The Thinkers: Prof says women vital to the birth of America
There is no doubt that George Washington was an inspiring general and the Continental Army was a courageous and resourceful band of soldiers.
But there wouldn't be a United States of America today if it hadn't been for the women -- and not just the ones who kept the home fires burning.
That is the thesis that Duquesne University history professor Holly A. Mayer has developed in her years of research on the "camp followers" who accompanied the army during the Revolutionary War.
- Position: History professor and department chairwoman, Duquesne University.
- Residence: Mt. Lebanon.
- Education: Bachelor's degree in American civilization, University of Pennsylvania; master's in history, University of Oregon; doctorate in history, College of William and Mary.
- Previous positions: U.S. Army officer, active duty, 1980-84.
- Professional honors: Board of scholars, American Revolution Center, Valley Forge, Pa.; adviser, "The War That Made America," WQED documentary on the Seven Years' War.
- Publications: "For the Record: A Documentary History of America," co-editor, 2007; "Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution," 1996; several articles in professional journals.
"When we look at the American Revolution, many people accept that women were essential on the home front, but there is this one whole aspect that we have traditionally said was just men, and that's the army," said Dr. Mayer, chairwoman of Duquesne's history department.
"But my argument is that the army could not have sustained itself for eight long years -- it was America's longest war until Vietnam -- without the women who followed the troops. Think about it: How do you keep people in the field and keep them fighting for eight years? Are these people going to leave their homes and their families for eight years and not see them for that entire period? They're not."
Another misconception Dr. Mayer has fought against is the notion that most of the women who followed the army were prostitutes.
She's the first to acknowledge that there is a long-standing relationship between prostitution and the military. "You can go outside any Army post today, and you're going to find three things: bars, car dealers and some sort of prostitution service."
But prostitution depends on cash, and by and large, soldiers in the Continental Army were too poor to offer prostitutes much steady employment, she said. "If prostitutes were going to follow any army then, they would have followed the British Army, because they got paid in good, hard currency."
Most of the women who traveled with the American army were wives, concubines or daughters of soldiers, her research has shown.
Because of spotty record-keeping, it's hard to know exactly how many women accompanied the fighters, "but over the course of the war we are talking about thousands of women," she said.
At the beginning of the war, when people on both sides thought it would be a short conflict, women tended to stay at home. But as the war dragged on, Gen. Washington needed soldiers to enlist for three years or more, and it is doubtful many of them would have stayed in the field that long if their wives and families had not been allowed to accompany them.
There are two major reasons for that, Dr. Mayer said.
One was that most enlisted soldiers were poor farmers or day laborers, and their wives and children depended on them for support. "A man's responsibility in this culture was to take care of his family. He couldn't just forget his family to take care of his country."
If wives and children were enrolled on company rosters by army officers, they could get rations. In other cases, the women found work with the army to supplement family income. The Revolutionary War marked the start of official washerwomen, for instance, a practice that continued through the time of the frontier armies of the late 1800s.
The second cause of the presence of women and children was when they were driven out of their homes by the British Army. That happened when the British kept control of Canada and occupied New York City and Charleston, S.C., Dr. Mayer said, and had a particularly poignant impact on one group of French-Canadians who backed the colonial army at the beginning of the war.
When American forces led by Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery failed to take Quebec in late 1775, French-Canadian soldiers who had joined the assault had to flee with their families.
Many of them ended up in Col. Moses Hazen's regiment, which started out with about 300 men, and nearly the same number of women and children who then stayed with the men for much of the war.
These family groups not only supported the soldiers, but formed a tight-knit community of their own as they moved from camp to camp. Over the next few years, many of the daughters married other soldiers (and got their own rations as a result), while many of the sons joined the ranks, often as young as 13 or 14.
There was no enforceable age requirement for enlisting in the Continental Army, Dr. Mayer said. Instead, the standard was generally based on size: A young man had to be big enough to handle a musket and endure the rigors of marching.
Many refugee boys would start their service as drummers or fife players, or as servants to officers, until they had grown enough to become full-fledged soldiers.
By the time of the Valley Forge encampment in late 1777, records suggested there might have been one woman in American camps for every 30 to 35 enlisted men.
The nation would never again see such a high proportion of women camp followers. The War of 1812 was too short to require a long-standing army, and in the Civil War, most wives either stayed in garrisons or at home.
Distance and the sheer danger of modern war theaters have eliminated the old "camp follower" system, she said, but there are still some aspects of Army life that have not changed.
Enlisted men in the Revolutionary War tended to come from the poorest ranks of society, and the same is true in today's volunteer army, Dr. Mayer said. In fact, blue-collar soldiers have predominated in every American conflict except World War II, she said.
The study of women and the military has been more than an academic interest for Dr. Mayer. She was raised as an "Army brat" in the United States and Germany, and served four years as an Army officer herself before joining the reserves.
She also was trained as a historian during the years when the field was turning its attention away from the outsized personalities of history and toward the everyday people who shaped society and its events.
It influenced her to "stop thinking exclusively about the 'great men.' "
"They were absolutely essential -- you needed their leadership -- but they would have been nothing if it had not been for the fact that these other people were doing their duty."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 29, 2008) This story as originally published Jan. 28, 2008 about Duquesne University professor Holly A. Mayer's Revolutionary War research deleted a word from a book title in her biography. The 1996 book was "Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution."
First Published January 28, 2008 12:00 am