July 4 Reflection: Women’s Contributions According to Professor of History Laura R. Prieto
The origin of July 4 celebrations in the U.S. is male-dominated, as it involved the Second Continental Congress and the passage of the Declaration of Independence. However, as History Professor Laura R. Prieto explains, women made important contributions to the revolutionary history of this country.
How can we reflect on women’s contributions to revolutionary history?
Remember that men were never the only ones on the scene. It’s easy to forget that when you look at male-dominated histories, but if you really put yourself there you realize that it’s impossible in any moment in history to have only men. In everyday terms, men were human beings who were interacting with other human beings.
The War of Independence really affected everyone because it was, in effect, a civil war. Women were present at all stages, including as nurses on the battlefield. Groups of women and children called “camp followers” followed troops and did necessary domestic work.
There were also women who fought, the most famous one being Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts. She volunteered for the Continental Army and fought in the Revolutionary War under the name Robert Shurtliff. She received a pension for it afterwards, and when she passed away her husband received a widower’s pension. She also co-wrote a memoir about her experiences. There were certainly other women and trans people in battle whom research has yet to reveal.
What kind of available sources shed light on women’s stories from this period?
There are many letters and diaries, and many of them have been published or digitized. I have taught excerpts from the diary of a Loyalist women named Grace Galloway, which offers a fascinating glimpse of what it was like on the ground. There are also fantastic letters between Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren. They identified as Patriots themselves and commented frequently about the politics and military developments of the day. Warren also wrote political plays, and Judith Sargent Murray wrote an essay (“On the Equality of the Sexes”) that is perhaps the first feminist piece of writing in U.S. history.
What kind of contributions have Black and Indigenous women made to this moment in history?
We have evidence of enslaved Black women petitioning for their freedom. Phillis Wheatly, a Black woman from Boston and one of the first published Black authors in the United States, wrote poems with an anti-slavery message.
Indigenous women were very much a part of the Revolutionary War effort, and they often served in diplomatic roles and helped to negotiate alliances. Molly Brant (Mohawk) is a good example. Most Indigenous people were allied with the British and fought on the British side. The Cherokee were allied with the U.S. and they had women political leaders, such as Nancy Ward, who had the title of “Beloved Woman.”
When you cover the Revolutionary period in your “Women and Gender in the U.S. before 1890” history course, what else do Simmons students learn about women from the late 18th century?
We talk about women’s roles in a lot of other social and economic transformations happening around the same time. Women were also central to the rise of literacy and the novel, the consumer revolution, religious revivals, and so forth. Women were crucial to boycotts of tea and other British goods. We also discuss Jemima Wilkinson, a Christian preacher who did not identify as male or female.
These individuals had political identities. The American Revolution made women, especially white women, become involved in politics. They had very few rights, but still were invested. Women also advocated for their own education, even if they were not going to have explicit roles in government. As mothers raising sons who would be voters and would have roles in government, women were able to make the case that they needed a solid education.
Why is gender an important category of analysis when learning history?
Gender is so fundamental to how people understood the world and still understand the world. At the time of the Revolution, gender shaped what a person could expect from their life. Gender changes over time and across cultures, but it remains a central way of thinking about reality. It’s really systemic and if we don’t interrogate that, change is not possible.
Do you find that Simmons students have a special inclination toward women’s history?
Some of my colleagues at other institutions have to justify why women’s history is important, but this has not been the case for me at Simmons. Here there is an understanding that women’s lives are worth knowing about and that gender deserves analysis.