chapter  9
American Women in the Age of Revolution
Pages 18

In 1788, an anonymous pamphlet, Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions, appeared in Boston. The author, identified only as “Columbian Patriot,” criticized the proposed Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights and it centralized power to a degree that endangered liberty. These were standard Antifederalist criticisms during the ratification debate. What made them unusual was that the “Columbian Patriot” was a woman, Mercy Otis Warren, a sixty-year-old Massachusetts playwright from a politically active family. Warren, who later achieved fame as one of the first historians of the Revolution, offers an insight into the degree to which American women engaged with and helped to shape the course of the American Revolution. Owing to the limited nature of historical sources, it is difficult to gauge the degree to which Warren spoke for American women more generally or was exceptional in her degree of political engagement. Historians disagree as to the consequences of the Revolution for American women. In an important anthology published to coincide with the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence, a leading historian of American women declared, in an essay entitled “The Illusion of Change,” that “the American Revolution produced no significant benefits for American women.” In subsequent years, a significant body of scholarly literature has appeared which has recovered the experiences of women during the revolutionary era and which undermines this bold declaration. This literature has revealed the complexity of women’s experiences during the Revolution and demonstrates that while some women gained from the upheaval, they did so in the face of significant opposition from American males, be they rebels or loyalists. Moreover, the scholarship has revealed that class, race, and region were important determinants as to how the Revolution affected American women. In 1989, in the introduction to a collection of essays

based on this new scholarship, another leading women’s historian called for the writing of a new narrative history of the Revolution, which took account of the Revolution from the perspective of women. According to such a narrative, wrote Linda Kerber, the Revolution

will be understood to be more deeply radical than we have heretofore perceived it because its shock reached into the deepest and most private human relations, jarring not only the hierarchical relationships between ruler and ruled, between elite and yeoman, between slave and free, but also between men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and children.1