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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
In July, newspapers throughout the country reprinted Sentiments , usually accompanied by the detailed collection plan, and editors occasionally added exhortations of their own to the women’s call for action. The symbolic importance of the subscription was conveyed to the nation by a frequently reprinted “Letter from an Officer at Camp, dated June 29, 1780.” The patriotism of Philadelphia women “is a subject of conversation with the army,” the officer wrote. “We do not suppose that these contributions can be any stable support to the campaign for any length of time; but, as it is a mark of respect to the army, it has given particular satisfaction, and it may be a great temporary service,” for the soldiers had felt themselves “neglected” and forgotten by their fellow citizens.
Successful as this publicity was in spreading the news of the Philadelphians’ plan, Esther Reed and her fellow organizers did not rely solely upon print to involve other women in their association. The anonymous participant told her Annapolis friend that after they completed the city collections the women wrote circular letters to acquaintances in other counties and towns, “and we have it in charge to keep up this correspondence until the whole subscription shall be completed.”
The women of Trenton, New Jersey, were the first to copy the Philadelphias’ lead. In late June they began to organize their own subscription campaign, and on July 4 at a general meeting they outlined plans for a statewide association. When they announced their scheme in the newspapers, they published “Sentiments of a Lady in New Jersey” in deliberate imitation of the Philadelphias. “Let us animate one another to contribute from our purses in proportion to our circumstances towards the support and comfort of the brave men who are fighting and suffering for us on the field,” the author urged her female compatriots. Although the final accounts of the New Jersey campaign have evidently failed to survive, in mid-July the secretary forwarded nearly $15,500 to George Washington as an initial contribution to the fund.
Maryland women also responded quickly to the Philadelphians’ request. Mrs. Thomas Sim Lee, the wife of the governor, wrote to friends in each county to ask them to serve as treasuresses, and by July 14 the organization was actively soliciting money in Annapolis. In that city alone, even though many residents had left town for the summer, more than $16,000 in currency was collected, with additional sums in specie. Writing with particular reference to the Marylanders, the editor of the Pennsylvania Packet rhapsodized that “the women of every part of the globe are under obligations to those of America, for having shown that females are capable of the highest political virtue.”
Only in one other state, Virginia, is there evidence of successful Ladies Association activity. Martha Way les Jefferson, whose husband Thomas was then the governor, received a copy of the Philadelphians’ plan directly from Martha Washington. Since she was in poor health, Mrs. Jefferson decided to encourage her friends to take part but not to assume an active role herself. Interestingly enough, the letter she wrote on August 8 to Eleanor Madison is the sole piece of her correspondence extant today. In it she asserted that “I undertake with chearfulness the duty of furnishing to my countrywomen an opportunity of proving that they also participate of those virtuous feelings” of patriotism. The following day an announcement of the campaign appeared in the Virginia Gazette . Only fragmentary records of the campaign have ever been located, but they indicate that county treasuresses gathered total currency contributions ranging from £1,560 (Albemarle) to $7,506 (Prince William).
The association’s organizing efforts in other states seem to have failed not because of lack of will or interest but because of lack of financial resources. Hannah Lee Corbin, a Virginia widow, told her sister Alice Shippen that “the scheme of raising money for the Soldiers would be good—if we had it in our power to do it.” But she was already “so heavily Laded” that she was having to sell her property just to obtain “common support.” Catharine Littlefield (Mrs. Nathanael) Greene, replying to Esther Reed’s circular letter, told a similar story. “The distressed exhausted State of this little Government [Rhode Island] prevents us from gratifying our warmest Inclinations,” she declared, because one-fifth of its territory, including Newport, was still in British hands. “The Women of this State are animated with the liveliest Sentiments of Liberty” and wish to offer relief to “our brave and patient Soldiery,” she exclaimed, “but alass! the peculiar circumstances of this State renders this impracticable.”