Women of the Revolutionary War Era were thrust into new and often frightening leadership roles as they had to maintain families, farms and businesses on their own. Women at that time did not normally handle business affairs but being left to their own devices they had to step up and learn to buy and sell livestock, hire help, purchase land, oversee construction, and supervise planting and harvesting of crops – all while raising their children.
Many women followed along with their husbands and the military as they moved around the country leaving their children behind with relatives. They would serve by acting as nurses, seamstresses and cooks.
Other women, interestingly enough, became spies. The Setauket Spy Ring included a Long Island woman who was a strong and ardent patriot. Anna Smith Strong devised a wash line signal system to identify for Abraham Woodhull the whereabouts of Caleb Brewster’s Whaleboat, so that Woodhull could find him and pass along the messages meant for General Washington. Anna Strong hung laundry on the clothesline in a code formation to direct Woodhull to the correct location. A black petticoat was the signal that Brewster was nearby, and the number of handkerchiefs scattered among the other garments on the line showed the meeting place.
British forces occupying Philadelphia used a large upstairs room in the home of Lydia Darragh for conferences. When they did, she would hide in a closet across the hall and listen in on the enemy’s military plans. Her husband would transcribe the intelligence on tiny slips of paper that Lydia would then position on a button mold before covering it with fabric. The buttons were then sewn onto the coat of her fourteen-year-old son, John, who would then be sent to visit his elder brother, Lieutenant Charles Darragh, of the American forces outside the city. Charles would snip off the buttons and transcribe the shorthand notes into readable form for presentation to his officers.
John Adams’ wife, Abigail, began the argument in her letters to her husband that creation of a new form of government was a chance to make the legal status of women equal to that of men.
Individual women are rarely discussed as leaders throughout the revolutionary era of our country. But they were there, stepping up and stepping into leadership roles; facing their fears and becoming pioneers for a better future.
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