Assessing Change: Women's Lives in the American Revolutionary Era

by Roberta McCutcheon

Introduction

Labeling an era in history as revolutionary implies that research of the period in question exposed substantial change. Indeed significant change did occur during the American Revolutionary era—a colonial power lost a vital piece of its empire, a unified nation emerged, and a new republic was created. These are the major transformations of the Revolution but certainly not the only shifts that took place before the war or after and as a result of the war. It is the more subtle adjustments, the ones that sometimes are overlooked, that provide an interesting and challenging opportunity to practitioners and students of history.

Historians of white women in early America have not agreed on a single conceptualization of women’s history. Often the analyses propose a comparison or an evaluation of women’s status. These historians conclude that the first two centuries for white women in North America were a kind of golden age. They hold that the status of women who immigrated to North America was better than that of the women they left behind in England and that of women in America in the nineteenth century. This kind of analysis may be valid but it is also rather narrow in scope and overshadows some aspects of women’s experiences. In this lesson the class will not seek to reach an evaluative conclusion—better or worse—but will instead look more broadly at change over time and all the subtleties that contribute to the differences in women’s responses to the changes that took place in this period in American History.

Objectives

  • Students will examine primary documents and secondary sources to analyze women’s history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  • Students will be able to identify assumptions and biases that they bring to historical analysis.
  • Students will be able to identify the major social, political, and economic trends of the eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth century.
  • Students will be able to examine the effects of imperial war and reorganization, the Revolutionary War, and the creation of a new nation and new republic on white women in North America.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of documents of this momentous period in American history.

Lesson Activities

1. Divide the class into small groups. Have each group examine the documents listed below. Have each group write a brief analysis of each document. If a group is unable to reach consensus on the meaning of a document, the group should report on the various analyses.

2. Have each group share their analysis or analyses of each document with the class.

Images

Colonial Era

New Republic

3. Class discussion:

  • The reports should be the basis of a discussion of the potential for differences in historians’ accounts of events.
  • Discuss possible reasons for variations in interpretation. For example, what assumptions influenced interpretations? Are the differences in interpretation a result of contemporary values and insight when analyzing each document?

4. Have each group research the historical background of each document. As the research progresses, groups should take note of the actual roles, expectations, assumptions and behavior of women in the historic era. The following websites provide useful information and good biographical research.

General History

Colonial Era

Revolutionary War

Republican Motherhood -- New Republic

5. Analyze the original documents. This time use the research and knowledge regarding historical assumptions and historical setting.

6. Each group should share the informed analysis with the class.

7. The class should discuss how the analyses changed and how an understanding of the period altered how they looked at each image.

Extension

To what extent did the American Revolution change the lives of white women in North America? In your response be sure to consider the lives of white women before, during and after the Revolutionary War.

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