The Philadelphia Ladies Association

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Washington’s gratitude was genuine, and the army certainly needed the shirts, but the fact remains that the members of the association, who had embarked on a very unfeminine enterprise, were ultimately deflected into a traditional domestic role. The general’s encomium made this explicit by its references to “female patriotism” and “those softer domestic virtues,” which presumably included the ability to sew. Ironically and symbolically, the Philadelphia women of 1780, who had tried to chart an independent course for themselves and to establish an unprecedented nationwide female organization, ended up as what one amused historian has termed “General Washington’s Sewing Circle.”

The amusement has not been confined to subsequent generations, for male Revolutionary leaders too regarded the women’s efforts with wry condescension. John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, “the Ladies having undertaken to support American Independence, settles the point.” The women, on the other hand, saw nothing to smile at in the affair. Kitty Livingston, whose mother was a New Jersey canvasser, sent a copy of The Sentiments of an American Woman to her sister Sarah Jay, then in Spain. “I am prouder than ever of my charming countrywomen,” Sarah told her husband John in forwarding the broadside to him. Abigail Adams had a similar reaction, one that stands in sharp contrast to her husband’s. Mrs. Adams took the association as a sign that “virtue exists, and publick spirit lives—lives in the Bosoms of the Fair Daughters of America.…”

The anonymous Philadelphian who kept her Annapolis friend up-to-date on the ladies’ organization was still more forthright: “Some persons have amused themselves with the importance which we have given it,” she remarked, alluding to what must have been widespread condescension. “I confess we have made it a serious business, and with great reason; an object so interesting was certainly worthy an extraordinary attention.” She and her fellow canvassers had “consecrated every moment we could spare from our domestic concerns, to the public good,” enduring “with pleasure, the fatigues and inconveniences inseparable from such a task,” because they could reflect proudly on the fact that “whilst our friends were exposed to the hardships and dangers of the fields of war for our protection, we were exerting at home our little labours to administer to their comfort and alleviate their toil.”