“The war had been everywhere, as had been women of every temperament, appearance, degree of intelligence, and education”(xvii).
A large number of women from the past have been unable to express their true abilities and rights as they were oppressed by a patriarchal society. Men considered women as second class citizens, they were fragile, hysterical beings that needed protection. In Paul Engle’s book, Women in the American Revolution, roles of women in a war setting are examined, breaking the stereotype that women are helpless. Engle sets up the book by breaking it into five large sections and then giving each woman of importance their own chapter. The five sections are entitled Battlefield Heroines, Literary Ladies, Those Dashing Ladies of the Opposition, Women on Their Own, and Women Involved Through Their Families. Each section houses the biographies of three or four ladies who went above and beyond what was expected of them in the formal setting of the 1700s.
In the first section entitled Battlefield Heroines, Dicey Langston is introduced. Langston was the daughter of an old planter whose brothers joined the Patriots. As the Langston family lived in a predominantly Loyalist section of the country, it was dangerous for the Langston brothers to join the patriots and for Dicey to actively support them. Throughout the war she was constantly traveling to the Patriot camps to tell them of developing Loyalist movements. In one night she walked twenty miles to warn her brothers of an attack. Because of this, Loyalist gangs tried to terrorize Dicey and her father, stopping her in the road and trying to loot their house. Dicey was the only one protecting her house and family from destruction, as her father was too old and frail to fight back. The second lady mentioned in this section is Lydia Darragh. She was a nurse and midwife during the war and was known as the “Fighting Quaker”. Loyalist leader Howe took over her house as a headquarters for troops. Because of the close vicinity of Loyalist troops and Darragh, it was impossible to not overhear some of their plans. Lydia was a Patriot, and risked her life to travel outside the city to tell the Patriot troops of the Loyalist plans. She was never caught. Darragh also nursed many refugees, even amidst accusations that she wasn’t a true Quaker anymore.
The third lady introduced in this section is Mary Slocumb. Her husband had joined the Patriot army nearby and she had a dream that he was injured and dying. She was so worried that she rode to the site of battle, finding many wounded men. She didn’t hesitate to help care for them. Later when Loyalist troops took over her house, her husband and a small band of men tried to take it back. As they rode nearby Mary made up a story about a large number of Patriot troops coming in to fight the Loyalists to deter them from following her husband and the few men who had rode through a second before. The fourth and final lady introduced in this section is Margaret Corbin. She survived an Indian attack when young, even though her father was killed and her mother taken. Several years later she was married and her husband had joined the Patriot army. She was part of a group of wives to follow their husbands’ companies and do some simple work for them, such as laundry and cooking. What separates Corbin from the rest of the wives was that when her husband was killed at the cannon she shot at the enemy until she was shot herself. She survived that battle and didn’t end up as a British prisoner, but had a serious disability that resulted from her wounds. She was also the first woman to receive government pay and joined the Invalid Regiment. She ended up marrying another invalid and spent most of the rest of her life in severe poverty.
The next section follows the lives of several literary ladies. The first of these is Esther De Berdt Reed. She led many campaigns to help support the armies of the Patriots, even while traveling through several different towns. She was originally from England and she had to live apart from her husband in America for five years before he could bring her over. She was originally homesick for England until her husband became involved in politics. She was often left by herself throughout the war with several children to care for. Her last campaign was to gather money for shirts for the troops. She had started a correspondence with General Washington over how these shirts were to be made and distributed, but she died of dysentery before her project could be completed. The second literary lady is Mercy Otis Warren. She came from a Puritan family and while growing up was allowed to obtain the same level of education as her brothers. She ended up writing many satirical poems and plays during the Revolutionary War that mocked Loyalist troops and their leaders. Even though she wrote anonymously many knew it was she who had written these kinds of prose. After the Revolutionary War, Warren wrote a comprehensive book detailing all the events of the war itself. It was received with mixed reviews.
The third literary lady is Jane Franklin Mecom. Throughout her life she was very weak and sickly, she buried many children and her own husband. She was most commonly known as Benjamin Franklin’s sister. During the Revolutionary War she ran a business that sold Boston and British based goods which was uncommon during that time because of people’s aversion to British products. Her business succeeded though, even as she was harassed by British troops and constantly had to move for most of her life. It isn’t clear exactly how important her role was in the war, Mecom seemed to have a pretty average life compared to others that are highlighted in this book. The final literary lady is Phillis Wheatley. She is different from every other lady in this book in that she was a slave. She was taught to read and write by her masters and treated more as a daughter than a slave. She was an uncommonly fast learner compared to many people of the day. One of her goals was to bring Christianity to Africa, but she was better known for her poems that were published. Many people were amazed that a slave could produce such exemplary work, and she was revered around the world as an accomplished poet. During the war however, Wheatley failed to connect to her readers through her formal writings. Many people were reverting to informal styled satirical poems. She eventually became so depressed by her failures that she stopped writing and was forgotten as new writers stepped into the light.
Engle wrote this book as impartial as could be possible by including the next section of women, the Dashing Ladies of the Opposition. It details the lives of several women who were on the Loyalist’s side throughout the entirety of the war. The first of these is Rebecca Franks. She was the daughter of a rich Jewish lawyer and spent all her time as a socialite, going to parties and lounging. She is reported to have been very vain and self centered, and she wasn’t shy about voicing her Loyalist opinions. This ended up causing her father various problems, as many Patriot leaders thought he had the same opinions as his daughter and ran him out of business. He eventually became very poor and spent some time in debtor’s jail, but never blamed his daughter for his troubles, still seeing her as his little girl. Eventually Rebecca moved to England, where she remained for the rest of her life.In this first half of this book, Engle has done a good job of keeping an understandable organizational system. I like the setup of the chapters each being about an individual woman so as to decrease any confusion between people. Engle explains any loose ends people might not understand if they aren’t familiar with this time period in history, making the biographies sound like a novel rather than a factual piece. It keeps the interest of the reader throughout and doesn’t feel like a lecture. Engle has done a good job of connecting to the readers. I believe his book could even help some people become interested in history.