The Ladies Association of Philadelphia: Political Consciousness and Political Leadership of Elite Women in the American Revolution

By Annabelle Hennemann

The American Revolution is regarded as one of the most critical events in the history of the United States, culturally and politically (Greene 2000: 92-93). Until today, books, movies, and in the recent decade even Broadway, have portrayed the historical event as the ultimate fight for personal freedom and liberty, in which every individual can shape their life as wished, rich or poor. Yet, whether the story is told from the perspective of a revolutionary leader or a simple soldier, what all these adaptions have in common is that mostly men are the center of attention. Men who fought for independence, their family, or for the future constitution. Women and their perspectives on the Revolution and its consequent results for women’s liberty are seldom portrayed in these stories. Usually, women are seen to have belonged in the domestic sphere, while the political sphere was dominated by men (Knott 2014: 426). However, this is not entirely accurate, as we know today that during the Revolution, women participated in riots and, e.g., supported the economic boycott of Britain (Norton 1996: 155). The female effort for the Revolution and the war went even further when a group of white elite women founded the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to fund and support the Continental Army on a large-scale basis with a state-wide campaign (Arendt 2014:158-59). This association was the first female organization in the United States and made women political actors in their own right, by carving out a political role for women that was independent from men and challenged the separated gendered sphere (Arendt 2014: 184).

Even though the gendered spheres were challenged, and women participated in the fight for independence after the Revolution, the dictum of separate spheres remained. Women did not receive the right to vote nor were they legally equal to men (Hicks 2005: 293). This opens the debate for whether and how far gender roles were transformed during the Revolution through female participation in the public sphere (Erkkila 1987: 190), or whether the power of gender norms eventually remained and thus led to maintaining them during the revolutionary time (Schocket 2010:577-78).

The article will explore the American Revolution from a gender perspective. It will investigate if the cause, closure, and result of the Revolution can be categorized as “women’s emancipation,” characterized by increased civic and political participation for women, or if it adhered to the “women-in-the-family-model,” in which women were constrained from civic liberation resulting in minimal legal, economic, and cultural gains for women. The Ladies Association of Philadelphia (LAP) between 1780 and 1781 serves as an example to explore how and if the American Revolution opened a political role for white elite women in American society that allowed female participation in the public sphere.  (Schocket 2010: 584-85).

To categorize the achievements of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia and its contribution to social change for female participation in the public realm, it is essential to examine the social construction of the pre-revolutionary social and political restrictions. These restrictions significantly limited women’s political consciousness (Snyder 2012: 425-26).

Throughout colonial America, the dictum of separate spheres, of the private and the public, persisted and established the hierarchical notion of social and political relations. Men were superior to women, and women owed obedience to men (Lewis 1994: 23-24). The idea of separate spheres was strengthened through the ideology of republicanism, prominent throughout and after the Revolution, creating a bulwark for the patriarchy. The ideology emphasized the role of citizenry, in which every member of society was responsible for civility in society. It highly based on gendered roles for men and women, in which women were placed in the private sphere and seen as the domestic guardian of morality in the household (Hicks 2005: 265). Furthermore, republicanism made women highly dependent on men, as all their property was legally transferred to their husbands upon getting married (Lewis 1994: 23-24) It therefore, fashioned an explicitly domestic role for white women as wives and mothers, with the family at its center (Knott 2014: 426). Importantly, the public sphere was further protected as exclusively male, because history and politics was regarded as being written by wars, which women were excluded from and, consequently, did not allow women to act as political beings (Hicks 2005: 266-67). Given this restricted reality, the American Revolution and the beginning of the resistance against British policy put the gendered spheres under stress as politics became an issue of everyday life (Norton 1996: 170) and moved into the domestic sphere as well (Erkkila 1987: 211). This eventually contributed to the partial breakdown and redefinition of gender (Hicks 2005: 266-67).

First came the change in economic responsibility. Once the revolutionary war began and men were absent from their home, women needed to take financial responsibility in the household. This disrupted the gendered duties, as women began to participate in crucial “outdoor affairs”, such as economic management (Norton 1996: 195). The second important factor was political integration through the tactics of revolutionary leaders to boycott Britain, which led to an increasing political consciousness for women (Norton 1996: 157). Leaders of the Revolution eventually politicized the domestic sphere (Erkkila 1987: 211); for example, to make the economic boycott against the Townshend Act of 1776 influential, male leaders recognized that they needed female cooperation to ensure that Americans would comply with the boycott of tea and luxury goods taxed by the Act. Therefore, homemakers were urged to refuse to purchase goods and were required to increase homespun production. Newspapers regularly urged women to participate in the boycott and praised women who boycotted British goods. Some women even began to formalize their agreement for a common political goal, such as an agreement signed in 1774 by the “Edenton Ladies Tea Party,” in which fifty-one North Carolinian women declared to follow the decision of the provincial Congress to support the “publick (sic) good,” – the first time that American women formally took responsibility for a public role and a voice in society (Norton 1996: 160-61).

Participation in the British boycott marked a turning point in women’s political perception; the domestic role of women gained political significance, which “represented an extraordinary departure from the past American devaluation of the feminine role (Norton 1996: 155, 159).” Furthermore, participation in riots asserted that women understood their political roles and considered themselves as part of the public with duties outside of private concerns (Norton 1996: 161). Subsequently, women began to discuss politics among themselves and together with men (Norton 1996: 155-56, 177), gaining skills in political analysis. By the 1780s, women widely read political literature, published their own sentiments, engaged in debates over public policy, and supported the war effort.

By the 1780s, the war had created a female generation that read newspapers and pamphlets, asking to be informed about the military and the progress of diplomacy worldwide (Norton 1996: 171-72). Within the climate of increasing female political consciousness, the colonies suffered devastating setbacks in the fight for independence. Continental Congress could not prevent inflation, the availability of goods was limited, and it could not provide for the needs of the Continental Army (Arendt 2014: 161-62), which suffered from mutinies that threatened the effectiveness of the whole military (Arendt 2014: 158). In a letter to Congress, Washington described how the dearth of adequate clothing seriously affected the soldiers and how the “spirit of dissatisfaction” could lead to further mutinies (Norton 1996:161-62). Citizens understood the bleakness of the situation and Congress’ problems to fund the war enough to satisfy Washington’s demands, therefore, citizens called to action to support Congress militarily and economically (Norton 1996:158).

This is the context in which the first large-scale women’s association in American history was founded. At its beginning stood the suffering of the Continental Army, and the association formed to work for the provision of a nationwide relief fund for the army (Norton 1996: 178). The Ladies Association of Philadelphia (LAP) began with an anonymous pamphlet, likely written by Esther DeBerdt Reed who later became the LAP’s first president. It called for American women to organize locally and throughout the colonies to raise money for the Continental Army. Her call was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 10, 1780, called Sentiments of an American Woman (Erkkila 1987:213). This call is an example of female leadership and an urge to enter the public sphere without male encouragement, leadership. It acknowledges that women are equal in the fight for independence. The statement reflects this sentiment:

“if the weakness of our Constitution, if opinion and manners did not forbid us to march to glory by the same paths as the Men, we should at least be equal, and sometimes surpass them in our love for the public good.” (DeBerdt: 1780)

Esther DeBerdt Reed (1746-1780), Founder of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. Portrait by Charles Willson Peale.

While women cannot be part of the army directly, they are regarded as equals in their contributions to the war effort. Even though its proposal to fund the army and, therefore, an active political role for women challenged the feminine sphere, Reed argued for the propriety of female action by presenting female patriotism since the Old Testament and addressed men who must understand the soldier’s need, any critique would be unpatriotic (Norton 1996: 178-79). The fund-raising campaign provides an example of women as intellectual and political actors in their own right – as she was “acting politically, using social acumen, employing strategy thinking, and enacting the politics of image, or the politics of self-representation” (McMahon 2019: 817-18).

Reed’s Sentiments hit a nerve with Philadelphian women, as three days after the publication, thirty-six women of Pennsylvania’s female elite met and established the LAP and began to implement Reed’s plan that led to a clearly defined strategy. As a result, the LAP printed an appendix to Sentiments that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 21, 1780, entitled “Ideas, relative to the manner of forwarding to the American Soldiers, the Presents of the American Women” – proposing the mobilization of American women of “all Women and Girls be received without exception.” (Pennsylvania Gazette June 1780). They created an operational hierarchy with well-defined positions, in which the women of the LAP had divided Philadelphia into ten equal districts and assigned up to five women to each district. Each county had a treasurer, who passed the collected money to ‘Treasurer General,’ the wife of the governor, who would then pass the money to the wife of General Washington, Martha Washington (Arendt 2014: 158-59). Even though the association’s women acted independently, their husband’s position in the Revolution remained a vital resource, as nearly all participated in the wartime supply chain or militia, had political roles or government positions or were directly serving in the Continental Congress (Arendt 2014: 168-69). Through their husbands, the LAP’s organizers gained firsthand knowledge about state affairs, which provided a stable resource to the LAP (Arendt 2014t: 170-71).

Next to the knowledge of political nature, the women also put up an activity previously defined within the realm of “masculine public virtue” to collect donations, as the women went door to door collecting funds, appropriated the masculine form of community building, and took up a leadership role in shaping society in their specific terms while reshaping feminine virtue (Arendt 2014: 185). The members of the LAP eventually collected more than $ 300,000 Continental Dollars by early July, which was, from an economic perspective, a success (Norton 1996: 181).

Sentiments of an American Woman. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection.

After Washington insisted that clothing would “render the condition of the [Soldiery in general much] more comfortable than it is at prest” (Washington August 1780), the Association produced 2,000 shirts and were praised by General Washington for their efforts. He declared “the value of the donation will be greatly enhanced by a consideration of the hands by which it was made and presented.’” (Arendt 2014:175) Washington blended their achievements in the domestic sphere (spinning of the shirts) and work in the public sphere (collecting money) (Arendt 2014:175). The LAP was thus recognized as a force in the public, which was also recognized by the media. In June, the Pennsylvania Packet published an essay that noted, “It must strike the enemy as with apoplexy, to be informed, that the women of America are attentive to the want of society.” (Norton 1996: 181-82) It argued that “[it] is not the quantity of the money that may be collected, but the idea of favor and affection discovered in this exertion, that will principally give life to our cause, and restore our affairs.” (Norton 1996: 181-82) It also urged other women to copy the Philadelphian example and predicted that “the women will reinspire the war and ensure victory and peace” (Norton 1996: 181-82).

To spread the movement into other colonies, newspapers throughout the country reprinted Sentiments in July 1780, accompanied by a detailed collection plan to inspire other women to follow the LAP’s model (Norton 1996: 181-82). Additionally, the members of the LAP used their widespread social connections to recruit women from other colonies by circulating letters (Norton 1996: 182-83/ Arendt 2014: 179-80). The LAP was eventually successfully copied in three other colonies, one of them being New Jersey, with the publication of “Sentiments of a Lady in New Jersey,” in reference to the LAP. Ultimately, the campaign died, but in mid-July, Washington received $15,500 from the women of New Jersey. Followed by Maryland (Norton 1996: 183) and, eventually, Virginia. (Norton 1996: 184). Interestingly, lists of donations, mainly in the form of jewelry, also appear in the papers of Thomas Jefferson (Arendt 2014: 179), presenting how close the organization operated to the vital political players and decision-makers of the Revolution (Norton 1996: 184).

The public perception was overwhelmingly positive, which might be surprising given that the women posed a political challenge to the feminine norms of behavior (Arendt 2014: 180). Many also accounted for the global and historical significance of the Association and its ability to present the resoluteness of the American people (Arendt 2014: 182). Also, Washington offered thanks to the LAP members by declaring that the contribution entitled its participants “to an equal place with any who preceded them in the walk of female patriotism. It embellished the American Character with a new trait.” However, he also emphasized the domestic virtues of the LAP through his references to “female patriotism” and “those softer domestic virtues,” which presumably included the ability to sew the shirts (Norton 1996:184). Yet, many comments and praises continued to veil the challenge that the LAP posed for gender norms by, like Washington, presenting the domestic sphere of sewing and, therefore, situated the patriotism and accomplishment of the women into the domestic realm. Revolutionary leaders also regarded the women’s efforts in the aftermath with “droll condescension” (Norton 1996: 187).

Nevertheless, the LAP emerged at a crucial moment in the Revolution, and it was a public and vocal expression of civic consciousness by women that illustrated the politicization of women that made elite white women essential and active participants in the public realm (Arendt 2014: 184). However, concerning the legacy of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, it must be noted that the Revolution did not make women full citizens of the United States, as, after the Revolution, there was no debate about the status of women in the new republic. The post-war period sought to restore women to their traditional role as wives and mothers (Erkkila 1987: 190). Consequently, the Revolution brought few concrete legal, economic, or political gains for women (Hicks 2005: 293). However, the long-term effects of the Revolution gave women education, morale ground, and the language (Erkkila 1987: 190) to communicate that women no longer regarded politics outside of their sphere and continued their political interests. As-soon-to-be First Lady Abigail Adams wrote in 1779: “If a woman does not hold the reigns (sic) of Government, I see no reason for her not judging how they are conducted.” (Norton 1996: 189). Men became more willing to accept female comments on politics if it was private, but women remained confined to the strictly gendered spheres of public and private overall (Norton 1996: 193). However, women stayed informed about public affairs and became a role model for the female engagement in the abolitionist movement (Hicks 2005: 274).

Overall, it can be noted that the American Revolution significantly changed how white elite women were regarded in politics and how they perceived themselves. Even though republican ideology confined women to the domestic role as wives and mothers – making women apolitical beings (McMahon 2019: 817-18), the Revolution gave the domestic sphere political importance (Norton 1996: 166-68) as “politics [moved] into the homes and the home into politics.” (Erkkila 1987: 211). The Ladies Association of Philadelphia helped women take leadership roles and participate politically, temporarily making elite white women active participants in the public (Arendt 2014: 184), which blurred the lines between the private and public, political and domestic (Erkkila 1987: 221). Therefore, it must be noted that the Ladies Association of Philadelphia was a unique development under unique circumstances that contributed to a political identity-building for women rather than actual social, economic, and legal consequences (Norton 1996: 188). This makes the American Revolution a revolution for the minds of women rather than a “women’s emancipation” revolution.


Annabelle Hennemann is a Bachelor student at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, with a focus in American History and Politics and a special interest in transatlantic history and politics. Furthermore, she is a student assistant and helps to organize the events at the HCA.

Get in touch:

E-Mail: ahennemann@hca.uni-heidelberg.de

LinkedIn: Annabelle Hennemann


Primary Sources

 

Secondary Sources

  • Arendt, Emily L. “Ladies Going about for Money”: Female Voluntary Associations and Civic Consciousness in the American Revolution.” Journal of the Early Republic 34, no. 2 (2014): 157-186.
  • Erkkila, Betsy. “Revolutionary Women.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 6, no. 2 (1987): 189-223.
  • Greene, Jack. “The American Revolution.” The American Historical Review 105, no. 1 (2000): 93-102.
  • Hicks, Philip. “Portia and Marcia: Female Political Identity and the Historical Imagination, 1770-1800.” The William and Mary Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2005): 165-294.
  • Knott, Sarah, “Female Liberty? Sentimental Gallantry, Republican Womanhood, and Rights Feminism in the Age of Revolutions,” The William and Mary Quarterly 71, no. 3 (2014): 425-456.
  • Lewis, Jan. “Women and the American Revolution,” OAH Magazine of History 8, no. 4 (1994): 23-26.
  • McMahon, Lucia. “[Review]: Ireland, Owen S, Sentiments of a British-American Woman: Esther DeBerdt Reed and the American Revolution. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2018; Abrams, Jeanne E. First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role. New York: New York University Press, 2018; Imbarrato, Susan Clair. Sarah Gray Cary: From Boston to Grenada; Shifting Fortunes of an American Family, 1764-1826. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.” Early American Literature 54, no. 3 (2019): 809-820.
  • Norton, Mary Beth. Liberties Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  • Schocket, Andrew M. “The American Revolution: New Directions for a New Century.” Reviews in American History 38, no. 3 (2010): 576-586.
  • Snyder, Terri L. “Refiguring Women in Early American History.” The William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 3 (2012): 421-450.

Picture Index:

  • A Society of Patriotic Ladies At Edenton in North Carolina (1775). Attributed to Philip Daw. Publisher: R. Sayer and J.Bennett (London). Image of a painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.18368496?searchText=&searchUri=&ab_segments=&searchKey=&refreqid=fastly-default%3A1849282c75ceb9d7089af8ffa1028b61
  • The sentiments of an American woman. On the commencement of actual war, the women of America manifested a firm resolution to contribute as much as could depend on them, to the deliverance of their country. Recalling the patriotism of women of o. Philadelphia, 1780. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/2020769022/.
  • Portrait of Esther DeBerdt Reed (1746-1780). By Charles Willson Peale. Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays by Lind K. Kerber. Image of a painting from the Frick Art Reference Library. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Esther_de_Berdt_Reed_by_Charles_Peale.png

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
ahennemann (June 19, 2024). The Ladies Association of Philadelphia: Political Consciousness and Political Leadership of Elite Women in the American Revolution. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved July 12, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11v77


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