“We are determined to foment a rebellion”: Women and Espionage in the American Revolution

Patience WrightIt’s no secret that women in the eighteenth century had little to no political freedoms. The patriarchy that had worked so well for the male elite of Britain and the rest of western Europe had, by that time, been transplanted in the American colonies. Despite the lack of women’s rights in Britain’s New World colonies, even during the famous period of salutary neglect, American women had hope that revolution and independence from the empire would bring about new rights.

As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in 1776:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Clearly, some women in America held out hope for a better future once freed from the patriarchy of Britain. While Abigail Adamas is remembered as one of the important women of the American Revolution, many others risked their lives for the cause.

As many women worked as nurses and cooks for the American army, some took a more direct route: espionage.

Don’t Send a Man to Do a Woman’s Job

Of all the spies that Washington and the American military effort employed throughout the war, the women who volunteered their services proved the most effective. Most men, especially those who served in the military, viewed women as innocent and non-threatening. Due to this sexist oversight, British commanders inadvertently gave female spies premo access to military intelligence, often discussing important matters in front of the women they deemed so harmless.

The story of Patience Lovell Wright (pictured top right, National Portrait Gallery) is perhaps the best example of British officers and higher-ups disregarding the presence of a woman when discussing matters of war.

Born in Bordentown, New Jersey in 1725, little is known of Wright before her husband’s death in 1769. A widowed mother of five children, Patience began making wax sculptures to make ends meet. Originally created for clothing models, her lifelike representation of heads and hands soon gained her notoriety.

In early 1772, Wright picked up stakes and moved to England. Centering her new shop out of London, Wright quickly gained patronage from some of the most influential members of British society. She even had members of Parliament and the king’s court come to her to have their likenesses done. By the time the American Revolution had begun, this expat had the perfect setup to turn spy.

By making small talk and overhearing gossip, Wright gained insight into the political and military affairs of the British. Once she had a piece of juicy intel, she would hide it in a sculpture and send it to American agents in Europe and the Americas. She kept in touch with such notable patriots as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Through these connections, Wright helped the American cause back home stay informed on the latest news from the British capital.

lydia darraghAnother woman who took advantage of the era’s patriarchal bent was Lydia Darragh (right). Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, the Darraghs moved to Philadelphia in the 1750s. Whether they took an extreme liking to the colonies or saw a means of striking back at the British for their age-old abuses of the Irish, the Darragh family supplied the Continental forces with soldiers and spies.

After British officers were quartered in the Darraghs’ home, they must have overlooked the family due to their pacifist Quaker beliefs, because they often discussed plans for military campaigns within earshot of Lydia. What they didn’t know, though, was that she was listening. Taking what she heard from the officers as she went about her day, Lydia and her husband would translate the information into a shorthand often used by the family. She then sewed these letters into the buttons on the coat of her teenage son, who would then simply walk across British lines to deliver his button-messages to his older brother serving with the American forces.

On December 2nd, 1777, Lydia put herself in even greater danger. Somehow made aware of a particularly secretive and important meeting between the officers stationed in her home, Wright hid herself in a closet that adjoined the room in which these loose-lipped redcoats met. Startled by what she heard, she left the house as soon as she could under the pretense of needing more flour. She then made a beeline for a small mill on the outskirts of town, where she met Colonel Elias Boudinot and delivered the message: the British were planning a clandestine attack on George Washington’s forces camped in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania.

When the British forces marched on Whitemarsh and found no Washington, they realized their secret attack wasn’t so secret after all. Though Lydia was questioned, she was never seriously considered a threat, so her familial spy ring remained at large.

Part of a spy ring now made famous by AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, Anna Strong is another perfect example of the overlooked woman turned spy.

Operating out of Setauket, Long Island, Strong was one of the handful of New Yorkers who made up the Culper Spy Ring. Just like Wright and Darragh, Strong had the guts and the guile to pass on information about the British in plain sight.

One of four members of the Culper Spy Ring, Strong’s job was to coordinate the passage of information. The other members included Abraham Woodhull, who procured the intel; Caleb Brewster, who transported information off the island; and Benjamin Talmidge, the ring’s spymaster within Washington’s forces.

In order to avoid detection, the Culper Ring used six different inlets along the Long Island coast as dead drops. When new intel was gathered, Woodhull took it to one of these drop zones. In order for Brewster to know which of the six drop zones Woodhull had used, Strong invented a code the British never cracked: she would hang a black petticoat out on her laundry line when a drop had been made. She would then scatter handkerchiefs along the line, with a the number of handkerchiefs corresponding to a particular drop zone.

By appearing to simply be carrying out her daily duties, Strong facilitated the safe passage of confidential information across enemy lines for years. What’s more, the Culper Spy Ring was never caught.

On both sides of the American Revolution, women stood up for what they believed in. While many of them did not have their names recorded in the history books, they left their imprint on history. By taking advantage of the sexism inherent in eighteenth-century society, female spies gathered information men could not and, in so doing, changed the tide of the war.

Jordan BakerJordan Baker holds a BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. A lover of all things historical, he concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history at eastindiabloggingco.com.