WASHINGTON, DC.- At the time of the American Revolution with Great Britain, women did not share the same status or rights as men. They could not vote or hold political office, enjoyed few property rights, were not equal in marriage, and had limited access to educational opportunities. As the debate about liberty and the rights of men took center stage during the Revolution, some women began to question their position in American society. Whereas many believed that womens primary responsibility was to raise their children to be productive, moral citizens, some women began to argue for certain legal and economic rights and to pursue various professional careers. The Revolution created new opportunities for women to do work outside the home and to voice their opinions and concerns in public. Given the racial and class divisions that existed during the period, however, not all women were permitted to step forward in this manner. The eight women who are highlighted here did not produce a collective movement for womens rights, but they were important in sowing the seeds for future progress. While the nature of their achievements differed, each demonstrated through their work that women possessed a will of their own.
Judith Sargent Murray 17511820
Born Gloucester, Massachusetts
Judith Sargent Murray was one of Americas earliest advocates for womens rights. Born into a well-established merchant family, she desired the type of first-class education accorded to her younger brother. Yet such opportunities were rarely available for women. Murray had a lifelong interest in writing and the ambition to have her voice heard. Beginning in 1782, she began to publish her poems and essays in a variety of New England periodicals. In essays such as On the Equality of the Sexes (1790), she argued that women were just as capable of intellectual accomplishment as men and that an education would liberate women from economic dependence. In 1798, Murray became the first woman in America to self-publish a booka three-volume collection of writings titled The Gleaner, after one of the pseudonyms she employed. John Singleton Copleys portrait was probably commissioned shortly before her 1769 marriage.
Patience Wright 17251786
Born Oyster Bay, New York
Americas first native-born sculptor, Patience Wright modeled portraits of celebrities in tinted wax, exhibiting them with success in Philadelphia and New York. Her sculpting career began as a domestic activity with her five children. After her husbands death in 1769, though, this pastime became a profession. Not long afterwards, a fire destroyed much of her collection, an event that led her to relocate to England. There Wright pursued portrait commissions and established a museum to display new examples of her work. This venture proved an instant sensation and won her an enthusiastic following that included King George III. Yet, when war broke out in 1776, she fell from favor in royal circles due to her open support for the colonial cause. Later proclaiming that women are always useful in grand events, Wright became an American spy and sent intelligence to Benjamin Franklin in Paris.
Anne Catharine Hoof Green c. 17201775
Born in the Netherlands
In addition to mothering fourteen children, Anne Green helped her husband, Jonas Green, run the Maryland Gazette. When he died in 1767, she took over his responsibilities, becoming manager of his printing shop and succeeding him as the newspapers editor. Under her supervision the enterprise thrived, and she gained a favorable reputation for recording opinions and events leading up to the American Revolution. During this period, she was also appointed the official printer of documents for the colony of Maryland. One of a small number of women in the printing trade during the colonial period, she ran the newspaper for eight years. Although her obituary lauded her as a wife and a mother, Charles Willson Peale represents her instead with the Maryland Gazette in her hand, an indication of her professional achievement.
Abigail Smith Adams 17441818
Born Weymouth, Massachusetts
Remember the Ladies, Abigail Adams wrote in 1776 to her beloved husband John Adams about the invention of the new federal government, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. In the same letter she remarked on the evils of slavery. Self-educated but remarkably well read and sophisticated, Adams not only raised their children and ran the familys farm and businesses in her husbands absence during the Revolutionary War, she also developed a keen interest in political affairs and kept in touch with friends and relations through her prolific correspondence. She served at her husbands side on diplomatic missions in Paris and London and then as his hostess and advisor through the eight years of his vice-presidency and single term as President. Adams also advised her son, John Quincy Adams, during his presidency and left an enduring record of womens lives in her posthumously published correspondence.
Theodosia Burr Alston 17831813
Born Albany, New York
As a young girl Theodosia Burr had the unusual opportunity of a rigorous education. Her father lawyer and eventual vice-president Aaron Burrinsisted that she study Latin, Greek, English composition, and mathematics, as well as more traditional female accomplishments. After the death of her mother, Theodosia, at age ten, became her fathers hostess. As mistress of Aaron Burrs estate outside of New York City, she entertained such notables as Mohawk chief Joseph Brant and the future King of France Louis Philippe, as well as many American statesmen. She soon gained a reputation for her intelligence, education, and charm. After her 1801 marriage to wealthy South Carolina planter Joseph Alston, Theodosias life took a tragic turn. Suffering through illness and the death of her son, she herself was lost at sea traveling north to see her father, to whom she remained steadfastly loyal.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton 17741821
Born New York, New York
Elizabeth Seton, the founder of the American Sisters of Charity, is the countrys first native-born Roman Catholic saint. Married with five children, she was widowed at an early age. After converting to Catholicism, she formed a sisterhood and began opening a series of schools and orphanages. Seton was elected to be the first Mother of the Sisters of Charity, which was established in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Devoted to her family and friends, Seton sent copies of this small portrait engraving by French émigré artist Saint-Mémin to loved ones, noting that they portrayed not the lively animated Betsy Bayley, but the softened matron with traces of care and anxiety upon her brow. Setons enduring legacy included numerous communities of the Sisters of Charity, a mission of education and social work, and prolific writings. She was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1963 and canonized in 1975.
Phillis Wheatley c. 17531784
Born Gambia, Africa
Phillis Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book, no small feat considering that she came to the colonies as a slave. Although most slaves werent taught to read, within two years of her purchase in 1761 by the Wheatleys, a Boston merchant family, she had gained a wide-ranging education and had begun to write poetry. Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), published in London, drew the praise of Washington, Franklin, and Voltaire. It was dedicated to another admirer, the Countess of Huntingdon, who requested a frontispiece portrait. The engraving of Wheatley, emphasizing her demure appearance and creative intelligence, marked the first time the portrait of a colonial American woman was published alongside her writing. The young prodigy traveled to England, captivating London society. Her endorsement by abolitionist English supporters helped her gain her freedom. Her book was republished twice in England and appeared in multiple American editions.
Margaret Todd Whetten 17391809
Born Atlanta, Georgia
Margaret Whetten was a widow living in New York City when the British occupied it during the Revolution. Gifted with a quickness of repartee and a rather pungent humor, Whetten won the confidence of the citys British and Hessian captors and used her influence to aid the American cause. She and her daughters provided food and clothing to American prisoners with such determination that the British jailors were reluctant to interfere with their acts of mercy. In addition, the Whetten home, dubbed Rebel Headquarters, served as a refuge for American spies. After the war, George Washington sent a letter of gratitude to Whetten for her service.