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9 Women Who Helped Win the American Revolution

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The men who led the American Revolution—George Washington, Sam and John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, and countless others—are well-known. But a number of women aided them in securing a victory over the British. Women played vital roles in the Revolution, serving as soldiers, raising morale, and even spying on the enemy.

1. DEBORAH SAMSON // AMERICAN SOLDIER

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In 1783, a young soldier named Robert Shurtlieff took ill, just another man sickened by the “brain fever” outbreak sweeping through the troops stationed in Philadelphia at that time. After a short struggle with the illness, Shurtlieff appeared near death. A doctor checked the man’s pulse, then rested a hand on his chest to see if he was still breathing.

He was—and the doctor was in for a surprise. Shurtlieff (sometimes listed as Shurtleff) wasn’t a man at all, but a woman who had bound her chest and disguised herself to become a soldier.

Robert Shurtlieff had been invented three years earlier by Deborah Samson (sometimes spelled Sampson), a 20-something girl recently freed from indenture on a farm. A dedicated patriot, she was determined to join the Continental Army, and enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

Samson took well to Army life. So well, in fact, that her fellow soldiers teased her for being unable to grow a beard by calling her “Molly,” but apparently never suspected the truth behind the name. She was injured in battle several times, always refusing medical care for fear that her secret would be discovered.

When it finally was, the doctor who learned her true identity (and whose niece was falling in love with "Robert"), nursed her back to health and then sent Samson with a letter for General John Paterson, her superior. Samson was not allowed to stay in the forces, but the Continental Army did arrange an honorable discharge and enough money to get her home.

Samson wasn’t satisfied with this metaphorical pat on the head. She went on to lecture about her time in the Army, and demanded back pay for her service. She got it in 1792. And in 1805, Congress voted to grant her a pension as a war veteran. Most recently, she was declared Massachusetts’ official state heroine, with May 23 as her official day.

2. PRUDENCE CUMMINGS WRIGHT // MINUTEWOMAN 

The women of Pepperell, Massachusetts were a patriotic bunch. When they learned of the Boston Tea Party, they burned their tea leaves on the town common.

So when Pepperell’s men marched off to war, it’s not surprising that the women decided to form their own militia to protect the remaining townspeople. Prudence “Prue” Cummings Wright, who had just lost two children, was elected the leader of “Mrs. David Wright’s Guard.” 

The women wore their husbands’ clothing and carried weapons ranging from muskets to farm tools. The militia had formed, in part, because Wright had heard her British-sympathizing brother talk to a friend about smuggling information from Canada to Boston. So, on the day the two were set to cross Pepperell, the militia met them at the one bridge the spies could cross. 

The women confiscated their documents and held them prisoner overnight while their messages were forwarded to the Committee of Safety for review. The two men were exiled from the area, and Wright's brother never returned.

3. SYBIL LUDINGTON // THE FEMALE PAUL REVERE

On the evening April 26, 1777, Colonel Henry Ludington received bad news.

British forces led by Major General William Tryon had landed on the coast of Connecticut and marched to Danbury, where they destroyed Continental Army supplies. Colonel Ludington was being asked to gather his militia and march for Danbury, 25 miles away. However, Ludington also needed to stay at his farm to brief the men as they arrived and prepare for the march.

His eldest child, 16-year-old Sybil, volunteered to rouse the militia. She rode out at 9 p.m. on the start of a 40-mile circuit, knocking on farm doors and shouting that the British were in Danbury. Each of the men she woke gathered nearby militiamen and headed for the Ludington homestead, where the colonel was waiting.

Ludington rode through the night, waking dozens of her father’s men. She had to avoid bandits and British sympathizers on her route, but she returned home safely. Most of Colonel Ludington’s militia gathered and marched to Danbury. They were too late to save the town from British torches, but they did manage to harry the British soldiers all the way back to Long Island Sound.  

4. LYDIA DARRAGH // UNDERCOVER PATRIOT

George Washington maintained a large spy network, including a number of agents in British-occupied Philadelphia. According to her descendants, one of these was Lydia Darragh, a Quaker woman whose home became a meeting place for British officers.

Family legend has it that she often hid in a closet adjoining the room the officers met in, then smuggled word of their plans to her son, who served in the Revolutionary forces. Sometimes she sewed the messages into button covers or hid them in needle books.

If the stories are true, her spying career saved the lives of thousands of Revolutionary soldiers, including General George Washington himself. Sometime in early December, British officers meeting in Darragh’s home discussed information they’d received that the colonists, led by Washington, were in Whitemarsh. They would launch a surprise attack, they decided. Darragh overheard the plans, then concocted a lie that she needed to purchase flour from a mill outside the city. She was given a pass by the British, then headed straight for the Revolutionary leaders, where she passed the information to an officer in Washington’s army.

Thanks to Darragh’s intelligence, the colonists were prepared for the Redcoats and, after a few skirmishes, the British retreated back into Philadelphia. Unfortunately, historians have been unable to verify many of the family tales surrounding Darragh’s espionage.

5. PATIENCE WRIGHT // SCULPTOR & SPY 

Patience Lovell Wright was born in the Colonies, on Long Island. She and her family later moved to Bordentown, New Jersey, where she married a Quaker farmer. However, he died in 1769, and while she was able to stay in her home, she wasn’t able to inherit any of his other property. She began sculpting in wax to support herself. 

Wright and her sister Rachel, who had also been widowed, opened waxworks houses in Manhattan and Philadelphia, but Wright wanted more. After meeting Jane Mecom, the sister of Benjamin Franklin, she traveled to London, where she quickly won over British high society with her artistic skills and plainspoken ways. She even had the opportunity to meet King George and Queen Charlotte.

Wright began gathering sensitive information during her London sculpting sessions and sent it back to patriot leaders in the Colonies, supposedly encased in her wax sculptures. She also took the Colonies’ case directly to the king and queen, finding a supporter in William Pitt.

Wright was a little too vocally supportive of the Colonies, however. Once open warfare broke out, the higher-ups of London society began distancing themselves from her, and she eventually retreated to Paris. She also fell out of favor with the Americans as well, and the Founding Fathers stopped responding to her letters. She returned to London after the war’s end, on her way home to the newly founded United States. But she never made it back to America—she died in London a few days after a fall. 

6. NANYE'HI (NANCY WARD) // BELOVED WOMAN OF THE CHEROKEE

Nanye’hi of the Cherokee dreamed of peace between her own people and the European settlers who were a growing population in the hills of eastern Tennessee, where she lived. She had seen regular violence throughout her life, due to battles between the Cherokee people and white settlers or other Native American nations.

In a battle against the Creeks, she earned the title of Beloved Woman, giving her a leadership role among the Cherokee. When her husband was killed in the skirmish, she picked up his rifle and led a rout of the enemy. Among her duties as a Beloved Woman was watching over prisoners captured by the Cherokee in raids and warfare. This would become key to her ability to help the Americans during the Revolutionary War. 

During the French and Indian War, the Cherokee sided with the British, and that didn’t change when the Americans declared independence. The British took advantage of this, encouraging the Cherokee to attack American settlements. Some of the Cherokee were against warfare, but others, tired of the encroaching American settlers taking more of their land, were only too happy to fight.

Historians aren’t sure why Nanye’hi chose to side with the Americans. It may have been out of practicality—many Cherokee leaders wanted to drive the white settlers out, but Nanye'hi may have sought to keep things civil with their new, close neighbors, or worried about retaliation if the British lost. Regardless of her motives, whenever Nanye’hi learned of a coming Cherokee attack on the nearby settlers, she freed American prisoners so they might return home with warnings. One of these prisoners was Lydia Bean, a woman rescued by Nanye’hi from being burned at the stake. While Bean was with the Cherokee, the two women reportedly traded skills such as making butter. 

After the war, Nanye’hi helped to negotiate peace with the new United States, though she's believed to have later urged the Cherokee not to cede any more land to the Americans, and take up arms if necessary. 

7. ESTHER DEBERDT REED // HOMEFRONT HEROINE

On July 4, 1780, General George Washington received a letter from Esther DeBerdt Reed, whose husband knew the general. In the letter, she reported that she and the ladies of Philadelphia had raised $300,000, and asked how it should be spent.

Reed had come to the Colonies with her widowed mother only 10 years earlier, but had quickly set out becoming active in the political and social life of Pennsylvania, eventually rising to the role of Pennsylvania's First Lady. Reed and her husband had entertained notables among the American cause, including Washington himself. So when Reed learned that the soldiers in the Continental Army were hungry and in need of good, warm clothing, she decided she would help.

She gathered other political women, and they went door to door in Philadelphia, asking for donations. While a good deal of the $300,000 they collected was devalued paper currency, they also received coin and in-kind donations such as leather trousers. At Washington’s urging, they spent the donations on linen cloth and set out to sew shirts.

Reed died suddenly of a fever in the fall of 1780, but her friend Sarah Franklin Bache, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin, took up the work. The women sewed 2000 shirts for Washington’s men.

And that’s not where Reed’s story ended. She was also the author of an anonymously published broadsheet entitled “Sentiments of an American Woman.” The treatise encouraged politically minded women to show their patriotism by offering material support to American soldiers, and inspired movements similar to the one in Philadelphia throughout the Colonies. 

8. AGENT 355 // HIDDEN DAUGHTER OF THE REVOLUTION

Agent 355 is one of the most mysterious figures of the American Revolution. After more than 200 years, her identity is still unknown.

A member of the Culper spy ring, 355 reported to Abraham Woodhull, who went by the alias of Samuel Culper Sr. However, she may have been closer to his fictitious “son,” merchant Robert Townsend, a.k.a. Samuel Culper Jr. Agent 355 may have been a family member or maid in a well-regarded Loyalist family in New York City, which would have allowed her contact with high-ranking British officers.

It’s likely that she was someone particularly close to Major John Andre, who led the British intelligence efforts. The intelligence she passed to the Culper ring was detailed when Andre was in New York, and sparse when he was not. 

Whoever she was, she helped to uncover American General Benedict Arnold’s plans to betray the Revolution, and Andre, his contact, was arrested by the colonists. The fort at West Point, which Arnold had schemed to turn over to the British, was saved. Andre was eventually hanged, but Arnold escaped capture and joined the British as planned.

This is where records become murky. According to one legend, Arnold turned over the names of several Patriot spies, including Agent 355. She was captured and held on a British prison ship, where she died—though not before giving birth to a son, Robert Townsend Jr.

Because no one knows who she is, her fate can’t be confirmed. While a number of women were held on the prison ships and the Culper ring had several female members, none can be definitively identified as 355.  

9. MARGARET CORBIN // MOLLY PITCHER

During the Revolution, women followed along behind the armies on both sides. These camp followers, often the wives or female relatives of soldiers, did laundry, mended clothing, cooked and took on other chores in exchange for food and shelter. However, a few ventured out of the camps and onto the battlefield. Margaret Corbin was one of them.

Corbin’s husband handled ammunition for a cannon, and she assisted him. In the fall of 1776, they were stationed at Fort Washington, New York when the fort was attacked by British troops. The man operating the cannon was killed, and Corbin’s husband quickly took his place, with Corbin taking over the ammunition duties.

Then Corbin’s husband was struck down by enemy fire and killed, too. Without a pause, Corbin manned the cannon, firing it until she was struck by grapeshot that mangled her chest and left arm.

In 1779, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania awarded Corbin a $30 stipend in exchange for her service. They also recommended that the Board of War grant her a soldier’s pension, and the board complied. The Continental Congress gave her a monthly stipend of half an active-duty soldier’s pay. Corbin and Deborah Samson were the only women to receive federal pensions for their service in the Revolution.

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11 Watershed Moments for Women's Equality
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On March 7, 2017, a crowd gathered about the 'Fearless Girl' statue in New York City.
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From Mary Walker, the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, to Katharine Graham, the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company, these pioneering women—and their winning moments—helped set the stage for the generations that followed.

1. THE FIRST WOMEN'S RIGHTS CONVENTION IS HELD IN NEW YORK.

Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B Anthony
Elizabeth Stanton sits as Susan B Anthony stands nearby.
Library of Congress

Informed that they wouldn't be able to vote or speak at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott grew frustrated at their lack of voice in American society. As they stewed in the women’s section, they decided something needed to be done about it. By 1848, Stanton, Mott, and friends had organized a two-day women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The pair, alongside 66 other women and 32 men, crafted the Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled off the Declaration of Independence, the convention wrote out their list of demands, including for women’s right to vote.

Although this pioneering convention was largely mocked by the country, what was accomplished in those two days eventually kicked off Suffrage and the women’s rights movement. Unfortunately, only one of the signers would see one of the convention’s main goals come to fruition when women could finally vote for the first time in 1920.

2. MARIA MITCHELL IS ELECTED TO THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES.

On a clear night in October 1847, Maria Mitchell was sitting on the roof of her father’s business and consulting her star charts with a telescope. All of a sudden, she saw a blurry light streak across the sky—a comet. She had discovered what was later nicknamed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” and the accolades came rolling in. Mitchell was the first female professional astronomer, and in 1848, she became the first woman to receive entry to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mitchell would remain the only woman in that honored group until 1943.

This accomplishment opened the world up to Mitchell, who believed that women could achieve anything men could, and she traveled to Europe, meeting with famed astronomers along the way. In her later years, she went on to work at Vassar College—becoming the first female astronomy professor. That didn't mean she settled for getting paid less than a man, according to the college. She received equal pay in the 1870s for her work while inspiring young women to reach for the stars.

3. VICTORIA CLAFLIN WOODHULL RUNS FOR PRESIDENT UNDER THE EQUAL RIGHTS PARTY.

Although no woman has been elected to the highest office in the land yet, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first to make the attempt. In 1869, with help from Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ohio-born Woodhull and her sister opened the first female-run stock brokerage on Wall Street in New York City, though they were never allowed a place on the floor. This move gave Woodhull the leverage and money she needed to run for president in 1872.

"Notorious Victoria" ran on women’s suffrage, welfare for the poor, 8-hour workdays and regulation of monopolies, among other things. Unfortunately, her radical views on religion and marriage, among other things, made her a tough sell. It didn't help when her unconventional campaign style landed her in trouble with the law. Days before the election, Woodhull was jailed for sending out "obscene" publications that took shots at her opponents. She eventually agreed to a plea deal that involved dropping out of the presidential race.

4. MARY WALKER RECEIVES THE MEDAL OF HONOR.

Dr. Mary Walker
Dr. Mary Walker
Library of Congress

After graduating from Syracuse Medical College, Dr. Walker set her sights on volunteering for the Union. Her parents were abolitionists and she wanted to devote her skills to the North by signing up as a surgeon. Because women were not allowed to do that kind of advanced medical work, she settled for volunteering for the Union Army.

A few years into the war, Walker had worked her way up in the ranks and was sent to Virginia in 1863 as a field surgeon. While aiding a Confederate surgeon on a particularly bloody day of battle in 1864, Walker was captured by the Confederacy. She was held there for four months until she was swapped for another prisoner of war. For her efforts, in 1865, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, becoming the first woman to be given the honor. Favoring men’s clothing and her freedom, Walker remained a staunch advocate for the rest of her days. She was even permitted to wear male clothing by an act of Congress. Walker’s medal was taken away from her in 1917 (some argued that she was ineligible because the award was meant only for soldiers), but President Carter restored it to her posthumously in 1977.

5. MARGARET SANGER OPENS THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN AMERICA.

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger in 1925
General Photographic Agency / Stringer / Getty Images

The future activist started as a nurse in 1912 in New York City. After watching women die by the dozens of self-induced abortions, she renounced nursing and decided to find a solution. She founded a magazine called Woman Rebel to start her "birth control" (a phrase that she coined) movement. The issues were promptly banned by the New York Post Office, and the threat of imprisonment caused her to flee the country. “Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty,” Sanger wrote in 1914. When the charges had been dropped, she returned in 1916 to open the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Her organization later became Planned Parenthood and she fought for the rest of her life to provide safe contraception for women.

6. SEPTIMA CLARK FIGHTS FOR THE RIGHT TO TEACH.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks
Septima Clark (left) sits with Rosa Parks in 1955
Library of Congress

Septima Clark, a Civil Rights activist, put the issue of education at the front of the movement. Due to sacrifices from her parents, a former slave and a laundress, Clark was able to earn two degrees and train to be a teacher. Unfortunately, in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived, black teachers weren’t allowed to teach in 1918. That didn’t deter Clark. That year, she went door-to-door gathering about 20,000 signatures of fellow African Americans who wanted black teachers in the black schools. The ban was struck down, and Clark spent many of her years teaching elementary school children.

7. EDITH WHARTON WINS A PULITZER FOR THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton
Library of Congress

At age 11, Edith Wharton attempted to write her first novel. Like many of New York City’s elite who were raised in what was considered the Golden Age of New York, she traveled to Europe extensively and got to experience the best of what life had to offer. She would eventually write more than 85 short stories and a dozen novels. But her life experiences would go on to heavily influence one book in particular, The Age of Innocence, which examined and even skewered the New York society. In 1921, toward the end of her life, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it was contentious. Many members of the board wanted to take her prize back, but she retained it—making her the first woman to win a Pulitzer. She would go on to also be nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

8. GRACE HOPPER INVENTS A COMPUTER LANGUAGE.

In 1934, Grace Hopper was on a path all of her own. She graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. When World War II arrived, she flew from her academic post at Vassar to join the Navy’s war effort in 1943. There, she put her vast intelligence to use by working on the Harvard Mark I computer, which would help an atomic bomb engineer determine that the bomb would implode rather than explode. After the war, she started working on UNIVAC, the latest computer, and argued that a computer language should be written in English. Although her idea was laughed off, Hopper was determined, publishing papers outlining her reasoning. She finally implemented her own English-based coding language, called COBOL, in the Navy and eventually in the wider world. She's also responsible for the term "computer bug." Throughout her life, Hopper would go back into active duty Navy service and served a total of 42 years, earning her the nickname “Amazing Grace.”

9. KATHARINE GRAHAM LEADS A FORTUNE 500 COMPANY.

Katharine Graham
Katharine Graham in 2001
Vince Bucci / Stringer / Getty Images

Journalism was always in the cards for Katharine Graham, who grew up with a father who worked as the publisher of The Washington Post. Graham became interested in media at an early age and after a stint at a few papers, got a job on The Washington Post’s editorial staff. Eventually, she convinced her husband to buy the paper from her father. The couple worked together to create a media empire by acquiring the competition. In her 1997 memoir, she described her relationship with her husband as "that of a chief executive officer Phil and a chief operating officer me."

In 1963, that changed when her husband committed suicide. Unexpectedly, Graham found herself at the helm of a media empire. She raised the Post to the fifth most profitable media company in the country, landing her a spot as the first woman CEO of a company on the Fortune 500 list. Under Graham, the Post published the Pentagon Papers and broke the news of the Watergate scandal. Before her death, Graham received the Freedom Medal and a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir.

10. ARETHA FRANKLIN IS INDUCTED INTO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin performing in April 2017.
Noam Galai / Stringer / Getty Images

Considered the “definitive soul singer of the Sixties” by Rolling Stone, Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit where her father was a pastor and known for his voice. She toured with her gospel group in her teenage years and later transitioned into R&B tunes with the help of several record companies. By 1960, her voice was all over the radio and she was a force, collaborating with the Beatles and receiving awards from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Franklin as one of the greats—and she became the first woman to join the ranks.

11. KATHRYN BIGELOW WINS AN OSCAR FOR BEST DIRECTOR.

Kathryn Bigelow wins oscar
Kathryn Bigelow accepts her Oscar in 2010.
Kevin Winter / Staff / Getty Images

Before becoming one of the most well-known film directors in Hollywood, Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be a painter. After making her first short film called The Set-Up in 1978, Bigelow decided that her passion lay elsewhere. More than three decades later, in 2010, that passion helped her make history. She took home the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, a film that examined the work of bomb disposal by teams in Iraq and Afghanistan up-close. Only four other women had been nominated for best director before her victory.

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Harley-Davidson
Marvel-Themed Harleys Roll Out in Australia and New Zealand
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Harley-Davidson

One of the most confusing tie-in toys of the 1970s was Marvel’s Spider-Car, a four-wheeled vehicle that could comfortably fit one Spider-Man action figure. The accessory made no sense, as Spider-Man can easily bypass traffic by shooting his synthetic webbing across the skyline. Decades later, Marvel hasn’t given up on the idea of pairing their characters with transportation—and this time, they’ve gone bigger.

The comics publisher has partnered with Harley-Davidson for a line of 25 custom motorcycles that utilize paint jobs and designs to depict the iconography of Captain America, the Punisher, Black Widow, Thor, Groot, the Wasp, and, naturally, Ghost Rider.

Harley-Davidson

The bikes (which would pair well with HJC's line of Marvel-themed helmets) are currently only available in Australia and New Zealand. In order to win one of the exclusive Harleys, residents need to vote for their favorite bike from the collection.

If you’d prefer a bike that’s built by a comic book hero—or at least a guy who has played one—then you might want to check out Arch Motorcycles in Hawthorne, California, which is co-owned by the star of 2005 film Constantine and bike enthusiast Keanu Reeves. The $78,000 machines are custom-tailored and personally test-driven by the actor before rolling off the lot.

[h/t Licensing.biz]

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