Women of varying races and classes experienced the American Revolution in different ways. Loyalist women over-estimated the power of their class position, Native American women would see their power within their societies diminish, and African American slave women saw their hope for power through freedom subsumed by racial inequality. Regardless of the relative positions of power for each of these classes of women, their experiences as victims of war were similar. The chaos of war and a changing political system left few women, if any, truly better off it its wake.
Enslaved African American women, those with the least amount of social or political power before the American Revolution, were taunted with promises of freedom from British office holders and eventually British generals. However, these promises only came to fruition for a fraction of the tens of thousands of slaves who left their masters in search of freedom. Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775 enticed slaves to fight for the British Army in exchange for freedom. Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment” met with disaster through disease and capture. Half of the regiment and its female followers died of smallpox (124). When the regiment was captured by Americans, thirty people were sold back into slavery in the Caribbean as an example of what would happen to slaves who sided with the British (124). Four thousand slaves, men, women, and children, fled with General Cornwallis.
When he was forced to surrender Charleston to the Americans, many of the slaves who were with him were sent to NY and eventually to freedom in Canada (125). Not all those who encountered the British Army were freed. When General Henry Clinton ordered that Patriot personal property be confiscated, that included slaves. Clinton treated these slaves as property of the British Army and forced women to do the soldier’s laundry and help build fortifications (127). African American women who did manage to escape to Canada, were victims of racial hierarchy. The best lands available went to white refugees rather than black refugees.
Those who made it to Canada were subject to violence from whites when they stepped outside of their accustomed economic and social roles (129). There are regional differences for African American women who did not did not flee during British promises of freedom. Gradual abolition in the North meant opportunities for freedom. However, these opportunities were limited by racial hierarchy. In the South, farmers and plantation owners relied on slave labor to rebuild the agrarian economy in the wake of the Revolutionary War (133). As slavery became further entrenched in the Southern economy and culture, freedom became nearly impossible. Of the tens of thousands of slaves who fled, the British formally granted only 1300 men, 914 women, and 740 children freedom (129).
Many white loyalist women also escaped to Canada. However, many elite loyalist women overestimated the power granted to them by their class standing. Loyalist women left behind when their husbands went to fight for the British were powerless to prevent patriots from taking their property and removing them from their homes. Elite women’s marriages, property, children, and mere presence were politicized (98). Women who chose to flee or who fled to escape the violence of the patriots were unwanted burdens on their enemies and allies alike (100). Not all loyalist women were hapless victims. Those who chose to act as individual political agents by aiding British soldiers and passing intelligence forced an alteration to the American’s language surrounding traitors.
Treason laws which previously read, “he,” were changed to include both men and women (103). Women who fled invariably faced hardships in the harsh travelling conditions. Wealthier women fared better than those of modest means. Wealthy women were more likely to survive the journey to Canada and find adequate shelter once they arrived. Women of less means lived in tents during harsh winters and faced starvation. By the end of the war, the elite social classes were rebuilding their societal structure in Canada (106). Though many were still bitter about losing their farms and possessions, they made a gentrified society out of the relative wilderness of Canada (106).
Native American women lost the most in terms of position and power during the American Revolution. Women were an integral part of the political decision making process in Native American nations. Women leaders of the Mohawk, Cherokee, and Munsee Delaware sought to coexist with white settlers, none were successful. Molly Brant, mistress to British Indian Agent William Johnson held considerable sway with both Mohawk and British. She relied upon for her diplomatic skills and remained loyal to her husband’s British background even after his death in 1774 (111). Nancy War attempted to keep the peace between Cherokee and white settlers from her position on the Cherokee General Council and as leader of the Women’s Council (115). When negotiating a treaty with white settlers, Queen Esther Montour of the Munsee Delaware suggested the white man with who she was negotiating take the proposed treaty back for him women to read. He was incredulous at the idea that his women would have anything to say in political matters (116).
None of these women had “counterparts in American colonial society” (118). White men who wanted to trade or negotiate with Native Americans were forced to deal with women in positions of power. Molly Brant took political action when she warned her brother of American soldiers intent on providing support at Fort Stanwix. Her efforts made her an enemy to the Americans and an enemy of the Oneida, a tribe once united in Confederacy with her own Mohawk. Molly’s home war raided and she was forced to flee. At the end of the war, like so many other women, she was exiled to the relative safety of Canada. British men came to respect women like Molly Brant.
However, it was much more common for European men to view the gender structure of Native American society as abhorrence against God’s natural law. Once America had secured its independence, Native American women’s positions of power within their cultures was subsumed by assimilation efforts of the new American nation. Native Americans refashioned their societies in the face of threats and pressures from Americans who pushed European norms onto Native Americans. The spiritual and political roles for women were lost in these efforts (119).
Although these groups of women started out in very different circumstances before the war, and ended with different social circumstances, they shared a common thread of the necessity to flee. They even often shared a common location of safety and freedom: Canada. None of these women had a place of freedom or power within the new American Republic. Many more slaves remained as such than gained freedom during the American Revolution. Elite women eventually regained status lost during the Revolution, but in a new, harsher land. Native American women’s social and political positions were devastated by the results of the American Revolution. Just as their nations slowly lost their sovereignty and autonomy, so did Native American women lose their power and freedom within their communities.