Last week I gave a presentation for a National Endowment for the Humanities teacher’s course being hosted by my work. The title of the talk was “Army Women in the American Revolution: reading between the lines to learn about life behind the lines.” It covered ways in which to examine primary sources which do not overtly address women’s history topics, in order to glean information about the roles of women with Revolutionary War armies. My aim was to promote the idea of women doing women’s work as a valuable part of the historical narrative. Internally, I hoped my audience would make the connection to the way women’s Revolutionary War history is typically taught, where, as often as not, the subject is covered by merely rehashing the stories of two extraordinary women, doing what is traditionally considered men’s work.*
I am of course talking about Deborah Sampson, who lied about her sex and enlisted in the continental army under a false name, and Mary Ludwig Hays AKA Molly Pitcher, who worked alongside men on a cannon crew at the battle of Monmouth. I do not want to suggest that these women are undeserving of our attention, but I’ll admit to being frustrated that our contemporary historical narrative seems to stop with them. The reason we fixate on the names Deborah Sampson and Molly Pitcher is because they fulfill our need for “heroic” female role models. However, as role models they are problematic, since they are more extraordinary than exemplary. There are next to no other accounts of women serving as soldiers in the American Revolution; Sampson and Hays don’t serve as icons for other faceless women combatants. Instead, they unfairly represent a population of women who did indeed serve alongside the troops, but who did so in more traditionally female roles. I perceive these two women’s inclusion in the historical record, to the exclusion of others, as yet another way in which “male work” (even as performed by a woman) is considered more valuable than the less “heroic” roles traditionally fulfilled by women. In this way, the stories of Sampson and Hays cause us to perpetuate the undervaluation of other types of labor.
In part I understand why the narrative is so skewed. As a researcher it is impressively hard to find information on the average experiences of Revolutionary War army women. The women who followed 18th-century armies had roles so ancillary to the idea of men standing up on a battlefield and shooting at each other that they have been almost universally overlooked by the writers of that era, and (partly because of that) of this one.
As I read officer’s orderly books and soldier’s memoirs these days, I dog ear any page which references women. And since that frequently produces no results at all, I also note references to laundry, baggage, the ill or injured; to marching orders and reprimands for the sale and consumption of alcohol – any quip or comment on which I might build my understanding of women’s typical wartime roles. I do this because I crave an understanding of the work so fundamental to daily life that no one paused to describe it. These women washed, nursed, cleaned, marched, and were forgotten. They contributed hugely to the success of the military communities they were part of, but they did so in such commonplace ways that everyone forgot to mention it. I choose to take note of women being women, even – especially – when it seems unimportant.
I do this because I want the next generation of history text books to do more than throw around the names of two unusual female combatants; I want them to point out that we do not have the names of most of the women who marched with the Continental Army, but that they were in fact valued and valuable. Their work was significant precisely because it was routine: without laundry, without nursing, without someone there to peddle the simple goods that made life bearable, those short lengths of time during which men (well, mostly men) stood up to fight would have been nearly impossible. I want to be allowed ordinary role models. I do not want to have to live up to the exceptional every day, I want permission to embrace whatever work I excel at, and be valued for my contribution, whether or not it is “heroic”.
*I realize that I run the risk of making it sound as though women should only be acknowledged for traditionally feminine, and men for masculine work. This is not what I intend; I love the idea of celebrating the exceptions to gendered labor in order to break down the idea that labor should be divided between the sexes. However, I am deeply frustrated to think that women’s work is so entirely undervalued that a woman might only receive recognition if she stepped into a masculine role.