Founding Mothers: Women's Roles in American Independence

Women and American Independence

Martha Washington about 1790
Martha Washington about 1790. Stock Montage/Getty Images

You’ve probably heard of the Founding Fathers. Warren G. Harding, then an Ohio Senator, coined the term in a 1916 speech. He also used it in his 1921 presidential inaugural address. Before that, the people now referred to as Founding Fathers were generally just called "the founders." These were the people who attended the Continental Congress meetings and signed the Declaration of Independence. The term also refers to the Framers of the Constitution, those who participated in forming and then passing the United States Constitution, and perhaps also those who took an active part in the debates around the Bill of Rights.

But since Warren G. Harding’s invention of the term, the Founding Fathers have generally been assumed to be those who helped form the nation. And in that context, it’s appropriate to also talk about the Founding Mothers: women, often the wives, daughters, and mothers of the men referred to as Founding Fathers, who also played important parts in supporting the separation from England and the American Revolutionary War.

Abigail Adams and Martha Washington, for instance, kept the family farms running for many years while their husbands were off on their political or military quests. And they were supportive in more active ways. Abigail Adams kept up a lively conversation with her husband, John Adams, even urging him to “Remember the Ladies” when asserting human rights of the individual in the new nation. Martha Washington accompanied her husband to winter army encampments, serving as his nurse when he was ill, but also setting an example of frugality for other rebel families.

And other women took more active roles in the founding.  Here are some of the women we could consider Founding Mothers of the United States:

Martha Washington about 1790
Martha Washington about 1790. Stock Montage/Getty Images

If George Washington was the Father of His Country, Martha was the Mother. She ran the family business – the plantation – when he was gone, first during the French and Indian Wars, and then during the Revolution. And she helped set a standard of elegance but simplicity, presiding over receptions in the presidential residences first in New York, then in Philadelphia. But because she opposed him running for the presidency, she did not attend his inauguration.

Abigail Adams Portrait
Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart - Hand Tinted Engraving. Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images

In her famous letters to her husband during his time at the Continental Congress, she tried to influence John Adams to include women’s rights in the new documents of independence. While John served as a diplomat during the Revolutionary War, she took care of the farm at home, and for three years she joined him overseas. She mostly stayed home and managed the family’s finances during his vice presidency and presidency.

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Betsy Ross
Betsy Ross. © Jupiterimages, used with permission

 We don’t know for sure that she made the first American flag, but she represented the story of many American women during the Revolution anyway. Her first husband was killed on militia duty in 1776 and her second husband was a sailor who was captured by the British in 1781 and died in prison. So, like many women in wartime, she took care of her child and herself by earning a living – in her case, as a seamstress and flag maker.

Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis Warren. Kean Collection / Getty Images

Married and mother of five sons, Mercy Otis Warren’s brother was very involved in the resistance to British rule, writing the famous line against the Stamp Act, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”  She was probably part of discussions that helped initiate the Committees of Correspondence, and she wrote plays that are considered part of the propaganda campaign to coalesce opposition to the British.

In the early 19th century, she published the first history of the American Revolution.  Many of the anecdotes are about people she knew personally.

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth (artists' conception)
Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth (artists' conception). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Some women literally fought in the Revolution, even though almost all the soldiers were men. Mary Hays McCauly is known for taking her husband's place loading a cannon at the battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778.  Her story inspired others.

Paul Revere
Was There a Female Paul Revere, Too?. Ed Vebell / Archive Photos / Getty Images

 If the stories of her ride are true, she was the female Paul Revere, riding to warn of an imminent attack on Danbury, Connecticut, by British soldiers.

Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley. The British Library / Robana via Getty Images

Born in Africa and kidnapped into slavery, Phillis was bought by a family who saw to it that she was taught to read, and then to more advanced education. She wrote a poem in 1776 on the occasion of George Washington’s appointment as commander of the Continental Army.  She wrote other poems on the subject of Washington, but with the war, interest in her published poetry waned. With the war’s disruption of normal life, she experienced hardships, as did so many other American women and especially African American women of the time.

Hannah Adams
Hannah Adams, with a book. Bettmann / Getty Images

 During the American Revolution, she supported the American side and even wrote a pamphlet about the role of women in wartime.  Adams was the first American woman to make her living by writing; she never married and her books, on religion and on the history of New England, supported her.

Lap desk as was in use at the time of the American war for independence
Lap desk as was in use at the time of the American war for independence. MPI/Getty Images

In addition to her long-forgotten essay "On the Equality of the Sexes," written in 1779 and published in 1780, Judith Sargent Murray—then still Judith Sargent Stevens—wrote about the politics of the new nation of America. They were collected and published as a book in 1798, the first book in America self-published by a woman.