- Historic Sites
The Philadelphia Ladies Association
Although it has been disparaged as “General Washington’s Sewing Circle,” this venture was the first nationwide female organization in America
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
The Philadelphians set to work collecting funds even before the publication of their “Ideas.” Dividing the city into ten equal districts, they assigned between two and five women to each area. Traveling in pairs, the canvassers visited every house, requesting contributions from “each woman and girl without any distinction.” Among the collectors in the fifth ward, Market to Chestnut streets, were Sarah Franklin Bache, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin, and Anne Willing (Mrs. Tench) Francis; Julia Stockton (Mrs. Benjamin) Rush worked in district six; and in the eighth ward, Spruce to Pine streets, the canvassers included Alice Lee Shippen, a member of the prominent Virginia family and wife of a Philadelphia physician; Mrs. Robert Morris; and Sally McKean, wife of the Pennsylvania chief justice. The fact that women of such social standing undertook the very unfeminine task of soliciting contributions not only from friends and neighbors but also from strangers, poor people, and servants supports the contention of one of the Philadelphians that they “considered it as a great honour” to be invited to serve as canvassers. In a letter to a friend in Annapolis, an anonymous participant declared that “those who were in the country returned without delay to the city to fulfil their duty. Others put off their departure; those whose state of health was the most delicate, found strength in their patriotism.” When a nursing mother was reluctant to leave her baby, this witness recorded, a friend volunteered to nurse the child along with her own.
Accounts of the women’s reception differ. The anonymous letter-writer claimed that “as the cause of their visit was known, they were received with all the respect due to so honourable a commission.” She explained that no house was omitted, not even those inhabited by the pacific Quakers, and that even there the subscription met with success, for “nothing is more easy than to reconcile a beneficent scheme with a beneficent religion.” But Anna Rawle—herself a Quaker—described the canvass of Quaker homes quite differently. “Of all absurdities the Ladies going about for money exceeded everything,” she told her mother Rebecca Shoemaker, whose second husband, Samuel, was a loyalist exile. Sarah Bache had come to their door, Anna reported, but had turned away, saying that “she did not chuse to face Mrs. S. or her daughters.” Anna characterized the collectors as “so extremely importunate that people were obliged to give them something to get rid of them.” Even “the meanest ale house” did not escape their net, and men were harassed until they contributed in the name of their wives or sweethearts. “I fancy they raised a considerable sum by this extorted contribution,” Anna concluded, but she felt the requests were “carried to such an excess of meaness as the nobleness of no cause whatsoever could excuse.”
It is impossible to know whether the letter-writer’s examples of women proudly giving to the cause or Anna Rawle’s account of reluctant contributors dunned into paying up is more accurate. But by the time the Philadelphia canvass was completed in early July, more than $300,000 Continental dollars had been collected from over sixteen hundred people. Because of inflation, this amount when converted to specie equaled only about $7,500, but even that represented a considerable sum. In financial terms, the city canvass was a smashing success. And it was a success in other ways as well, for the Philadelphia women sought and achieved symbolic goals that went far beyond the collection of money. As the anonymous canvasser put it, the women hoped that the “general beneficent” subscription “will produce the happy effect of destroying intestine discords , even to the very last seeds.” That hope was particularly appropriate for Philadelphia women, some of whom had become notorious during the British occupation in 1777-78 for consorting with enemy troops. The author of the 1780 letter alluded delicately to that conduct when she explained that the canvassers wanted to “give some of our female fellow citizens an opportunity of relinquishing former errors and of avowing a change of sentiments by their contributions to the general cause of liberty and their country.”
The symbolism of the fund drive was national as well as local. The participant, who had so enthusiastically described the canvassing, stressed that through their gifts American women would “greatly promote the public cause, and blast the hopes of the enemies of this country” by demonstrating the people’s unanimous support of the war. Others also viewed the women’s efforts in this light: as early as June 27, a laudatory essay signed “Song of Debora” appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet . “It must strike the enemy as with an apoplexy, to be informed, that the women of America are attentive to the wants of the Soldiery,” the author declared, arguing that “it is not the quantity of the money that may be collected, but the idea of favour and affection discovered in this exertion, that will principally give life to our cause, and restore our affairs.” Urging others to copy the Philadelphias, she predicted that “the women will reinspire the war; and ensure, finally, victory and peace.”