Why is it so challenging to document a female patriot?

Women supported the American cause during the Revolutionary War. Yet, most of the available records address men. Why – and how does it impact our research?

In a word: coverture. Wikipedia’s explanation of the legal principal is quite clear (and detailed, for those interested in the history). As the listing indicates, coverture is “a legal doctrine in common law whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband[…]”

In an era in which most women married, this principal had a significant impact on the records. A married woman was considered part of the husband’s legal entity. Therefore, it was his name on taxes, land deeds, probate records, and more. A wife may have had to sign off on sale of property inherited in her right – see Acts and Laws of the State of Connecticut in America (New London: Timothy Green, 1784),120 – but this was more out of concern that her husband was illicitly disposing of her assets rather than an acknowledgment of her rights. While there are rare exceptions, records of civil government will generally not acknowledge the actions of a married woman.

Manuscript collections, however, might. If there were memorialists or letter writers in the area your ancestor lived, they may have recorded the actions of women in a farming community donating supplies or other similar activities. Be sure to weigh the author’s motive and timing: when were they writing; why; what were they trying to accomplish? Also be aware that the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution will require a second source for corroboration for any diaries.

Some women will show up in the records of civil government: those not married were considered to maintain an independent legal status. Women who had never married were often financially dependent. There were simply too few opportunities for a woman to make an income. Widows, however, could inherit – or earn – money. These women may not serve in the military, but they will show up on tax records and more.

Have you found a female patriot? How challenging was she to document?

Published by Bryna O'Sullivan

Proprietor of Charter Oak Genealogy, Bryna O'Sullivan specializes in assisting clients with lineage society applications and with French to English genealogical translations.

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