Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Women of the Revolution: Changing Gender Roles

Published onDec 11, 2021
Women of the Revolution: Changing Gender Roles

From 1765 to 1791, the North American colonies fought the British for their independence, forming the United States of America at the close of the war. This decade of war is often illustrated by the stories of great men and their achievements. In the background of these victories, however, are the stories of women performing essential work in the absence of the country’s men and taking on new roles that would change the gender role dynamics of the New Republic. Women, according to societal norms, were believed to be the weaker sex and required male guidance and authority. Their role in the American Revolution and the ways in which they served the cause of independence by adapting to new economic, political, domestic, and even martial roles were very important.

With the start of the war, men were called away to serve on the battlefield, leaving women behind to resume their own domestic roles in the household as well as to fill the roles that the men left behind. Women were left with a wide range of responsibilities from agriculture to running the home to managing family businesses and finances. Women in colonial America had no political, legal, or economic rights, so these were all roles that they had not been exposed to and had certainly not had experience in managing independently.1

Women also found themselves in drastically different roles by participating in the military. Though women could not directly fight for the cause, they served the army as camp followers, nurses, and even spies.2 Women were very important for the military as they could be messengers from their husbands who would go unnoticed by British soldiers. This was largely due to the fact that women were considered harmless and unimportant to war efforts. Women took on traditional roles like those in the home for the military as cooks and maids for the soldiers, but some women also stepped outside of their typical role and served as spies as well. “Agents 355”, the code for female spies, are actually charged with a significant part in the missions to catch and try Benedict Arnold.3 Though uncommon, direct roles in the military were not unknown to women. The infamous Molly Pitcher, a woman charged with bringing water to cool weapons and to drink, took her husband’s place in a line of artillery after he was wounded, fought well, and was later the first woman awarded a pension.

Finally, women took on political roles during the revolution as well. Women worked to raise money and supplies through rallying and organized efforts. They also took measures to support the revolution by boycotting British goods and using their own resourcefulness to produce the goods themselves. This provided women a new opportunity to exercise political voice and decision making that they had not had before as women were excluded from politics in the colonies.

At the close of the war, the men returned and resumed their former positions which put women back into their domestic roles. Many would argue that there was not a change in gender roles since women forfeited their new work and returned to the old. However, the fact that the question of what to do with the women remained as a source of debate in the New Republic suggests that this is not all that occurred. Women developed a consciousness that they were not a weak, dependent sex and that they could do the same things as men, and they had proven this during the war when they successfully ran their homes and businesses without their men. This consciousness and change in ideology constitutes a gender role shift that would later become a true shift in norms and law. Women began to want more rights and opportunities as a result of their roles in the war because they were now aware that they were capable. This ignited an activist flame in revolutionary women to seek education, economic rights, and legal autonomy that they would gradually fight for in the years following the war.

[1] Betsy Erkkila. “Revolutionary Women.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 6, no. 2 (1987): 189–223. 326.

[2] Betsy Erkkila. “Revolutionary Women.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 6, no. 2 (1987): 189–223. 189.

[3] Amy J. Martin. “America’s Evolution of Women and Their Roles in the Intelligence Community.” Journal of Strategic Security 8, no. 3 (2015): 99–109. 99.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?