Now that we're back and actively blogging...Historical Nerdery will be discussing over the next couple of days the trials and tribulations experienced by female Loyalist refugees and their families in the Northern Theater of the War for Independence.
As a preliminary matter, some legal and historical background. Prior to the war, most women were bound by the legal and moral codes of their respective communities. Life was not easy for women. From the perspective of society, women were assumed to be helpless because they were like children who could not provide the basic necessities for themselves, but had to rely on men for food, shelter, and clothing. But they were also helpless, it was thought, because they were inferior. They could not take care of themselves because they were less rational, capable, and competent than men. Not only were women treated as helpless inferiors, they were also expected to speak of themselves in these terms.1 Women in many of the colonies could not attend public schools, were often pregnant on their wedding days and received little protection from domestic violence.2 Women were often heavily dependent upon the companionship of their sisters and other female relatives. Siblings often spent countless hours spinning, preparing food, making soap and working in the field. Females also assisted each other in the birthing and raising of children.3
Often the major decision in a woman’s life was the choice of a mate. Although 18th century women had some say in the selection of a spouse, parents still played a significant role in the decision and their consent was required.4 Colonial era women were expected to obey their husbands, rear the children, cook and prepare meals, make and launder clothes and undertake minor household repairs.5 A married woman was seen as subordinate to her husband. Basic to the marriage contract was the notion that the man had the power to make the important decisions for the family unit, but he also had the responsibility to ensure its well- being by providing the essentials - food, clothing, and housing.6 Colonial era women were expected to obey their husbands, rear the children, cook and prepare meals, make and launder clothes and undertake minor household repairs.7 Under the eyes of the law, a married woman could not vote, collect wages, make contracts, testify in court, serve as a juror, buy or sell property nor execute a will on her own. As eighteenth century legal scholar Sir William Blackstone surmised:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord
. . . [Though] our law in general considers man and wife as one person, yet there are some instances in which she is . . . considered; as inferior to him, and acting by his compulsion. And therefore all deeds executed, and acts done, by her . . . are void, or at least voidable; except it be a fine, or the like matter of record, in which case she must be solely and secretly examined, to learn if her act be voluntary. She cannot by will devise lands to her husband, unless under special circumstances; for at the time of making it she is supposed to be under his coercion. And in some felonies, and other inferior crimes, committed by her, though constraint of her husband, the law excuses her: but this extends not to treason or murder.8
Historical evidence suggests married colonial women, appeared to accept their subordinate position within the family. Rather than complaining or contemplating the unfairness of their situation, married women knew that their role was to accept their lot in life and do their duty. As loyalist Dothe Stone recalled “I was obliged and did affect cheerfulness in my behavior. . . I answered with a smile when my heart was ready to break. . . [I] must submit when it comes to open things.”9
However, not all women were subject to the strict rigors of society. An unmarried woman was considered a feme sole. A feme sole could sign contracts, own a business, control her own wages, buy and/or sell property, and distribute personal property and chattel in her will. A feme sole could also sue or be sued in her own name in a court of law. Some feme sole loyalist women were able to establish employment as midwives, newspaper owners, successful seamstresses, tavern keepers, and shopkeepers. Such positions enabled women to work within the accepted sphere of gendered society (and/or sometimes in conjunction with family members, husbands, or business partners) and earn incomes that placed them in the middling ranks. For example, a Mrs. Cumming of Charlestown, South Carolina was a successful loyalist midwife who petitioned the British government for financial assistance following the loss of her business.10 A Mrs. Griffiths, a Connecticut milliner, supported herself and her son prior to the war.11 Unfortunately, the status of feme sole afforded women the most freedom but was publicly and socially discouraged, since women were viewed as "unproductive" if they were not wedded and having babies.12
One limited way women established their rights during marriage and controlled their own businesses was to become feme sole traders. Most often, married women needed to obtain their
husband's permission to do this. This status meant that married women could conduct business and were responsible for their own actions. If the women were sued, it would not affect their husbands' estates. Married women could even devise the property acquired through their own endeavors. Deserted women and sailors' wives could petition their colonial legislatures to acquire such status. Although not stated, it is easy to see that the legislatures granting such status acted in an effort to keep women and their dependent children off poor relief. Thus it was motivated by economic, rather than liberal, concerns. War would cause many women to support themselves because their husbands had died or were crippled as a result of their service. During most wars, women remained at home to run farms, plantations, and their families’ businesses until the men returned from battle.
Women in the eighteenth century also acted independently as deputy husbands, a term coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. As a deputy husband, the wife could take over her husband’s job or business in his absence. This usually occurred in family businesses such as stores, taverns, mills, and the like. Women were familiar with the business and kept it running smoothly while their husbands were incapacitated or away. This role was common and women coped adequately with their new positions. The role of deputy husband allowed married women to purchase supplies, pay bills, bank, and perform all other aspects of running their businesses. During times of war, women ran their plantations, businesses, farms, families, and managed the servants, while their husbands served in the military. Such was the case during the American Revolution and women, whether Tory or Whig, did whatever was necessary to keep the home front running.
Many colonial women, whether Loyalist or Patriot, were forced during the Revolution to act in ways inconsistent with their subordinate status within patriarchal households and to take their first tentative steps into the traditionally male-dominated worlds of politics and warfare.
Loyalist women were active participants in the Revolution. They took their first steps into the political realm by petitioning and writing pamphlets. In one such piece of literature, A Dialogue Between a Southern Delegate and His Spouse, a loyalist woman berated her husband, a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and warned of the dire con sequences of the Congress's actions:
To your mighty Congress, your members were sent To lay our complaints before Parliament, Usurpation reared its head from that fatal Hour You resolved, you enacted like a Sovereign Power.
Your non-imports, and Exports are full fraught with Ruin, Of thousands and thousands the utter undoing,
If Philadelphia or New York proposed some wise Plan From that moment on you branded the man ...
Instead of imploring their Justice or Pity, You treat Parliament like a Pack of Banditti.
Instead of Addresses fram'd on Truth or on Reason, You breathe nothing but insult, rebellion and Treason. In all the Records of the most slavish Nation,
You'll not find an instance of such usurpation, If spirits infernal for dire vengeance design'd,
Had been named Delegates to afflict humankind, And in Grand Continental Congress had resolved, Let the bonds of social bliss be henceforth dissolved. Oh! My Country! Remember that a woman unknown Cry'd aloud like Cassandra in Oracular Tone, Repent! Or you are forever, forever undone.13
1 Janice Potter McKinnon, While the Women Only Wept, (Montreal & Kingston, 1993), p. 8.
2 “The husband also (by the old law) might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his servants or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer. But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds; and the husband was prohibited to use any violence to his wife, "[here translated:] other than as licitly and reasonably pertains to the husband for the rule and correction of his wife." The civil law gave the husband the same, or a larger, authority over his wife; allowing him, for some misdemesnors, "[here translated:] with flails and cudgels to beat the wife energetically;" for others, only "[here translated:] to apply limited punishment." But, with us, in the politer reign of Charles the second, this power of correction began to be doubted: and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband; or, in return, a husband against his wife. Yet the lower rank of people, who were always fond of the old common law, still claim and exert their ancient privilege: and the courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehaviour.” Blackstone, “Commentaries .
3 While the Women, at 6.
4 While the Women at 5.
5 By comparison, a female camp follower in an 18th Century British regiment was considered an integral part of the organization. Most were gainfully employed as sutlers, nurses and laundresses, received financial compensation for their contributions and often had their own lodgings.
6 While the Women at 7.
7 By comparison, a female camp follower in an 18th Century British regiment was considered an integral part of the organization. Most were gainfully employed as sutlers, nurses and laundresses, received financial compensation for their contributions and often had their own lodgings.
8 Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Chapter XV, Book I (1765-1769).
9 Dothe Stone Diary, October 22, 1783; October 24, 1783.
10 American Loyalist Claims, reels 99-100, 130.
11 Ibid, reels 99-100, 219.
12 If a young woman did not marry, she was expected to live with her brother, or some other married male relative, and help care for his family. The male relative would assume the responsibility of caretaker and provider for the single woman.