Women in Revolutionary Boston
Earlier this year, Sarah Dunbar, one of our Education Associates, debuted a new special tour at the Old State House. A good deal of research goes into the development of a new tour, and in this post Sarah shares her work with our readers, giving a virtual tour to those who can't visit us in person.
Gender roles in colonial America are often described through “spheres of influence.” During this point in history, men held influence in public spheres including the political, economic, and legal. Conversely, female spheres of influence were private and domestic. On the whole, women were identified by others and identified themselves as wives and mothers. There were societal barriers that prevented women from entering more public spheres. While women were educated in this period, it was not to the extent of the men in their lives. Women also lacked the legal and financial that would have given greater political influence.
If anything shifts societal norms, it is a revolution, and the American Revolution was no different. Beginning in the late 1760s, the domestic roles of many Bostonian women took on a new tone. Traditionally domestic acts suddenly become political in nature. Women refused to purchase imported and directly-taxed items, seeking out American alternatives instead. English bohea tea was replaced with domestic herbal blends and many women pledged to abstain from the drink altogether. A homespun fabric movement arose in the years before the revolution. Women would gather in a public space and spend the day spinning yarn. These gatherings were called “spinning bees” and continued in New England even after the war as a way to supply the Continental Army with necessary textiles.
Along with these examples of domestic activism by women who dubbed themselves Daughters of Liberty, there are many cases of individual women in Massachusetts who used this sense of political awareness to make specific contributions to the patriot cause. Mercy Otis Warren used her education and connections to publish satirical plays that confronted the authority of Massachusetts’ royal governor. Phillis Wheatley, a young slave, rose above the institutions which once suppressed her to publish Poems on Various Subjects, a work authenticated by the likes of John Hancock and Thomas Hutchinson. Deborah Sampson disguised herself on multiple occasions as a man to join the ranks of the Continental Army. Perhaps the more recognizable Abigail Adams who, among many contributions, wrote the following to her husband John as he served in the Second Continental Congress:
“I desire that you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention are 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 made this bold request in a letter dated March 31, 1776, fully aware of the influence men like her husband had on their future. As modern readers of her letter know, it will be decades before the “voice and representation” she desires is granted. But her letter is evidence of the sense of political awareness Americans gained in this revolutionary period. This fueled the actions of many who become active participants in the fight for independence. We honor these women by remembering that this fight was waged by soldiers and spinners alike.