Women and the Revolution

Home Education Unit Plans Unheard Voices from the War of Independence Women and the Revolution

Women and the Revolution

During the 1700s, some women had active roles in the American Revolution and aided in the creation of a new nation. Even though women were not allowed to participate in the War as soldiers, women took action by boycotting British commodities such as tea, consequently hurting the British economy. Groups such as the Daughters of Liberty and Ladies Association of Philadelphia emerged from these oppositional tactics. Women, such as Esther Reed, raised money for the Continental Army, and her writings can be found in the Sentiments of an American Woman.

In Philadelphia, the introduction of literary salons created a sphere of influence for female writers. Poets such as Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson and Anna Young Smith used this space to develop their own voice. Their writings present the importance of women’s contributions for the Revolutionary cause. Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson held a literary salon in her own home, known as “Attic Evenings,” where she shared unconventional thoughts such as separating from her husband and placing women as equals to men in society. Even though her husband was a Loyalist, Fergusson supported the American cause in many ways. Anna Young Smith, Fergusson’s prodigy and niece, wrote on similar themes of women, politics, and marriage.

Women created all the primary sources used in this lesson, sources often excluded from the traditional narrative of the American Revolution. Exposing students to these literary works, therefore, provides a different perspective. In this lesson, students will engage with historical documents, such a poetry and journals, by examining the political and social dilemmas women faced. The documents created by Fergusson, Young, and Reed, help uncover a path for historical dialogue and challenge the traditional idea of a woman’s identity during the American Revolution.

Essential Questions

How can the story of another American, past or present, influence your life?
How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?


Students will be able to:

  • Analyze women’s perspectives during the Revolutionary Era by examining primary and secondary sources.
  • Analyze the growing resistance and central issues of the American colonies to the British Crown through the context of women’s history
  • Determine the vital role of women in the American Revolution by considering the examples in this lesson.  

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Prior to this lesson, students should have a brief understanding of the colonial period as well as the events that led to the American Revolution. Start a class discussion with “Who are the usual heroes of the American Revolution?” Write on the board the names of what students come up with. Follow up the discussion by asking students “Do you think women were contributors to the Revolutionary War? Why or why not?
  2. After a quick introductory discussion on what students know about the contributions of women, provide them with a brief background on female roles during the time period
  3. Next, distribute the transcript of  "The Sentiments of an American Woman" and the Document Analysis Sheet. Have students read excerpts or read the document aloud as a class. Invite students to work in groups on the Document Analysis Sheet.
  4. Possible solutions for the Document Analysis Sheet include:
    • One of the main ideas of the document was to incite women to contribute to the War as women were “born for liberty” just as men were.
    • The document could have been published to dismiss gendered roles and promote an equal societal value. Women are associated with patriotism just like men.
    • One way women could contribute to the War was making personal sacrifices for soldiers, such as providing lodging.
    • One inference on how women’s roles have changed during the Colonial Period is women were represented as a supportive role to the cause, rather than passive and tied to the household. An example of women supporting the Patriot cause was through boycotting British goods.
  5. After students fill out the document analysis sheet, have students exchange their thoughts within their groups. Use the document analysis sheet to guide students to discover the soical and political contributions of women.
  6. Transition the class by using women’s poetry as an insight into their daily observation.  Place students into groups and distribute “The American Spinning Wheel” by Elizabeth Fergusson and “An Elegy” by Anna Young Smith along with their transcripts. A portrait of Elizabeth Fergusson is included in the primary source packet.
    • Direct students to answer the questions on the Guided Guestions sheet in their groups.  You can divide the questions among groups and use the follow-up questions for the class to answer as a whole.
  7. Possible solutions for the Guides Questions include:
    • “The American Spinning Wheel” is a poem by Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson written in 1782. Fergusson highlighted the importance of weaving since producing clothing was necessary for soldiers. The spinning wheel symbolizes and creates an image of women being contributors to the war effort, yet divides women from upper and lower classes. Upper class women had access to stores and did not see the point of weaving. Fergusson underlies gendered roles as it narrows the place for women in society as well as encourages rural women who weave their own clothes to value their own importance to the war effort. This also held a personal connection because, during the War in 1777, at her home in Graeme Park, Fergusson wove linen on a spinning wheel and used the linen to dress the American prisoners-of-war held in British-occupied Philadelphia.
    • Anna Young Smith wrote “An Elegy” in 1775 to express sorrow for the dead. Smith wrote this to commemorate the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The poem places Young on the side of the Patriots during the Revolutionary War: "Where e'er the Barb'rous story shall be told, / The British cheek shall glow with conscious shame.
  8. Discuss the guided questions worksheet as a class and make sure students understand that the main idea of both poems. Remind students that even though women were part of the cause, women were still marginalized and did not have the same rights as men.
  9. For further understanding, have students read “Remember the Ladies” by Abigail Adams.


Loyalist: Individual who remains loyal to the British Crown during the Revolutionary War.

Natural Rights: Fundamental human rights based on natural law.

Sentiment: An opinion, feeling, or emotion. An attitude towards an event or situation.

Elegy: Poem of reflection, usually dedicated for the mourning of the dead.

Literary Device: conveys the writer’s message to help readers interpret meaning.