“Ladies Going about for Money”: Female Voluntary Associations and Civic Consciousness in the American Revolution
Abstract

In 1780, wealthy women in Philadelphia organized the first female voluntary association in America to raise money and make clothing to support soldiers during American Revolution. The women of the Philadelphia Ladies Association illustrated female civic consciousness by creating an operational hierarchy to achieve their well-defined goals during a time of dire crisis for the revolutionary endeavor. Calling upon the press and mobilizing their social networks to publicize their undertakings, the Ladies Association adopted a traditionally masculine form of civic participation and utilized it as a way to display elite feminine public virtue. As political factionalism and class antagonisms threatened the viability of victory, members of the Association paraded through the streets demanding the generosity of fellow citizens while displaying their own commitment to the public good. Their actions downplayed internal divisions by casting all citizens as participants in the republican community bound through acts of affiliation and mutual sacrifice, but simultaneously signaled the superiority of genteel female virtue. Although the ladies who collected funds door-to-door appropriated a conventionally masculine form of community building, commentary on the Ladies Association masked any potential challenge to traditional gender norms by highlighting the domestic rather than the public aspects of the operation. The Association illustrates the ambiguities inherent in republican womanhood. The fund-raising efforts of 1780 made elite women into essential and active participants in public endeavors while situating their activities firmly within the realm of female, domestic patriotism.


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