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Minerva and Vesta: Women's Opposing Roles During Times of War

Mar Doyle

Despite the prevalence of war goddesses in most traditions from China to Greece to Ireland, women have been separated from the front lines of war for centuries. Western tradition claims that women are not made for war, but for household work: sewing, cleaning, cooking, and looking after children. Society told women to carry brooms in lieu of swords; to collect firewood instead of ammunition, and to keep house rather than protect a nation. Yet, for centuries, women have fought their peoples' wars, even if they never lifted a sword or fired a rifle.

We rarely hear of these women, though, because they were not on the front line. The AAS Online Exhibitions claims, "The term "war hero" usually refers to a man who unselfishly risks his life to fight1." In many ways this is true. War heroes, especially of wars that were fought earlier than the twentieth century, are almost invariably men. In schools throughout the United States, primary school students learn the names of heroes of various American wars: George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee; but rarely do they learn about the women who helped these heroes: Molly Pitcher, Belle Boyd, and Elizabeth van Lew. Women learned to sacrifice their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers for the same causes for which these men sacrificed their lives.

The first United States war in which women fought was the American Revolution: the war that allowed their country to be formed. While their husbands cleaned their hunting rifles and readied their clothing, American women fought the British in their own way. The most prominent form of battle, especially in Boston and New England, was the boycott on tea. It sounds like a simple thing, boycotting tea, but the English imported it to the Colonies and made a great deal of money on the tariffs. When New England housewives ceased to purchase tea, some going so far as to brewing herbal teas with raspberry leaves, the British knew a revolution was in the process. Women boycotted other goods and did their best to support their soldiers2. Some women were forced to host British soldiers, known as Red Coats, in their homes3, but they forbore and awaited the end of the war and the return of their husbands and sons as free, independent men.

Other Revolutionary War women chose to leave the comforts of their homes behind and join the men at war. It was rare for a woman to take up arms and fight as a soldier, but they did as best they could, given their strict social roles. A prime example of this is Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, better known as Molly Pitcher. She followed her soldier husband as he fought. Molly Pitcher earned her title at the Battle of Monmouth when she brought water to the fallen soldiers on the field4. Women were so taken with following the soldiers' camp that the Women of the American Revolution calls the Camp-Followers "one of Washington's head-aches5."

As was traditional during times of war, women took over their husbands' roles during the American Revolution. Women learned to manage businesses, schools6, and farms. They boarded enemy soldiers, taught schools, conducted letter writing campaigns7, and enacted political activity. Yet, all of this came to a halt when the Americans won the war and the British retreated. The rights these brave women had gained during wartime were once again returned to the men8. Men were declared the heroes of the hour and much was, and still is, made of their considerable sacrifices and selfless bravery, but it was done at the expense of the women.

The dual roles of women during wartime recurred during the American Civil War. The same people who wore corsets and hoop skirts, who had fainting spells, and were expected to live in high society were given control as men took up guns and uniforms. Once again, women learned to fight a war without taking up arms. A change from their Revolutionary War mothers, the women of the Civil War took on two true professions as the nation was divided into two: espionage and nursing.

Nursing, of course, was considered a more respectable way to support the soldiers and the war. Most of the Civil War nurses, as with the heroines of the Revolution, remained anonymous, but were a bastion of the war effort9. These selfless women left their homes and children to save a country. They helped to heal wounded soldiers, on both sides of the war, and became known for reading letters from home to the injured soldiers, undoubtedly improving morale10.

The art of espionage was open to women in both the Union and the Confederate States. An advantage of a female spy was her gender: neither side of the war would execute a woman, even on point of treason11. Famous Confederate spies include Belle Boyd, who carried important information across borders and is known for saving Confederate captains from Union troops12, and Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who helped win the Battle of Bull Run by leaking important information to Confederate troops13. Some Union spies were women firmly ensconced in Confederate society, such as Elizabeth van Lew and Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Van Lew helped prisoners of war and watched important Confederate political figures while Bowser was a maid in the Confederate White House itself15.

Despite the fact that women were still not allowed on the front line and could not carry arms with their brothers and husbands, during the American Civil War, women came closer to the battlefields than they had during the American Revolution. They learned to play on the traditional gender roles through espionage. They could aid their causes without risking life and limb with the same recklessness as a male spy. While the men fought and killed, wounded and were wounded, the women of the Union and Confederacy learned to be nurses and to read and write.

These two wars, the American Revolution of 1776 and the American Civil War, were fought by men with horses, muskets, rifles, ships, and cannons. It was men who stood on the front line and faced down the enemy, offering their lives for their country. Men fought, died, and bled in these wars. But what is so often forgotten when we remember war heroes are the women. The women may not have taken up arms and led armies with a battle cry, but they offered as much as their brothers did. When the rebels of the colonies hosted British soldiers, they knew that if they spoke their mind, it meant death or imprisonment. The women of the revolution went without necessities in the hopes that it would help with the war effort. As the ladies of the Civil War nursed the injured soldiers back to health, they ran the risk of contracting the solders' illnesses and dying themselves. When they worked as spies for their governments, they knew that their enemies considered them traitors and would gladly imprison them. It is a sad thing indeed when these women's contributions to the nation are forgotten in the shadows of their larger-than-life brethren.


1. "AAS Online Exhibitions: A Woman's Work is Never Done." 2004.

2. "Boston Tea Party: ...drinking to independence." 1996.

3. Zarro, Alexis. "Women of the American Revolution."

4. "Molly Pitcher (Valley Forge Frequently Asked Questions)." 1998 2004.

5. Zarro. "Women of the American Revolution."

6. Zarro. "Women of the American Revolution."

7. Zarro. "Women of the American Revolution."

8. Zarro. "Women of the American Revolution."

9. "AAS Online Exhibitions: A Woman's Work is Never Done."

10. "AAS Online Exhibitions: A Woman's Work is Never Done."

11. "Hearts at Home: Spies." 1997. Cited 22 November 2004.

12. "Hearts at Home: Spies."

13. "Rose O'Neal Greenhow Papers." May 1996.

14. "Female Spies for the Union."

15. "Female Spies for the Union."

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