After the sexual revolution of the late 20th century, the existence and prominence of modern feminism has become quite apparent to modern-day Americans. It’s everywhere – from the Women’s Marches organized in cities of all sizes after President Trump was inaugurated to the feminist clubs and groups put together at schools small and large – and the movement doesn’t really seem like it’ll boil over soon. It’s easy to guess that feminism is a modern idea, because feminists were only given their name from the French feminisme about a century and a half ago. However, what most Americans are missing from the feminist story is that women have been advocating for legal and social equality since this country was born (and even before that); the roots of feminism are buried just as deep as those of the United States. As Nancy F. Cott from Yale University wrote, “[the late eighteenth century] is also the age in which women first used concerted, explicit means of protest against the arbitrariness of male arrogation of power and prerogative.” This period is when women began their fight.
The English language borrowed feminisme from French for a reason: the French had an official start to a women’s movement first! During the French Revolution of 1789, two groups were formed: La Société des Républicaines Révolutionnaires and La Société Fraternelle des Patriotes de l’un et l’autre Sexe. Both included women in their membership (the former was strictly female). Although La Société Fraternelle did not actively work to promote women’s rights (such as equality in political participation and leadership) like La Société des Républicaines Révolutionnaires did, it did include women in its membership and allowed those female members to vote on issues. Because of the revolution that was occurring during this time, life in France was turbulent, but out of the tumult were birthed the origins of a movement that would change and mobilize society for centuries.
Although most historians do not consider an official feminist movement to have started until the late nineteenth century, there is evidence of individual women being vocal about and fighting for their own rights and roles in earlier American society. It was during the American Revolution, in fact, that the first few women to brave the patriarchal world in the name of their own dreams began to stand out.
One amazing woman who battled the patriarchy in America’s early days was Deborah Bradford Sampson. After living as an indentured servant since the age of 10, she dreamt of fighting for her country against the British. However, military positions were only available to men, so Deborah had to be quite clever and cunning to achieve her dream. She did have two key advantages: her height was a towering 5 foot 9 inches (the average female height in this period was 5 feet, while the average male height was 5 foot 7 inches), and several sources suggest that her breasts were not of considerable size. So, it was not too much of a mission for a certain “Robert Shurtliff” to poof! come into existence and sign up for duty in Massachusetts, in May 1782. “He” was only twenty-one years old, and was teased for mysteriously not having a beard.
This “Shurtliff” was also known to tend to his own battle wounds, once even digging a musketball out of his thigh with a penknife and sewing needle; Sampson knew that, should she be put into proper medical care, her gender could be revealed. The great pains Sampson went into to conceal her identity were eventually discovered. In the summer of 1783, she fell ill in Philadelphia and a certain Dr. Binney, after having removed her uniform to treat her, found the cloth she used to bind her breasts. Without alerting any other authorities, he took her to his house where she was properly cared for in private. After a year and a half of army service, Sampson was lucky to be discharged honorably by General Paterson – other women who cross-dressed their way into service were chastised and treated with disrespect. For her service was no light task – In her own book, Sampson writes of herself that “during the time of her service, she was at the capture of Lord Cornwallis, was wounded at Tarrytown . . .” She was at many battles and contributed the same devotion and determination as the rest of the men in her company did. Her hard work paid off, for she writes that “[she] now receives a pension from the United States, which pension she hereby relinquishes.”
Of course, a woman fighting in the American Revolution was not a common occurrence; many people had widely differing opinions and statements about Sampson. In its statement recognizing Sampson’s service and granting her pension, the General Court of Massachusetts (the highest judicial body in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) wrote that “[She] exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her gender, unsuspected and unblemished.” This quote makes clear that the general characterization of women at the time was of their innate innocence, purity, weakness, and none other than that; a discourteous view that was very typical of the era. However, this legislature, which was most likely 100% male, still did not discredit her service. We see the court’s misogynist bias but the court’s appreciation is still quite there as well. Sampson’s determination to challenge her gender’s role made a statement – a step in the right (feminist) direction.
Another famous statement made by a revolutionary era woman was that of Abigail Adams, in a 1776 letter to her husband. In March of that year, while John Adams was participating in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail wrote to him “I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” “Remember the Ladies” is a household phrase, nowadays, for Abigail’s succinct writing captured the essence of her intended plea (while adding a hint of criticism) into an easily remembered term. Adams also suggests that treating the ladies in a generous way would be an improvement, in comparison to the “ancestors.” Perhaps she was envisioning a brighter, more equal future for women in this sentence. She knew changes could be made and she knew how to assert herself so that this infant country could make them.
She goes on to ask “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. . . If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Her daringness and tenacity to threaten her husband (although possibly not in a 100% serious way) demonstrates her willingness to speak out for her rights. And it is evident that she is not the only woman ready to do so, for a “Rebelion” cannot be fomented by just one person. For all one knows, she could have had an entire organized band of determined “Laidies” ready to resist the new government’s policies. But most importantly, she was unafraid to speak out – an inspiring and revolutionary thought for the society of her era.
That fear to speak out (which Adams fortunately lacked) was unfortunately characteristic of the Revolutionary era. It was a changing time for our country and its leaders, but the majority of women remained silent. It was the few that didn’t that marked the beginnings of a movement that would change America over the course of a few centuries. Although that movement didn’t gain much momentum and even an official presence in society until women’s suffrage, it’s possible to trace its roots back to the early days of our nation. The feminist movement has potential: it has come a long way, demonstrating its ability to progress in difficult eras, and it has a long future ahead of it!
Adams, A. “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March – 5 April 1776.” Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March – 5 April 1776. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa.
“Deborah Sampson.” Wikipedia. February 25, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deborah_Sampson.
Kerber, Linda K., Nancy F. Cott, Robert Gross, Lynn Hunt, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, and Christine M. Stansell. “Beyond Roles, Beyond Spheres: Thinking about Gender in the Early Republic.” The William and Mary Quarterly 46, no. 3 (1989): 565-85. doi:10.2307/1922356.
Sampson, Deborah. The female review. Life of Deborah Sampson, the female soldier in the war of the revolution. NY, 1797.
“Was Feminism Born During The American Revolution?” Portal.liberalamerica.org. July 04, 2013. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.liberalamerica.org/2013/07/04/was-feminism-born-during-the-american-revolution/.