On March 31, 1776, exactly 236 years ago today, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams:
“I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. … If particular care and attention is 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.”
The rebellion envisioned by Abigail has unfolded again and again throughout American history—in the 1860s, the 1920s, and the 1970s, for example. But before those important moments of “rebellion” in women’s history, women played an important role in that famous American rebellion, the American Revolution. As we remember Abigail’s prescient observations and conclude the celebration of Women’s History Month, we can also “remember the ladies” who contributed to the revolutionary cause. Here’s a look at some of them.
Of the Revolutionary women we remember, Abigail Adams is the most likely to come to mind. Her husband, John, was frequently described as a curmudgeon. That alone may qualify her as a patriot. But let's not forget that when John was away, she raised their children, ran the family farm, and oversaw real estate transactions. And this wasn’t for a month or two, it was for many years; she once observed that during their first 12 years of marriage, she and John only lived together for six years.
Margaret Cochran Corbin
Margaret Cochran Corbin rolled up her belongings in a blanket and accompanied her husband to war. When her husband was killed on November 16, 1776, during the defense of Fort Washington, she took over his artillery station, continued the fight and sustained three disabling wounds. In recognition of her patriotic service, the Continental Congress awarded her a half pension, and when she later petitioned Congress, she won a full pension. She is the first woman to be awarded a military pension. Today, she is buried at West Point and is one of only two Revolutionary veterans so honored.
Some women believed so strongly in the cause of freedom that they donned men's clothing and joined the battle. The most famous of these was Deborah Sampson, who served three years as “Robert Shurtliff” and was twice wounded. Later, when she became sick, her commanding officer sent her to the field doctor, who discovered the truth. The doctor ordered "Robert" to Washington's headquarters. When she met Washington and the truth was revealed, the general was left speechless. Later, she was invited to Congress and in her presence, was voted a pension in recognition of her patriotic service.
Nancy Hart of Georgia may not have fought on an actual battlefield, but she contributed to the war effort in a memorable way. A neighbor was being held by British loyalists, and Hart helped him to escape. When British troops later confronted her, she shot a number of them and held the rest at gunpoint. When patriot reinforcements arrived later, she took the British soldiers outside and hung them. She taught British loyalists and troops not to mess with a patriotic “Southern belle.”
Esther Reed was head of the Relief Association in Philadelphia and raised money in the form of subscriptions. She wrote Washington and told him that their subscriptions had raised $7,000. The money was used to purchase linen for the army. Reed and her group sewed more than 2,000 shirts for soldiers using the linen.
Prudence Cummings Wright
In April 1775, a group of women headed by Prudence Cummings Wright armed themselves with muskets, pitchforks, and other weapons and formed a patrol on what is now Jewett’s Bridge, between Pepperell and Groton, Massachusetts. They intercepted a rider, then unhorsed and searched him and discovered he was a British spy with information hidden in his boots. They detained him and turned him over to the authorities.
Donald Applestein is a retired attorney and an experience guide in the National Constitution Center’s Public Programs Department.