It’s unfortunate that many of the women attributed as heroines during the American Revolutionary period are more from the realm of folklore than historical fact. Such women include Molly Pitcher, likely a composite of several women who followed the Continental Army in the field. Others are Betsy Ross and Sybil Ludington, whose stories did not appear until decades after the Revolution, and are unsupported by any contemporaneous documentation.
Yet contributions by women to the Patriot’s cause were many, and several women deserve to be ranked among the Founders for their actions and the sacrifices they made in support of the Revolution and the formation of the United States. Their roles have long been overlooked. Here are 10 women whose contributions to the Declaration of Independence, Revolutionary War, and the Constitution deserve better notice.
10. Mary Katherine Goddard
Born near New London, Connecticut in 1738, she accompanied her brother William when he established a newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island in 1762, called the Providence Gazette. His paper soon supported the activities of the Patriots. William also established a newspaper in Baltimore, called the Maryland Journal, and when he left for Philadelphia to establish yet another newspaper, Mary took over publication of the Maryland Journal in 1774. She thus became one of the earliest female publishers in the world.
In 1775 she took on the duties of Postmaster in Baltimore while continuing to publish the Journal. Some consider her to be the first female federal employee of the United States. Goddard’s newspaper supported the Patriots during the early days of the war, and when the Continental Congress in Philadelphia decided to publish the Declaration of Independence, Goddard offered her press to create the version known today as the Goddard Broadside. It was the first to contain the names, in typeset, of the signatories, and Goddard included her own name in a lower corner of the document. This made her liable to charges of treason.
Goddard’s brother William forced her out of her position as publisher of the Maryland Journal in 1784. She continued to serve as Baltimore’s Postmaster until 1789, when Postmaster General Samuel Osgood decided the job was too much for a woman. Over 200 citizens of Baltimore petitioned for her to be reinstated, though the petition was denied. She remained in Baltimore, operating a bookshop, until her death in 1816.
9. Lucy Flucker Knox
Henry Knox was a young Boston bookseller who catered to British officers occupying the city before the Revolution began. He allowed the British to socialize in his shop, which gave him the appearance of being loyal to the King while allowing him to absorb British gossip and tactical practices of their army, particularly artillery. It also allowed him to court young Lucy Flucker, one of Boston’s belles. Her parents, wealthy Massachusetts and Maine landowners, disapproved of the relationship. In 1774, against her parents’ wishes, the Knoxes were married. In 1775, when it became apparent Henry was a Patriot, Lucy’s family disowned her.
During the course of the war Henry Knox served as the Continental Army’s Chief of Artillery. Lucy served as well, arranging supply trains and other support for the army in the field. In one letter to Henry written during the war, Lucy warned him that the necessity of her handling her husband’s business affairs had changed her and that upon his return, “…I hope you will not consider yourself as commander in chief of your own house…” She joined her husband in camp at Valley Forge and other winter encampments during the war.
During their long and evidently happy marriage, Lucy gave birth to 13 children (10 of whom died in childhood), supported her husband during the Revolutionary War, and later in New York and Philadelphia when Henry served as the nation’s first Secretary of War. After 1775 she remained estranged from her Loyalist family for the remainder of her days. Most of her letters to her husband survive, and give deep insights to the struggle and sacrifices of the home front during the American Revolution. Lucy sacrificed her family, wealth, and a life of luxury to support the Patriot’s cause throughout the formation of the United States.
8. Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis could trace her maternal lineage to the Mayflower, as could her husband, James Warren. Both were from prominent Massachusetts families, and Mercy, though never formally schooled, was well educated through the efforts of Reverend Jonathan Russell. The Reverend, with the support of Mercy’s father, allowed her to attend tutoring sessions as he prepared her two brothers for entry into Harvard College.
She used that learning to write satiric poetry, pamphlets, and plays, published under a pseudonym, the usual practice for the day. In all of them she supported the growing Patriotic cause in Boston during the period of protests over the Stamp Act, the Intolerable Acts, and the presence of British troops in Boston. She corresponded with all of the Revolutionary leaders, giving frank recitations of her views, and frequently served as the hostess of Patriot’s meetings in Boston both before and during the war.
Following the war, she continued to correspond with several of the Founders during the Constitutional Convention. After the Constitution was submitted for ratification, she authored a pamphlet opposing its acceptance without the immediate adoption of a bill of rights. In the early 19th century she published one of the first histories of the American Revolution. Nearly all of her writings are available today, including letters she wrote to George Washington during his tenure as America’s first President. Few women of the Revolutionary era left a more lasting legacy.
7. Esther de Berdt Reed
In January 1780, a pamphlet appeared in Philadelphia announcing the formation of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. Its title was Sentiments of an American Woman, which served as the only identification of its author. That American Woman was, like countless other Americans since, foreign born. She was Esther de Berdt Reed, born in England, and the wife of Joseph Reed, a prominent Philadelphia attorney then serving as one of George Washington’s aides in the Continental Army.
The Ladies Association announced its intention of raising money for the support of the Continental troops, which until then were often unpaid. Congress proved hapless at raising the necessary funds. The Ladies Association were more successful, but Washington balked at disbursing the money directly to the troops, fearing they would waste it on liquor. At the General’s suggestion, the funds were used to purchase clothing and other supplies for his men. Washington and de Berdt corresponded directly, and developed a mutually beneficial working relationship during her efforts with the several other Ladies Associations she helped bring into being in the former colonies.
The Ladies Associations purchased material and sewed it into shirts for Washington’s men, and at Esther’s urging they stitched their names into the seams of the garments. Eventually more than 2,000 shirts were prepared by the 39 women of the Philadelphia Ladies Association alone. Esther did not live to see the project through to American victory. She died, of dysentery, in Philadelphia later that same year.
6. Mary Norris Dickinson
John Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, despite the Pennsylvania delegation, of which he was part, voting for independence in 1776. He refused, in part, because he was a Quaker, and he believed the document would lead to prolonged violence, a violation of his religious principles. His wife, Mary Norris Dickinson, was likewise a Quaker. A precept of the Society of Friends is that men and women are equal, with souls not possessing a gender. Mary Norris Dickinson took that precept quite literally, in all matters, including business and politics.
Mary was a landowner of extensive tracts, and owned one of the largest private libraries in North America by the time of the Constitutional Convention, in which her husband represented Delaware. During the deliberations of the convention, Mary frequently hosted delegates at dinners in her home, where she actively took part in political discussions, to the dismay of some of the more conservatively minded. The polite withdrawal of the ladies following dinner, allowing the men to discuss matters such as politics and business was not practiced in her home, and she drew other ladies into the discussions.
She used her influence to press her husband and other delegates to include a bill of rights, and to regard men and women equally in all matters before the law. She also argued for voting rights for women. Though the British burned some of her estates during the Revolution her library survived. In 1784 she and her husband donated land near Carlisle and the library to Benjamin Rush to found a new college, which Rush named John and Mary’s College. Today it is known as Dickinson College.
5. Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison gained her first experience as a White House hostess during the administration of Thomas Jefferson. The widowed President asked her to fill that role on several occasions when his daughter was unable to serve. Dolley is rightly known to history as the leader in making the Executive Mansion and the President’s table the center of society in early Washington, positions they retain more than two centuries later. But it was certainly not her only contribution during the formative years of the United States.
Dolley helped furnish the White House, working with architect Benjamin Latrobe. She also helped define the social structure of events such as State Dinners and other official functions. Her use of social events to generate political discussions and reach compromises led to her becoming the only First Lady in American history to be granted an honorary seat in the House of Representatives. Though she did not save the famed Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington when the British burned the White House in 1814, as is so often claimed, she did direct it be removed and carried to safety.
Dolley Madison defined the role of the First Lady much more formally than had her predecessors. She used the role to actively support her husband’s agenda and positions as President and leader of his political party. Following Madison’s death and the forced sale of his Montpelier plantation to pay his debts, Dolley returned to Washington, where she lived for most of the remainder of her life, still a fixture of Washington society. She died in 1849 at the age of 81. After interment in Washington, her body was later exhumed and reinterred at Montpelier next to her husband, James Madison.
4. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
Elizabeth Schuyler, called Eliza by friends, descended from wealthy New York families, the Schuylers and the Van Rensselaers. She met her husband, Alexander Hamilton, when he served on George Washington’s staff in the Continental Army encampments at Morristown, New Jersey in 1780. They were married in December of that year, in the Schuyler mansion in Albany. As his wife, Eliza exerted considerable influence in the development of the Constitution and in the emerging federal government of the United States.
During the debates over ratification of the Constitution, Eliza helped pen Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the series of essays known today as the Federalist Papers. During the two administrations of President George Washington Eliza endured a miscarriage and the news of an affair involving her husband which led to a temporary separation, though they eventually reconciled. When Washington prepared his Farewell Address, much of the essay was penned by Hamilton, with Eliza contributing to the work, a fact not known to scholars for nearly two centuries.
Following the death of her son and her husband in duels, Eliza helped found the Orphan Asylum Society in New York. She worked with the society for over four decades, raising money, collecting needed supplies, and supervising the education and care of over 700 orphaned or abandoned children. The society remains in operation today as Graham Windham. She also worked to repair her husband’s legacy and preserve his writings and personal papers, leaving to posterity much of what is known about the complicated individual who was Alexander Hamilton. She died in 1854, having outlived her husband by half a century. She was buried near Alexander in New York’s Trinity Church graveyard.
3. Sarah Livingston Jay
Sarah Livingston Jay was the daughter of one signer of the Constitution (William Livingston) and the wife of another (John Jay). As a daughter of a wealthy and influential New York family, Sarah was raised in the upper strata of American colonial society. When her husband, John Jay, was sent to Spain by the Continental Congress to serve as Minister there, then to France to join the delegation led by Benjamin Franklin, she accompanied him. There she adopted the practice of Franklin to involve the Americans in the upper reaches of French society as a means of smoothing diplomatic relations.
Sarah included within her social circle Adrienne, wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as Abigail Adams and other wives of the Americans in Paris. She became a noted member of French society, and on at least one occasion the performance of a play was brought to a stop when she entered her box to the applause of the audience. She later served as the First Lady of New York while her husband was Governor, and as the head of society involving the Supreme Court when he served as the Chief Justice of the United States.
Sarah served in Washington as a hostess and social leader. Being fluent in French and known for her tact and diplomacy, she was a prominent member of the administration of George Washington. As with most of the Founding Mothers, her life was permanently intertwined with her husband’s, a 19th century practice known as coverture. Yet she contributed significantly to the events which led to the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, and the critical decisions made during the early years of the new government of the United States.
2. Martha Washington
A wealthy widow when she married George Washington, Martha brought to her new husband a large dowry, lands, and two children from her first marriage, to Daniel Parke Custis. They were married in 1759, 14 years later her daughter Martha, called Patsy, died of a seizure. The Washington’s had no children together, though their marriage was by all accounts a happy one. During Washington’s long tenure as commander of the Continental Army, Martha journeyed from Mount Vernon to be with him in the encampments whenever she could. There she harbored other officer’s wives, and provided aid and comfort to the troops.
When Washington came out of retirement to accept the office of President of the United States, Martha accompanied him, first to New York, then to Philadelphia. She served as the hostess at weekly Presidential levees, as the receptions were then called. With no guidelines to aid her, she established the role of First Lady, though without the title, and she had no officially assigned duties. Few of her letters from Washington survive; she burned the majority of their personal correspondence following his death in 1799.
Martha Washington chafed at the confines of New York City, and at her role of providing weekly entertainments for the members of the administration, foreign dignitaries, and the hangers-on who surround any seat of government. There were also complaints among some former revolutionaries that the levees she hosted were suspiciously similar to the Royal Courts of Europe. But she prevailed, and left Philadelphia for Mount Vernon in 1797 as a respected and admired lady and hostess, having served yet again in the shadow of her illustrious husband. Indeed, her reputation grew over her time as the first lady of the land, while that of her husband had done very much the opposite.
1. Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was one of the most prolific writers of letters in history. During her long life, in addition to the letters to her husband during his many long absences, she wrote to nearly all of the Founders. Jefferson, Washington, Lafayette, John Dickinson, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, and many more received missives from her, and responded in the stilted manner of the day. And her letters, most of which survive, reveal how much she urged the founders, toward independence, toward democratic government, and toward the support of women’s rights.
She accompanied her husband to Paris during the Revolution, and her letters reveal her New England Puritan contempt for many practices of the French Court. She accompanied him to the Court of St. James where she was presented to the King, and her comments about British society were equally acidic. During the Constitutional Convention she chided her husband to ensure women’s rights were considered and afforded equal treatment. After Jefferson and Adams split politically, she wrote to the former defending her husband’s positions and actions.
When she and her husband moved into the White House in 1800 she found it unfurnished, with no landscaping, and poorly heated. She did, as legend claims, use the unfinished East Room to hang her laundry. Years before, in a letter to the Continental Congress through her husband John, she admonished the all-male body, “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.” Though John resisted Abigail’s chidings, referring to what he called a “despotism of the petticoat,” Abigail’s influence among the founders was extraordinary. Harry Truman once said of her, “…she would have been a better President than her husband.”