Revolutionary women

Needlework (including black silk, silk and gilt thread, beads) attributed to Sally Cobb Paine, circa 1760-65. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society online collections

March is women’s history month, which makes me think of my favorite women’s history topic, women in the American Revolution. Specifically, I enjoy learning about the social history of the time. Working as a family history researcher, these themes generally take a back seat to primary source documentation like vital, church, and probate records. But diaries and letters between family and friends remains one of my favorite sources to examine. What was the time period like for women? What were society’s expectations of them and how did they fulfill them? While women still held tight to traditional female roles, the American Revolution provided extraordinary circumstances for women and their daily lives.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds papers for the Paine family of Taunton, Massachusetts. These family letters and diaries are full of details about life at the time and demonstrate themes of politics, marriage, and wartime separations.

Robert Treat Paine of Taunton was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and frequently corresponded with his wife Sally Cobb Paine, his sister Eunice Paine, and his niece Abigail Paine Greenleaf Jr. during his time away from home as a congressman. Their letters are evidence that political conversation was something that pervaded social life. Abigail summed this up perfectly when she said, “Pray Sir excuse my writing Politicks. I know it does not belong to my province but tis the most animating subject to me at present as it concerns us all.”

She expressed her frustration at not being able to have a home of her own to her brother Robert. “I am … destitute of a home and in no way of getting one agreeable to the old plan of Prudence.”

Eunice’s letters also reflect themes about women’s thoughts on love and marriage. While some women would begin to idealize the idea of not marrying or waiting to marry for love, Eunice’s sentiments show the realities for women who did not marry and how difficult the single life often was. She expressed her frustration at not being able to have a home of her own to her brother Robert. “I am … destitute of a home and in no way of getting one agreeable to the old plan of Prudence.” She often felt like a burden to her family and friends for having to stay with them: “I want a home where my infirmity Shall be my only distress.” Circumstances for women were still such that marriage was one of their only options for a stable and comfortable life.[1]

One of my favorite examples of social realities for women during the American Revolution includes the evolution of women learning to deal with matters on their own when their husbands were absent. The letters between Sally Cobb Paine and her husband Robert demonstrate that she was very dependent on her husband and wished for him to come home throughout the war. She made frequent statements like “I depend on your coming … don’t fail of coming … for I cannot Live without you.” Sally is a great example of how women were initially frightened of being without their husbands and uncertain of their ability to get things done on their own.

In the first year or two of their separation she had nothing to do with Robert’s business affairs or financial dealings. With the evacuation of Boston in 1775, Robert’s sister Eunice fled the city to live with Sally and her family. Robert’s other sister, Abigail Paine Greenleaf, also came to Sally Paine’s with her entire family. She informed Robert about the situation, making sure the actions she had taken were pleasing to him: “I have taken all your things out of the office and put them in a chamber … such as we had they should be welcome to for they have nothing hear at present … they live with me at present I hope what I have done in this affair will be agreeable to you.”[2]

Although Sally’s letters to her husband show that she felt a need for his direction and approval, the later years of their correspondence show a change in the degree of confidence she had in her own decision-making abilities. Sally wrote to Robert in May of 1775 that their garden was looking well but told him it “would be better if you were hear.”

One year later, in May of 1776 she said, “We have sow’d our oats as you desired had I been master I should have planted it to Corn.” Statements such as this show that she had different ideas on what she wanted to grow and had become accustomed to making some decisions on her own. In October she informed him, “we have a hundred Bushels of potatoes the best we ever rais’d.” Sally was not only able to survive while managing the home on her own, but could get some things done even better, raising some of the best crops they had ever had without him there.[3]

“I would not have done any thing about it but if it had been Let alone til your return their would have been nothing left for us.”

Finally, their letters show that Sally’s independent action went even further. She had taken steps on her own to deal with a financial matter regarding some land and even pursued a court case against Robert’s wishes. She told him, “I expect to have Judgement against Coll Gibbert … by inquiring I found the Land was not so worth so much as you supposed … I give the notes to Mr. Bradford & he has Sued them.”

She continued by saying “I would not have done any thing about it but if it had been Let alone til your return their would have been nothing left for us.” Her statements show that she felt that she could make decisions and produce results based on her own judgment and capabilities. She took the finances into her own hands in order to provide for the family. This was a far cry from the way she managed the home within the first year or so of Robert’s departure. [4]

Do you have family papers that shed light upon the details of the lives of your ancestors? Birth, marriage, and death records are only the outline of a life. It’s not always just about finding the parents or tracing a line back, but discovering intimate details about the life of your ancestor.

Notes

[1] Eunice Paine to Robert Treat Paine, 25 September 1776. Robert Treat Paine Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[2] Sally Cobb Paine to Robert Treat Paine, 28 February 1774; 12 July, 9 April, 11 May 1775. Robert Treat Paine Papers microfilm, reel 3, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[3] Sally Cobb Paine to Robert Treat Paine, 21 May 1775; 12 May, 23 October 1776.  Robert Treat Paine Papers microfilm, reel 4.

[4] Sally Cobb Paine to Robert Treat Paine, 26 September, 23 October 1776. Robert Treat Paine Papers microfilm, reel 4.

Michelle Doherty

About Michelle Doherty

Michelle holds a Master’s degree in History from Salem State University where she specialized in women in colonial New England. She completed her Bachelor’s degree with concentrations in history and gender studies from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Michelle has a background in public history and has worked with the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, MA, Beverly Historical Society and the Sargent House in Gloucester Massachusetts. Her research interests include, women’s history, society and culture, early America and the American Revolution.

5 thoughts on “Revolutionary women

  1. Sally’s blossoming into a assured, confident person is really inspiring. It reminds me of women during the Second World War as they assumed the jobs normally held by men. It also reminded me of my own dear late wife when she took over the lead in our family while I fought in Vietnam. These are women who are true partners in a marriage. As my wife used to say to the couples she was about to wed, “It isn’t finding the right partner, it is being the right partner.”

  2. Wonderful to read of this woman’s evolution, in just a short term during her husband’s absence, into a more confident and independent person. Indeed, such letters that remain (thank goodness!) are an invaluable source of what “real life” was like at a given time period.

  3. “Sally is a great example of how women were initially frightened of being without their husbands and uncertain of their ability to get things done on their own.”

    Well, especially at a younger time of life, a woman had good reason to be fearful when their husband (‘protection’) was away. It wasn’t all just lack of self-confidence and dependency. It is essential that we see the realities of our female ancestors lives.

  4. My 7th great-aunt, Sarah Kast McGinnis, was a loyalist on the Mohawk River in upstate New York. Her day-to-day struggles, and those of other loyalist women, are detailed in “While the women only wept: Loyalist refugee women.”

    The Kasts were Palatines who arrived in 1710, and settled way out in the wilds near Utica. The family lived among, and traded with, the Native American tribes. Sarah grew close with the Indian folks there and became fluent in their language, so was highly sought after as the rebels and the tories wanted to use her connections to get the natives to side with them.

    Sarah’s husband had died in the French & Indian War; she was widowed at the time of the Revolution, operating the family’s trading post. She persuaded the Mohawk Indians to side with the British. During the battles, her properties were burnt out, she lost several children in the pillaging, and eventually escaped to Ontario and lived among the other refugees.
    http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2009/05/sarah-kast-mcginnis.html

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.