What About the Founding Mothers?

The Fourth of July is a momentous occasion in the U.S.—parades, barbecues, 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.

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818)

Abigail Adams (U.S. Embassy The Hague / Flickr)

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 Her letters serve as important historical documents which elaborate on the political climate and customs of colonial America.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, Molly 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.

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 (1753–1784)

A statue of Phillis Wheatley in Boston. (Regan Vercruysse / Flickr)

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.