The Philadelphia Ladies Association

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When news that the British had taken Charleston, South Carolina, reached Philadelphia in May of 1780, merchants and government officials reacted to the disaster by taking steps to support the inflated Pennsylvania currency and solicit funds to pay new army recruits. And in a totally unexpected move, the women of Philadelphia emerged from their usual domestic roles to announce their intention of founding the first large-scale women’s association in American history. As the Pennsylvania Gazette put it delicately, the ladies adopted “public spirited measures.” Up until then, American women had not engaged in any organized support of the war effort. Now that the American soldiers were sufring a serious loss of morale in the aftermath of the fall of Charleston, the women proposed a nationwide female-conceived and -executed relief effort to aid the hard-pressed troops. The campaign began June 10, 1780, with the publication of a broadside, The Sentiments of an American Woman . It was composed by thirty-three-year-old Esther de Berdt Reed, who was to become president of the Ladies Association. The daughter of a prominent English supporter of America, Esther had lived in Pennsylvania only since her 1770 marriage to Joseph Reed, but she was nonetheless a staunch patriot. Her Sentiments asserted forcefully that American women were determined to do more than offer “barren wishes” for the success of the army: they wanted to be “really useful,” like “those heroines of antiquity, who have rendered their sex illustrious.”

Mrs. Reed built her case carefully. She began by reviewing the history of women’s patriotic activity, referring alike to female monarchs, Roman matrons, and Old Testament women. Linking herself explicitly to such foremothers, she declared, “I glory in all which my sex has done great and commendable. I call to mind with enthusiasm and with admiration all those acts of courage, of constancy and patriotism, which history has transmitted to us.” Mrs. Reed held up Joan of Arc as an especially appropriate model, for she had driven from France “the ancestors of these same British, whose odious yoke we have just shaken off, and whom it is necessary that we drive from this Continent.”

Esther Reed went on to address the question of propriety. She admitted that some men might perhaps “disapprove” women’s activity. But in the current dismal state of public affairs anyone who raised this objection would not be “a good citizen.” Any man who truly understood the soldiers’ needs could only “applaud our efforts for the relief of the armies which defend our lives, our possessions, our liberty.” By thus hinting that critics of her scheme would be unpatriotic, Mrs. Reed cleverly defused possible traditionalist objections.

Finally, she outlined her plan. Female Americans should renounce “vain ornaments,” donating the money they would no longer spend on elaborate clothing and hairstyles to the patriot troops as “ the offering of the Ladies .”

Her appeal drew an immediate response. Three days after the publication of the broadside, thirty-six Philadelphia women met to decide how to carry out its suggestions. The results of their deliberations were printed as an appendix to Sentiments when it appeared in the June 21 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette . Entitled “Ideas, relative to the manner of forwarding to the American Soldiers, the Presents of the American Women,” the plan proposed nothing less than the mobilization of the entire female population. Contributions would be accepted from any woman, in any amount. A “Treasuress” appointed in each county would oversee the collection of money, keeping careful records of all sums received. Overseeing the work of each state’s county treasuresses would be the wife of its governor, who would serve as “Treasuress-General.” Ultimately, all contributions would be sent to Martha Washington to be used for the benefit of the troops. Only one restriction was placed on the contributions’ use: “It is an extraordinary bounty intended to render the condition of the soldier more pleasant, and not to hold place of the things which they ought to receive from the Congress, or from the States.”