What About the Founding Mothers?

The 4th of July is a momentous occasion in the U.S.: Parades, barbeques, fireworks and political ceremonies celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which announced the American colonies separation and independence from Britain and King George III’s tyrannical rule. We celebrate our founders, and the troops who sacrificed their lives for the creation of our nation. But in our commentary, there are some crucial people being left out: the women of the revolution. Women were an integral part of colonial society, and later, the Revolutionary War. Their place was usually in the home, where they took care of their husbands, raised children and carried out endless daily tasks: They were butchers, cleaners, candle makers, cooks, farmers, tailors. During the war they also became nurses, activists, camp helpers and even soldiers on the frontline. While we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, we should remember these brave women who fought for and helped to shape our nation.
Here are just a few:461px-Abigail_Adams
 Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818). When Abigail married John Adams in 1764, she probably did not realize the impact she would have in the American Revolution. She frequently corresponded with her husband and influenced his political leanings and stance on equality. She famously asked her husband to “remember the ladies” in the Declaration of Independence (didn’t happen, but at least she asked). Her letters serve as important historical documents which elaborate on the political climate and customs of colonial America. In 1775, she was appointed by the Massachusetts Colony General Court to question Massachusetts women who were thought to be loyalists, one of the first instances of women being involved in the U.S. government. Self-educated, she believed in the equality of women and supported their rights and education. In 1797 she became the second First Lady of the U.S. when her husband was elected the nation’s second president.
Molly Pitcher (?? – ??). Although her existence has been hotly debated, 538px-Molly_Pitcher_currier_ivesMolly Pitcher was the nickname given to a woman known for bringing water to soldiers to cool down the cannons on the battlefield so that they could be reloaded and fired again. She has been identified as Molly Hays McCauley, who followed her husband John to battle. During a battle at Monmouth, N.J., on June 28, 1778, her husband was injured while crewing the cannon, and she immediately took his place. Another woman thought to be Molly Pitcher was Margaret Corbin, who also followed her husband to battle (he was later killed in the battle of Fort Washington in November 1776). She took his place, swabbing and loading the cannons, and was wounded in battle. She was granted a stipend of $30 and a lifelong pension, the first woman to be given a disabled soldier’s pension. Regardless of the true identity of Molly Pitcher, these are only a few examples of women who not only assisted the soldiers, but were actively involved in combat.DeborahSampson
Deborah Sampson (1760 – 1827). After years of indentured servitude and being a teacher in Massachusetts, Sampson cut her hair, wrapped up her chest, made some men’s clothing and signed up for the Revolutionary War on May 20, 1782. She signed up using the name Robert Shurtlif, and although the last major battle occurred prior to her duty, she participated in guerrilla warfare for a few months. After receiving both head and thigh wounds at one skirmish, she visited a doctor for treatment of the head wound, but feared discovery of her identity if she showed her thigh wound. After leaving the hospital, she removed the musket ball from her thigh herself and continued fighting. She received a pension for her service and later became a praised lecturer. Her bravery and strength in battle was commended by many, including Paul Revere.
Mammy Kate (?? – ??) – Mammy Kate was a slave in Georgia under the possession of Stephen Heard. She was well known for her large stature, strength, and loyalty. When Heard was captured by Loyalists and set to be hanged by British forces at Fort Cornwallis at Augusta, Georgia, she followed him and, by charming the troops, became the laundress for the guards and for Heard. One day, carrying a giant laundry basket, the tall, strong woman was able to sneak him out under a sheet, with the guards thinking she was just doing her usual duties (Heard was a very small man). She was able to take him back to Fort Heard, where Heard granted her freedom and gave her four acres of land and a four-roomed home. She died on Heard’s land, immortalized by her loyalty and bravery.
Phillis_wheatley_frontpiece_1834Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784). Born in Senegal and kidnapped into slavery in 1761, Wheatley was purchased by Boston’s John Wheatley as a personal servant for his wife Susanna. Due to the girl’s frail health, Susanna instead taught Phillis English, Latin and theology, and she learned to read and write at a fast pace. She published her first poem in 1767, and in 1773 she was the first African American, first slave and only third American woman to publish a book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Some white colonists found it hard to believe that a slave was writing such fine poetry, so she had to defend her authorship in court. She wrote many poems about the Revolutionary War and dedicated some to George Washington. Although she never found support to publish a second volume of poems and died young, she forever has a place in U.S. history.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons


  1. Never expected to see Abigail Adams business acumen ignored, anywhere.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. Zan Thornton says:

    Re:Molly Pitcher etc names .Her husband was “manning the cannon”?
    Like the History Channel they act as if men did everything the word manning conveys the same idea. NASA changed manning to crewing or staffing due to women makng history. I’m shocked at the word usage. Women are so stigmatized by sexist language that it happns without a thought. Please honor us by rethinkng common words that imply less than. I just want to be equal.

  3. I love learning about women’s history, but I had never heard of a few women in this article. It’s so unfortunate that women’s contributions to history have been largely ignored until now. It’s good to know we have media outlets like Ms. to make up for the inequality!

  4. I agree, Zan. Think of the difference in meaning between the old masters – famous artists, versus mistresses. A very different connotation. Now women performers don’t even want to be called actresses, only actors.

  5. I am glad to have this blog about these brave, bright women. Your perspective is always helpful, Ms.! And Zan Thornton’s reminder to be ever more aware of our language usage is very important. Thanks to her. –Ellen Duell

  6. Thank you so much for “remembering the ladies.” It is important to have an understanding of who our predecessors were….especially if we are to emulate their bravery, however small our actions.

  7. jean richards says:

    rosalie maggio has several books on inclusive and equivalent language use.
    in dictionary format. language is the tool we use to shape our reality.
    let’s include all of the people all of the time whenever possible.
    humankind or humans includes all of us.

  8. Dr. Patricia Cummins says:

    Thank you for this article and the language intonations; a reminder about the words which still are being used to omit women from their proper place in history. I will use the words, “Founding Mothers” more often when explaining history. I will never forget just a few years ago, when the Ambassador (Patrick) from Antigua-Barbuda, at a Global Leaders Conference at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas, VI was asked a question, (summarized) from a visiting female university student at the conference, “You have only spoken of men/males as being leaders, writers, historians, and men’s place as leaders in history, yet you have never included any women in history, Why?” The Ambassador got very disgusted, and said in a condescending tone and slur, “Wheeeennnn! “I” think that women have any place in history, I MIGHT include them, but….. I don’t” ! I couldn’t believe my ears. I was appalled at the blatant arrogance and teaching it to this college aged crowd! I ended up speaking to the young woman and we had an excellent talk. I also made a lot of comments to the Coordinator of this Summer Global Leadership Conference, and to the Chancellors, President of UVI, some media, and more, and have been speaking out about this ever since.
    Again, thanks for this reminder of our “Founding Mothers”

  9. I’m glad you’re talking about these women on the Ms Magazine website. Now go and tell the patriarchs at CNN and other “mainstream” media outlets to put them on the front page and stop marginalizing them.

    BTW, when Bastille Day comes, please write an article about the brilliant feminists of the French Revolution. Olympe de Gouges deserves to be in the Pantheon and feminists around the world need to push for it.

  10. I hate to say it but the women in the American Revolution seemed so subservient compared to the feminist activists in the French Revolution. Activists knew that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was male chauvinistic and Olympe de Gouges wasted no time in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen.

    It wasn’t until 1848 that American feminists called out the sexism in the “all men are created equal” statement and said, “All men and women are created equal.”

    • That’s true, and scholars of American women’s rights movements have often wondered why the American Revolution did not spark a feminist critique in the same way that it did in France. The short answer, in my opinion, is that many women (and some men, such as Thomas Paine) DID make arguments similar to Wollstonecraft or de Gouges. “Founding Mothers” weren’t just women who aided in the war effort, but might include women such as Judith Sargent Murray, who wrote several late 18th c. treatises on women’s right to an education and intellectual equality. In fact, it was in the realm of education (rather than formal political rights) that much of the women’s rights energy of the 1780s and 1790s and early 1800s was channeled in the U.S., giving rise to ladies’ academies and seminaries and the first women’s colleges, including those founded by women such Emma Willard or Catherine Beecher in the decades before Seneca Falls.

  11. Hi Chandler, thanks for sharing this post. Great to read about the brave women who fought for their nation. Really great job done. Awaiting for more posts like this.

  12. marille says:

    very important to mention women’s impact on the economy. the British did not just provide tea. everything one needed for civilized life came with the British trade. there was not coffee, no spices, no cloth. read “founding mothers” by Cookie Roberts. the founding mothers invented how to live life independent from the British. some experimented with local plants for spices, tea. the husbands were for many months writing and discussing the constitutions. the women run the businesses without all the convenience from foreign trade. Benjamin Franklin was for decades gone to Europe as ambassador and his wife took over the postal system of the atlantic coast on top of their farm. lots of info in Cookie Roberts book.

  13. Diana Marsh says:

    Comparing French feminine activists and women of the American revolution is a a spurious comparison.
    French history and culture were extensive while America was in its infancy!

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