Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Women of '76

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Women of ‘76

Quite often in any war, heroes emerged and great honors are bestowed upon them. Yet, war does not discriminate and historians often forget the heroics of revolutionary women. The American Revolution is no exception; women along with men died during the revolution. It was the role of these women that I was most interested in. As far as history was concerned, the only heroes I knew were the founding fathers with their great contributions to our country and the many legends of courageous men. The heroines, and I’m sure there were plenty, were nonetheless forgotten.

A free lance writer named Sally Smith Booth, with special interest in women’s history and the society of early America, wrote two books that pertained to that period of our history. Her first book was about the eating habits of Colonial America and the second book dealt with the history of women during the Revolutionary War. It was her second book I was interested in. She aptly titled it “Women of ‘76.” This book retold the story of the revolution with emphasis and insights on how the women reacted to the Revolution. Because of the author’s interest in women’s history, she wrote of women who fought for independence, of women loyal to the crown and of women who sympathized with the Indians. In her book, she gave equal importance to all affected women during the revolution. She was not biased in her reporting, her only intention was to show the effect of the Revolution on women. It is with sadness to note that the only proof of these women’s heroism is lost in history. The account she gave came from women who wrote about their lives in their letters, of learned men writing in awe of these women and of witnesses who only spoke proudly of these women.

Sometimes, however, spoken history is clouded by the perception of the individual to whom the story is related. Thus, we sometimes elevate simple women to legendary status. Elizabeth Griscom, a seamstress and upholsterer, is a prime example of such a woman. Writers of the Revolution, observers and survivors of the war made no mention of this woman in their memoirs. However, like many others, we have come to know this legendary woman as Betsy Ross. The woman who made the first American flag. I was amazed at how historians and painters portrayed her. I can still remember a painting of her seating on a rocking chair, the American flag strewn on her lap as she was busily sewing it. To think that this was just a story told by her grandchild who claimed that when he was just eleven years old she told him the story while on her deathbed. It sounds like a Hollywood ending to me. Although no conclusive documentation was ever presented by her grandchild, she had crept up into our history books as the first woman who made the first American flag.

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There were women whose heroism were well documented. Women like Deborah Champion, who rode like Paul Revere “to carry urgently needed dispatches to General Washington.” But, unlike Paul Revere, Deborah completed the dangerous two-day travel, accompanied only by her servant. Another woman, by the name of Jane McCrea, became the battle cry of the Colonial Army. Jane McCrae, however, was a loyalist officer’s fianc�e. Indians attached to the British Army took her prisoner not realizing that she was pro-British. An Indian named Panther killed and scalped her. The news of this murder enraged the citizens of the state. It further antagonized both loyalist and Whigs when the British commander pardoned Panther. This act of pardon by the British may have prevented an all out war with the Indians but the enraged citizens of the state rushed to enlist in the Continental army. Some British troops like Jane’s fianc�e and his brother, after retrieving Jane’s scalp, deserted the British army and settled in the Canadian wilderness.

Sally Smith Booth also wrote of Indian women affected by the war, of loyalist women who spied for the British and of women who tried to defend their country and their home from invaders and looters. She mentioned so many names, that after a while I lost track of who was fighting for what. But war is such -- that many names, many heroes become lost in history.

Maybe historians were not totally to blame. Sally Smith Booth spoke of several difficulties involved in documenting the Revolution in rural America. The first, according to her, involved the lifestyle of women in rural America. Often the days of these women were filled with hard labor that maintaining a journal or letter writing is almost an impossibility. Furthermore, settlements were isolated and news of events traveled slowly.

Secondly, local adversaries fought the war in rural America, day-to-day skirmish undocumented by amateur historians.

Sally Smith Booth’s historical viewpoint was well worth reading. I enjoyed reading history through her eyes. She also mentioned some of the many brutalities done to the Indians during the war and of how women of both Indian and American descent fought for their freedom and dignity to no avail.

Sally Smith Booth portrayed the valor, the hardship, and the sacrifices of women during the War. For war, after all, invades not only the country, but also the homes and hearts of all the people involved. Women, with their men gone to fight the war, became the defender of their homes and the caretaker of their lands. Some women dressed in men’s clothing even enlisted in the army. Others became spies for the cause that they believed in.

Women did not just sit idly by during the Revolution; historians like Sally Smith Booth do well to honor these women. Sally Smith Booth did justice to their memories. Whether the stories were spoken in memories or written in letters, we owe a great deal of our Independence to the “Women of ’76.”

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