Unmasking Gender Influences in the American Revolution

Often, historians focus too heavily on military campaigns and political activities when interpreting the American Revolution.   In doing so, they miss important cultural, social and demographic trends which greatly influenced revolutionaries and impacted the outcome of the war.

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Consistent with the trend to better understand the cultural and social context of political and military decisions, historians are increasingly examining the impact of gender and sexuality on the revolutionary culture. Assembled below is an annotated list of influential books on the Revolutionary gender environment. Many of the books begin with describing gender roles during the pre-war colonial period. In some cases, the revolution changed gender roles with additional changes in the early republic period.
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Often, historians focus too heavily on military campaigns and political activities when interpreting the American Revolution.   In doing so, they miss important cultural, social and demographic trends which greatly influenced revolutionaries and impacted the outcome of the war.

A major conclusion of these works is that historians should interpret the influence of gender in the context of revolutionary society and should avoid superimposing today’s views of gender and sexuality on revolutionary participants.

Berkin, Carol, and Leslie Horowitz, eds. Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives: Documents in Early American History. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

This volume contains edited primary source documents depicting women’s lives during the colonial period in American history. Subjects covered include sex and reproduction, marriage and family, women’s work, religion, politics and the legal system. The volume concludes by describing changes after the American Revolution in the views of women and of gender within the new United States.

After the Revolution, the concept of “Republican Motherhood” emerged which defined a set of female civic duties. Mothers were expected to inculcate their children and families with virtues and values that supported and reinforced the republic. It was the first step towards weakening the notion of female inferiority and started the rise to full participation in the political and civic affairs of the nation.

The essays conclude with a view on female education. After the Revolution women became more and more educated which was the initial step on a long path to gender based equality.

Foster, Thomas A., ed. New Men: Manliness in Early America. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

The theme of this book of essays, the New Men, comes from a quote by the famous observer of Revolutionary American culture, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. These essays focus on the standards and ideals of manhood impacting the development of colonial societies. Starting with Jamestown, there were competing visions of manhood as soldiers and leaders. As colonial development increased, manly restraint became valued and society required a more rigid hierarchy with rules for various classes.

Warfare with Native Americans and the French altered colonial societies views of manliness. English had to confront the different view of masculinity in Native American societies. Victory in the French and Indian War provided a new confidence to the English men and elevated the English as warriors equal or superior to the best in the world.

Contrasting English manhood, included are essays on the Native American and African American views of manhood. These cultures had very different gender views that sometimes exacerbated the clash of these societies. The last essay provides a unique view of masculinity through the eyes of military chaplains in the Revolutionary Armies.

Foster, Thomas A. Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

In the Puritan inspired colonial Massachusetts’s culture, sexual activity was a matter of public concern. Foster argues that in19th century Massachusetts; sexuality was both acts and identities. Foster researches court and church records, newspapers and personal papers to analyze the sexual culture. He concludes that many of the same norms as observed today, can be seen in these primary sources. Boston was selected for study given its Puritan heritage, vibrancy, diversity and availability of religious and governmental primary sources.

Part I examines the sexual component of manhood as patriarchal authority including the impact of sex on social standing, marriage and family. Part II discusses sexuality from a broader social perspective including social respectability, sexual crimes and bachelorhood. At the end of Part II, Foster presents the impact of non-whites including Native Americans and African Americans. He concludes by presenting information on same sex relations during this period.

As today, there is a strong relationship between sexuality and print culture in 18th Century Massachusetts. Sex sells and is a frequent subject in newspapers, periodicals and books. Foster concludes that contrary to other historians, many things about sexuality today are also found in Revolutionary Boston.

Glover, Lorri. Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Most historians have focused on the public lives of the Revolutionary War leaders and founders. Lori Glover depicts a unique view of the founders and analyzes how their private lives impacted their public ones. She focuses on five Virginian leaders – George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry and James Madison. Even though these founders enjoyed professional and political successes, like all of us, they experienced family and personal disappointments.

Glover points out many cases in which family life impacted the public roles of the founders. Interestingly, Mason and Henry turned down roles outside Virginia due to family considerations where Jefferson took regularly took out of state roles and travelled extensively. Washington was disappointed in his stepson, Jefferson conditioned his love of his daughters to their education and Henry had to deal with a wife who experienced a mental health breakdown. Washington, Madison and Henry married wives with substantial wealth providing the opportunities for public service. All of the wives worked to protect and enhance the reputations of the founders. In many cases these efforts extended to curating large volumes of correspondence for posterity.

She provides a much fuller portrait of the revolutionary war leaders and dispels the notion of “founders chic” in their personalities. Glover reminds us that these leaders where also family members and they experienced the ebbs and flows of normal family lives.

Haggerty, George E. Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. Between Men – – Between Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

During the American Revolution, the term homosexual was not part of cultural lexicon. Haggerty explores a wide range of male-to-male relationships including homosexuality, gay and straight male effeminacy, pederasty, and platonic relationships. While this book does not focus on the American Revolution, readers can assume that simliar views of sexuality and male love existed in the colonies.

Kann, Mark E. A Republic of Men: The American Founders, Gendered Language, and Patriarchal Politics. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Extensively quoting the first Revolutionary historian, David Ramsey Mark Kann aptly describes the concept of manhood during the American Revolutionary period and is a good source for those investigating the impact of gender on cultural norms, society and revolutionary politics.

Manhood is defined as the traditional patriarch characterized by commonly accepted standards of dominant authority, mass deference and male rivalry. In the Revolutionary Period, the concept of manhood is coupled with the language of liberty, manly spirit, to motivate males to fight the British.

The culture of manhood is based upon manly restraint practiced within a fraternity of worthy men, concerned with family success and later generations. Although all men are a “slave to lust” to some extent, the bachelor it is particularly susceptible to this virulent and undesirable behavior. Further, disorderly, marginal men, those without families, jobs or civic relationships are stigmatized and not valued in the community. They are outside of the civic order. While men see themselves as the principle problems and they are also the principle problem solvers.

Highly valued men are the “family men”, who are mature, sober, virtuous, stable, provisioning, educating and preserving posterity. They are rewarded with citizenship and respect in the community. A few of these men rise to assume leadership and are called the “Better Sort”. They form a natural aristocracy with fame, and national brotherhoods. A few great men become heroic men who address national problems and provide our national destiny, almost like a czar. All men support the government of laws and sustain hegemony through laws.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. 6. impr. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000.

 Revolutionary America looked to major Enlightenment philosophers for intellectual support for its independence and systems of government. Kerber starts her analysis of women in the revolution by pointing out that the European Enlightenment thinkers were totally without a female voice. This lack of a role in politics and intellectual discourse continued in Revolutionary America.

Women assisted in the revolt from Britain in organizing boycotts, provisioning, nursing and providing other support to the Continental Army. Kerber points out that women made large sacrifices but received little credit from both contemporaries and historians.

Inheritance and the concept of coverture played a major role in the lives of Revolutionary women. In many cases men married much wealthier men including George Washington and James Madison. Once married, the coverture laws conferred the ownership and control of the wives assets to the husband. After the war, many wives of loyalists petitioned the new American governments for return of their “Widows” third for their husband’s property, which had been confiscations, turned the coverture laws in their favor.

All of the war’s events were not negative for women. After the war, divorce became more available to redress marriage issues. In addition, the seeds for more extensive educational opportunities were sown. Kerber concludes with the concept of a “Republican Mother” who initiated women into the political sphere albeit slowly and with considerable difficulty.

Little, Ann M. Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Ann Little takes a unique view of the gender and cultural implications of the conflicts between and among Native American, French and English colonialists. Her book focuses on the Northeastern borderlands of New England, New York and Canada during the period of intense wars 1636 – 1763.

All sides viewed Masculinity differently and as a result thought the other side was effeminate. For example, the Native Americans thought the English men acted like women because they tended crops in the field while English men thought Native American men could not control their women. Frequently both sides taunted and insulted the other with comparisons to dogs and women.

Little describes various English captive narratives. Sometime captives desired to stay with the Native Americans and not return to New England, even when ransomed. This was especially true of women who were added to French families where they received more economic freedoms and control.

Cultural differences were not limited to those with Native Americans. The French and English also saw the world differently. The French thought the English colonies as anarchy with too many governors and the English thought the French as corrupt and authoritarian. English ministers reinforced these prejudices by preaching “Artillery Sermons” as calls to action to resist and destroy both French and Native Americans.

During these two hundred years cultural misunderstandings and gender bias caused the wars to be more frequent and intense. Manhood expanded beyond household leadership to protecting their faith and serving the needs of the broader empire.

Lyons, Clare A. Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830. Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Readers accustomed to believing that all of the thirteen colonies believed in the Puritan views of sex and male/female relationships will be surprised with this book.   Focusing on the city of Philadelphia, Lyons analyzes news papers, religious, court and governmental records to provide a quantitatively supported view on sex in the period of the American Revolution.

She describes the concepts of self-marriage and self-divorce where newspaper advertisements announce the creation or dissolution of marriages. This was done so that a former spouse could not run up debts to be paid for by the other spouse.

Lyons presents data on out of wedlock births and society’s controls to ensure that the man provided for the bastard child. Shockingly, infanticide was practiced and not routinely prosecuted. In addition, many women moved from having out of wedlock children to a marriage with additional children.

In the end, reading will recognize many of the societal sex and gender norms today are not those much different than revolutionary Philadelphia.

Mayer, Holly A. Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

 Supply and logistics were rudimentary in the Revolution era armies. Principally women, camp followers filled the breach. While today, many people have a negative view of the camp followers are prostitutes, they served as cooks, cleaners, seamstresses and nurses. In many cases married women followed their husbands in battle. As these women performed valuable tasks, they received food rations and physical protection.

Mayer’s book describes the contributions of the camp followers and their role in prosecuting the war. It is a sage adage that logistics and supply wins wars. In the revolution, there should be no stigma as camp followers made major contribution to the patriot success.

 Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001.

Focusing on the development of American Manhood during the broad sweep of American history, American Manhood provides a good starting point for Revolutionary War scholars. A classic on American male culture, the organization of Rotundo’s book follows the natural development of boys to men.

He contrasts the male development process during Revolutionary times with that of the modern era. In the 18th Century, boys dressed and had hairstyles as girls and in society’s eyes, did not become true men until they achieved a distinguished and purposeful life. On achieving manhood men were expected to be the patriarch who was self directed and who would not be divisive and could control their passions.

During the Revolution, men learned to become individuals and express themselves independently. This led to a more dynamic commercial and cultural environment. However, it did not extend to women and the role of women was to serve men and society. With men focusing on commercial good, women assumed the communal good, thereby filling a void. This small change started the rise to equality of women in the subsequent two hundred plus years.

Ruddiman, John A. Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War. Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Too often, the history of the Revolution is viewed through the glorifying lens of great leaders and Continental Army officers.  John A. Ruddiman explores the hopes, desires and motivations of the enlisted soldier.  For these soldiers, he concludes that they sought the manliness traits of the day which where to build a competency, gain authority over a household and enjoy the regard of their community.  For many, these goals remained illusory.

During the rage militaire, many young men eagerly volunteered for army service.  It was an easy decision, to enlist for patriot motivations and to seek better alternative to civilian opportunities. Soldiers received the promise of compensation without the need to pay for housing and sustenance.  In addition, many soldiers enjoyed the camaraderie of camp life and the shared experienced of military esprit de corps.  However, as the war dragged on, compensation proved to be poor and many soldiers returned home with both physical and psychological wounds.  In many cases civilians were mistrustful of returning veterans as unruly and dangerous.

Ruddiman personalizes the common soldier by describing their military and personal lives. These accounts are taken from diaries and pension applications.  Importantly, Ruddiman points out the limits of personal accounts and the need to understand motivations and personal interests.   He transforms the continental soldiers from a unfeeling “auto man” standing in a battle line into an individual with their own personalities and needs.

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