By M. Spina
Esther de Berdt Reed began her life in America around 1770 when she moved from London to marry a Philadelphian named Joseph Reed, who later went on to become the governor of Pennsylvania. She is today remembered for writing a short essay called “Sentiments of an American Woman,” which helped to raise roughly $300,000 for the Patriot cause.
Reed herself was an independent-minded woman who once lamented, in a letter to her brother, that she had no control of the number of children she had. It stands to reason, then, that when she created a system to raise money for the Continental Army, she did so to give women a chance to aid the Patriot effort in a way that defied typical gender roles of the era. Unfortunately, George Washington did not agree with Reed’s efforts to broaden the scope of women’s involvement in the war effort. He ordered them to take the money that they had raised, and use it to buy cloth with which they could sew shirts for soldiers. Washington refused to allow women to move beyond the domestic sphere from which they came.
Unfortunately, Reed died not long after the publication of “Sentiments of an American Woman” in 1780. She never had the chance to expand upon her original plan, but she still made a very important impact by raising money for the Continental Army during one of the longest and most dire periods of low morale in the war.
Born for liberty, disdaining to bear the irons of a tyrannic government, we associate ourselves to the grandeur of those Sovereigns, cherished and revered, who have held with so much splendor the scepter of the greatest States, The Batildas, the Elizabeths, the Maries, the Catharines, who have extended the empire of liberty, and contented to reign by sweetness and justice, have broken the chains of slavery, forged by tyrants in the times of ignorance and barbarity. The Spanish Women, do they not make, at this moment, the most patriotic sacrifices, to increase the means of victory in the hands of their Sovereign. He is a friend to the French Nation. They are our allies. We call to mind, doubly interested, that it was a French Maid who kindled up amongst her fellow-citizens, the flame of patriotism buried under long misfortunes: It was the Maid of Orleans who drove from the kingdom of France the ancestors of those same British, whose odious yoke we have just shaken off; and whom it is necessary that we drive from this Continent.
But I must limit myself to the recollection of this small number of achievements. Who knows if persons disposed to censure, and sometimes too severely with regard to us, may not disapprove our appearing acquainted even with the actions of which our sex boasts?
In this next excerpt Esther de Berdt Reed lays out her detailed plan to aid the Continental Army by fundraising throughout the state of Pennsylvania.
1st. All Women and Girls will be received without exception, to present their patriotic offering; and, as it is absolutely voluntary, every one will regulate it according to her ability, and her disposition. The shilling offered by the Widow or the young girl, will be received as well as the most considerable sums presented by the Women who have the happiness to join to their patriotism, greater means to be useful.
2nd. A Lady chosen by the others in each county, shall be the Treasuress; and to render her task more simple, and more easy, she will not receive but determinate sums, in a round number, from twenty hard dollars to any greater sum. The exchange forty dollars in paper for one dollar in specie. It is hoped that there will not be one Woman who will not with pleasure charge herself with the embarrassment which will attend so honorable an operation.
3rd. The Women who shall not be in a condition to send twenty dollars in specie, or above, will join in as great a number as will be necessary to make this or any greater sum, and one amongst them will carry it, or cause it to be sent to the Treasuress.
4th. The Treasuress of the county will receive the money, and will keep a register, writing the sums in her book, and causing it to be signed at the side of the whole by the person who has presented it.
5th. When several Women shall join together to make a total sum of twenty dollars or more, she amongst them who shall have the charge to carry it to the Treasuress, will make mention of all their names on the register, if her associates shall have so directed her; those whose choice it shall be, will have the liberty to remain unknown.
6th. As soon as the Treasuress of the county shall judge, that the sums which she shall have received, deserve to be sent to their destination, she will cause them to be presented with the lists, to the wife of the Governor or President of the State, who will be the Treasuress-General of the State; and she will cause it to be set down in her register, and have it sent to Mistress Washington. If the Governor or President are unmarried, all will address themselves to the wife of the Vice-President, if there is one, or of the Chief-Justice, etc.
7th. Women settled in the distant parts of the country, and not choosing for any particular reason as for the sake of greater expedition, to remit their Capital to the Treasurers, may send it directly to the wife of the Governor, or President, etc., or to Mistress Washington, who, if she shall judge necessary, will in a short answer to the sender, acquaint her with the reception of it.
8th. As Mrs. Washington may be absent from the camp when the greater part of the banks shall be sent there the American Women considering, that General Washington is the Father and Friend of the Soldiery; that he is himself, the first Soldier of the Republic, and that their offering will be received at its destination, as soon as it shall have come to his hands, they will pray him, to take the charge of receiving it, in the absence of Mrs. Washington.
- How do you think Esther de Berdt Reed’s mention of “The Batildas, the Elizabeths, the Maries, the Catharines” affected her audience, and why did she make this reference?
- Do you think Reed’s attempt to funnel money only through women was fueled by early feminist beliefs or some other reasoning?
- In what ways did “Sentiments of an American Woman” advance the independence of women? Was this overshadowed by the fact that George Washington later commanded these same women to use the fundraised money to sew shirts, which was a typically domestic task?
“Esther De Berdt Reed.” Museum of the American Revolution. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://www.amrevmuseum.org/virtualexhibits/when-women-lost-the-vote-a-revolutionary-story/pages/esther-de-berdt-reed.
Haulman, Kate. The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Accessed April 25, 2021. : https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807869291_haulman.8.
Klepp, Susan E. Revolutionary Conceptions Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Accessed April 25, 2021. : https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807838716_klepp.9.
“Sentiments of an American Woman.” Women & the American Story. January 28, 2021. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://wams.nyhistory.org/settler-colonialism-and-revolution/the-american-revolution/sentiments-of-an-american-woman/.
Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.