail's plea to "remember the ladies" fell on deaf ears during the Revolution, her vision has gradually, if grudgingly, become a reality. Nearly ninety years ago women achieved suffrage. Today, more than half of America's college students are women. Now too, in the midst of the Great Recession, women comprise nearly half of the work force.
Nevertheless, women, especially single mothers with children, remain our most impoverished citizens— a condition strikingly similar to that suffered by women of the American Revolution.
As we sing "Happy Birthday America" today, let us remember that women quietly baked the nation's cake. They did so with rationed flour and bartered candles, whose light has burned brighter and stronger through the centuries than have muskets, firearms and bombs.