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France: Women in the Revolution

Women in the American Revolution

R. Wilkinson, artist. The ballance [sic] of power. 1781. Cartoon Prints, British Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Before the French Revolution, the American Revolution changed the course of history. While many of the political theories that influenced the American Revolution also played a role in the French Revolution, the unique history of both nations led to different interpretations. The correspondence and amity between American leaders of the Revolution and their French contemporaries is well documented and much debated. In the decade of 1789-1799 American sympathies bounced back and forth between loyalty toward Britain and sympathy for the Revolution. Many Americans had an underlying belief in the British system of government and their Protestant worldview. Other Americans felt an affinity for French republican ideals and gratitude for their support during the American Revolution (ironically from the Monarch of France, Louis XVI). At the national level, the French Revolution underscored the ideological polarity between the Federalists (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams) and the Republicans (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). As the French Revolution became increasingly violent and anti-religious, Americans viewed it more critically and relations between France and America entered a steep decline. Although there was little interaction between the women of France and America during these years, it is worth noting the contemporary American crusaders on the other side of the Atlantic. Times of war and revolution can temporarily jumble the clear boxes in society that revolve around class, race and gender. New agendas were in play and to some extent, established boundaries were being questioned. This prompted a reevaluation (albeit Machiavellian) of groups that had been previously dismissed. In the case of enslaved men and women, the established power was purely exploitative. Men of color for example, might be offered a slippery bargain of some degree of liberation, often revolving around the notion of citizenship, in return for their support (although the American government was reluctant to arm black men). In the American Revolution the British were actually more successful than the Patriots in recruiting enslaved men (especially in the south). Although their promises of freedom were intended to disrupt the American economy rather than free slaves, they were often more generous with their terms. The situation of women would depend on their class, race and family situation. In America, white married women with children might be asked to take up employment to make ends meet while their husbands were away. If a woman did not have children she might accompany her husband to the front and serve as a kind of nurse or housekeeper doing laundry and watching over the camp. Such opportunities for African-American women were complicated by a number of factors including, most importantly, their status as free or enslaved. Native Americans, or American Indians also figured into the Revolution and were in a similarly precarious position being courted and betrayed in equal measure on all sides. Because accounts are often written by those in power, and during a time when views were less progressive, the perspective is almost always slanted to see women and minorities in a utilitarian light rather than view them as individuals- much less as equals. This presents an enormous challenge for historians and researchers who struggle to find first-hand accounts or writings by these individuals and piece together their diverse and unjust experiences. As this awareness grows, further research and new publications will follow. For example. recent scholarship by authors such as Sally Roesch Wagner has already begun to bring to light the influence of indigenous women of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in the long march toward women's suffrage.

To find more works by or about Women in the American Revolution search: United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Women and for general information on women in American history and the beginnings of the American Suffrage movement see the guide: American Women: A Guide to Women's History Resources at the Library of Congress.

For an overview of French women in history and the evolution of the French feminist movement, please see the research guide Feminism & French Women in History.

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