During the American Revolution, on average, about 40,000 men served in the Continental Army, Continental Navy, and as Loyalists in the British Army. In this post, they are all will be lumped together in one group.
While many of the 40,000 were young and didn’t have families, most did. They represented every profession in the Thirteen Colonies – merchants, physicians, farmers, seamen, lawyers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and tailors. The list of professions and trades goes on.
Of the 2.5 million individuals living in the Thirteen Colonies at the outbreak of the war, ~158,000 men, women, and children died from all causes.
Here’s the question. When the 40,000 men were off to war, or if the breadwinner is one of the 158,000 who died, who ran the family business or farm?
The logical answer is the wife. In researching my Jaco Jacinto Age of Sail series, I found many references to women taking over their husband’s businesses or family farms in their absence or death. The trend continued for families who pushed westward, and the husband died from disease, old age, an accident, or an attack by Native Americans.
From this research, a hypothesis was born, i.e., the beginning of what we now call the “Emancipation of the American Woman” began during the American Revolution.
Under English law, from which our legal system evolved, wives and children were considered the husband’s property in the late 18th Century. This included her dowry and any other assets she either inherited or would stand to inherit from her parents when they passed away. At the time, divorces had to be approved by Parliament, which made them a matter of public record.
In the 18th, Century women second-class citizens, and few, other than those from wealthy families, went to school. There they learned to read and write and do what was then known as “sums,” i.e., add and subtract.
In the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution, when women took over the operation of the family business, or farm, this began to change. Others went to work as interns in law firms, and still others became mid-wives and apprenticed themselves to an M.D. to learn how to practice medicine since doctors were few and geographically far between. These were the only routes open to them since women were not accepted by law or medical schools at the time.
The change began before the American Revolution began. In the French Colony of New Orleans, the Catholic Church established the Ursuline Academy in 1727. It is still educating girls today.
Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf used her father’s money to start the first boarding school – the Bethlehem Female Seminary – in Germantown, PA, in 1742. Although now co-ed, it still survives today as Moravian College, a co-ed school. It is considered the first college-level institution in the U.S.
1783, the year the Treaty of Paris was signed to end the Revolutionary War, Washington College, a one-year-old school in Chester, MD, appointed its first two women professors from the Peale family of artists – Elizabeth Peale and Sarah Callister – to teach art and painting. In Massachusetts, the Bradford Academy (now Bradford College) admitted its first female in 1803. Initially, the school was co-ed, but now it is a woman-only school.
The damn holding back educating women now had many cracks, and more and more women were given access to education. In 1826, N.Y. and Massachusetts opened their high schools to women students. 1837 saw the opening of Oberlin and Antioch Colleges in Ohio, both admitted women.
Also founded in 1837, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts opened its doors as a women-only school. Finally, in 1849, Geneva Medical College (now Hobart and Smith Colleges and part of the N.Y. State University System) admitted Elizabeth Blackwell as its first female medical student. She is the first American woman to complete medical school.
Generations are defined as 20 – 30 years apart. By this measure, it took two and a half to get the educating women ball rolling in the U.S.
Sadly, it took until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1919 to give women full equality to their male counterparts. Even now, four generations later, in the first quarter of the 21st Century and with the glass ceiling supposedly shattered, some shards are still sticking out.
Image is the seal of Washington College.