April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
Although it has been disparaged as “General Washington’s Sewing Circle,” this venture was the first nationwide female organization in America
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.”
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.”
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.”
Nevertheless, the women’s association still collected substantial sums of money. Its organizers next had to decide how to disburse the funds in accordance with their original aim of presenting soldiers with “some extraordinary and unexpected relief… the offering of the Ladies .” Since Martha Washington had returned to Virginia by the time the collection was completed, the association’s leaders agreed to leave the disposition of the funds to her husband. There was only one problem: George Washington had plans for the money that differed sharply from theirs. “Altho’ the terms of the association seem in some measure to preclude the purchase of any article, which the public is bound to find,” Washington told Joseph Reed in late June, “I would, nevertheless, recommend a provision of shirts in preference to any thing else.” On July 31, Esther Reed responded to the general. Her much revised, amended, and overwritten draft, with all its tactful phrasing, suggests something of the consternation his proposal caused among the canvassers who had worked so hard and so long to collect the money.
Not only had she found it difficult to locate linen, she reported, she had also learned that Pennsylvania was planning to send two thousand shirts to its troops and that a large shipment of clothing had recently arrived from France. “These Circumstances togather with an Idea which prevails that the Soldiers might not consider it in the Light,” she began, then crossed out the words following “Soldiers,” and continued, “Soldiers woud not be so much gratified by bestowing an article to which they look upon themselves entitled from the public as in some other method which woud convey more fully the Idea of a reward for past Services & an incitement to future Duty.” There she ended the sentence, having been so involved in her intricate prose that she failed to realize she had composed a fragment without a verb. Undaunted, she forged breathlessly ahead. “Some who are of this Opinion propose turning the whole of the Money into hard Dollars & giving each Soldier 2 at his own disposal.” Having made her point, Mrs. Reed attempted to soften the fact that she was daring to dispute the judgment of the Commander-in-Chief of the American army. “This method I hint only,” she added, “but would not by any means wish to adopt that or any other without your full approbation.” To further lessen her apostasy, she also assured Washington that if shirts were still needed after the “fresh supplies” had been distributed, some of the money could be applied to that use.
Washington’s response was, as Mrs. Reed later told her husband, “a little formal as if he was hurt by our asking his Opinion a second time & our not following his Directions after desiring him to give them.” In his letter, the general suggested that “a taste of hard money may be productive of much discontent as we have none but depreciated paper for their pay.” He also predicted that some soldiers’ taste for drink would lead them “into irregularities and disorders” and that therefore the proposed two-dollar bounty “will be the means of bringing punishment” on them. No, he insisted; if the ladies wanted to employ their “benevolent donation” well, the money should be used for shirts—which they should make to save the cost of hiring seamstresses. Faced with Washington’s adamant stance, Esther Reed retreated. “I shall now endeavour to get the Shirts made as soon as possible,” she told her husband, and he agreed with her decision. “The General is so decided that you have no Choice left so that the sooner you finish the Business the better,” he wrote on August 26, reminding her that “it will be necessary for you to render a publick Account of your Stewardship in this Business & tho you will receive no thanks if you do it well, you will bear much Blame should it be otherwise.”
Unfortunately, however, Esther de Berdt Reed had no chance to “finish the Business” she had so ably begun; she died of dysentery the following month. The leadership of the association was assumed by Sarah Franklin Bache, with the assistance of four other women. They took control of the funds that had been in Mrs. Reed’s possession, overseeing the purchase of linen and the shirtmaking process. By early December, when the Marquis de Chastellux visited Sarah Bache’s home, more than two thousand shirts had been completed. He recorded that “on each shirt was the name of the married or unmarried lady who made it.” Late that same month, the women gave the shirts to the Deputy Quartermaster General in Philadelphia, and Mrs. Bache told General Washington that “we wish them to be worn with as much pleasure as they were made.”
In February, 1781, Washington offered profuse thanks to the members of the committee that had succeeded Esther Reed as leaders of the association. The organization’s contributions, he declared, entitled its participants “to an equal place with any who have preceded them in the walk of female patriotism. It embellishes the American character with a new trait; by proving that the love of country is blended with those softer domestic virtues, which have always been allowed to be more peculiarly your own .”
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.”