Historical Markers
Widow Catherine Smith Historical Marker
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Widow Catherine Smith

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
SR 1011 (old US 15) at SR 1010, White Deer

Dedication Date:
May 24, 1967

Behind the Marker

The American Revolution marked a turning point for women. Their economic and other contributions to the war effort also led to a questioning of traditional women's roles. Prior to the colonial conflict, women's lives centered on their homes and families. Their activities were largely defined by responsibilities to children and spouse, though the precise nature of those obligations varied according to the social and economic status of the family.

Whether they lived in rural Pennsylvania or in urban Philadelphia, though, housewives tended to perform the same chores, including washing and ironing, cooking and baking, sewing and knitting. Their labor was also affected by the seasons. In the autumn, they preserved fruit and stored vegetables, and in the early winter they salted beef and pork and made sausage.

Directing the day-to-day activities of the household, colonial women deferred to their husbands on matters of finance and business. Indeed, upon marriage in Pennsylvania as in the other colonies, husbands took legal title to their new wives" property. Nor did wives seek information about family finances from their husbands, preferring to remain ignorant of those matters. Quaker Elizabeth Drinker summarized the feelings of most Philadelphia housewives when she admitted, "I am not acquainted with the extent of my husband's great variety of engagements. I stay much at home, and my business I mind."
A lovely oil on canvas portrait of Esther De Berdt Reed wearing a soft peach color silky dress trimmed in lace.
Esther De Berdt Reed, by Charles Wilson Peale.

The coming of the American Revolution, however, forced women to take a more active role in the larger economy. When colonial opposition to Parliament's revenue-raising measures began in the 1760s, women immediately joined the non-importation and non-consumption movements by boycotting British goods. Their domestic roles now assumed a political significance. Some, styling themselves the "Daughters of Liberty," organized spinning bees to produce homespun for local consumption. Others renounced silks and satins and pledged to stop serving tea to their husbands. They encouraged others to join their example by singing the little ditty:

"Throw aside your topknots of pride,
Wear none but your own country linen;
Of economy boast, let your pride be the most,
To show clothes of your own make and spinning."

As men marched off to war, women assumed management of family farms and businesses. Catherine Smith, a widow, took up the responsibility of running her family's saw and grist mill in Union County during the war, and opened a boring mill that produced many of the gun barrels used by the Continental Army. Calling upon women marker "to render themselves more really useful," Esther De Berdt Reed organized the Philadelphia women's committee that raised desperately needed funds and purchased linen for shirts needed by American soldiers. After her death in 1780, this effort was taken over by Benjamin Franklin's daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache. Sarah Bache, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin, organized 2,000 women in Philadelphia in 1781 to sew clothing for the Continental Army.

Elizabeth Ross, better known as "Betsy," transformed her small house on Arch Street into a cottage industry for making flags. Similar efforts were made by women across Pennsylvania. Many women also left their homes to join their husbands, fathers, and brothers in military encampments, some being officially employed by Washington's army.

From a political perspective, the Revolution may have done little to change women's role in society, but it did result in a stronger appreciation for domesticity. Americans began to see the connection between women's roles and the education of children as virtuous citizens in a new republican society. Women emerged as "Republican mothers," who taught their children the virtues necessary to be constructive citizens in the early republic. This new respect for domesticity eventually paved the way for the nineteenth century's glorification of the woman's role in the American household.
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