Distaff

 
 

During the eighteenth century, married women’s lives revolved to a large extent around managing the household, a role which in many cases included partnership in running farms or home businesses. The defiance of English rule and the onset of the war disrupted the usual patterns of life in many ways including impacting how women responded to events surrounding them. While the essential role of most women continued to be managing all aspects of their households, doing so took on political overtones: the commitment of the women was critical to maintaining the tea boycott and the decision to boycott British goods caused home manufacturing to become both a statement of defiance and a necessity. Even those women whose social standing afforded increased leisure took up spinning and other activities to replace imported goods. In the early days leading up to Lexington and Concord, they prepared food for militia musters and made cartridges. War, when it came, touched everyone: resources were scarce leading to high inflation; invading troops destroyed farms and homes; and the absence of husbands and fathers left some in danger of starvation. Some women were able to continue to manage homes, farms and shops but others were unable to survive on their own and forced to abandon their homes and follow their husbands with the army.

Women who traveled with the army were known as campfollowers and did so for many reasons: inability to provide for themselves at home; fear of attack; eviction by troops; desire to be with husbands; the attraction of a paying job and rations (even if their pay and rations were minimal), or in some cases as sutlers selling to the army. Well over 20,000 women followed one army or another and transformed camps into small towns. In some ways, women were an important element because they carried out tasks such as laundering and nursing (both of which were paid) which men were unwilling to do and without which the army would have been even more seriously depleted by disease. In addition, women performed duties as cooks, food foragers, spies and water carriers (all unpaid). However, the number of women generally exceeded that which would have been required and often represented a nuisance to commanding officers: women and accompanying children used scarce rations and slowed the movement of the army. Nevertheless, they were tolerated because they performed important jobs for the welfare of the armies and for fear that the men would desert if their families were sent home.

The role of campfollowers with the French army varies somewhat in that the men were rarely accompanied by their wives (in fact, marriage was essentially forbidden) and there were very few women who traveled with the army, in sharp contrast to the British and Continental units. However, the French were immensely popular and period accounts indicate that there was frequent social and commercial interchange with townspeople along the route from Newport to Yorktown