Women in wars: American Independence Day

Published 4th July 2016

On this day, 4th July, 240 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, establishing that 13 American colonies regarded themselves as a new nation. The Declaration came at the end of bloody revolutionary wars in America. The economic and political pressures associated with wartime resulted in the roles of women undergoing significant change. This article will look at how the wars of American Independence affected women, in comparison with the experience of British women in wartime nearly 200 years later in the First World War.

In the Revolutionary Wars, as in the First and Second World Wars in Europe, women were officially non-combatants. Women took charge of businesses and farms, gathered intelligence, worked as nurses on battlefields, and fed the armies. After the revolutionary wars, many American women came forward with claims for compensation for destroyed property, accounts of which demonstrate their keen grasp of household finances and the administrative structures they were operating within. Women had risen to the challenge of taking on the responsibilities normally the preserve of men. They participated extensively in the economic side of warfare with their action in the Homespun Movement, which avoided the luxurious British manufactured imports by making cheaper cloth out of simple weaving techniques. The tea boycott conducted by women for years before the Boston Tea Party of 1773 is a further example of women using their power of purchase to resist British rule.

There was also the peculiar phenomenon that in the American revolutionary wars many women accompanied men into battlefields as ‘Camp Followers’, working immersively with the troops. Tales of wartime heroines such as Margaret Corbin, who took-up her husband’s post at the cannon after he was killed, reflect that women in the wars of independence possessed and used the skills of male soldiers. Molly Pitcher is another figure celebrated for her combative role. It is thought that ‘Molly Pitcher’ was in fact a composite of a number of women directly involved in battles, demonstrating that women probably served in revolutionary armies in larger numbers than is usually assumed. Women were therefore important participants in the revolutionary wars on domestic and battlefield fronts. In the interests of creating a strong, successful Republic, the education of women was encouraged after Independence for the sole purpose that women could then educate their children to be good citizens. Beyond this endorsement for female education, women did not see their social or political status undergo significant change as a direct consequence of the Wars of Independence.

By contrast, the Representation of the People Act 1918, which enfranchised house-holding women over the age of 30 is often understood as a ‘reward’ granted to women after the First World War. This analysis is not entirely accurate, but there was a genuine recognition for the sacrifice and patriotic duty that women had displayed during the war. Over a million women joined the workforce between 1914-18, many of them working in munitions factories; work which was often dangerous and sometimes deadly. They worked as fire-fighters, police officers, worked on farms, and generally made up the labour shortfall created by men leaving to the front. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was also created as a uniformed service of women to assist in the war at home and abroad. Their formal employment, in contrast to women who also contributed informally to the war effort during the Wars of Independence, arguably meant that they were perceived as having a more concrete contribution to the war, and therefore were worthy of greater recognition. However, after the war, women were strongly discouraged from working in traditionally male professions.

The significant legal rights gained by women immediately after the First World War demonstrates that the practical ways in which women were given opportunities during wartime also translated to greater political freedoms. By contrast, the Wars of Independence did not lead to an enshrinement of rights for women. Both periods of war however, were eras when women experienced unprecedented levels and varieties of employment opportunity. The dramatic upheaval of the war experience meant that gender roles became briefly more fluid, specifically in that sex-based divisions of labour were not articulated as strongly because of the economic pressures at play. In 2019, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act demonstrated that pervasive attitudes towards women working in the professions had fundamentally shifted, thus beginning the trailblazing journey of women working in law in the twentieth and twenty-first century.