Women’s Place in Colonial America by Ryan Perez

Women in U.S. History have always been a crucial component to the development of Colonial America whether one wants to believe it or not. Countless primary sources rise up and provide us with essential details about our ancestors and how life used to be.  Unfortunately for us today, there aren’t many pieces of evidence from females because men dominated in every facet of life during Colonial America.  In Susan Klepp’s “Revolutionary Bodies” and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “How Betsy Ross Became Famous” we see a glimpse of how women were viewed and treated by the mass society during Colonial America.

In Klepp’s “Revolutionary Bodies”, she talks about the metaphoric language that was used to describe a pregnant woman as “fruitful” and how these descriptions disappeared with the declining birth rate.  There were common themes during this time, mostly originating from Europe, that reflected certain motives for a family to reproduce at such a large scale.  The idea of marriage was directly connected to complex deals for economic survival.  There were cases where spouses were selected based on whose family had a nearby plot of land or farming tools needed for their crops.  The idea of marriage and reproduction was a political and economic institution that served important functions in society.  The power of the church also played a significant role in influencing the relationship between a man and woman.  The relationship between God and man proved to be a stronger bond than between the couple.  The idea of free choice in marriage only served to reinforce the wife’s duty to serve her husband.  John Winthrop once said, “The woman’s own choice makes such a man her husband; yet being so chosen, he is her lord, and she is to be subject to him” (Winthrop 1853).  There was a correlation between fertility rates and education.  Klepp mentions, “the higher the educational attainment of women, the lower fertility rates” (Klepp, 915).  Perhaps this suggests that as more and more women became educated on the matters of mass fertility and personal human choice, it contributed to the steady decline from the average seven children to an average of two today.  There was an incentive to having boys over girls.  The oldest son would naturally inherit the family home or farm.  Women during this time, once married, any property that a woman brought to the marriage would be directly inherited by her husband.  Klepp’s essay provides insight to the transition of the feminist mindset and where the modern family today stems from.

Betsy Ross plays into the same narrative of women establishing a voice for themselves.  It’s hard to think of women that stand out like the men who built the country we know of today.  The fact of the matter is there were women just as important as these men and contributed a great deal to our country.  When I think of women like Betsy Ross, I can’t help but think of the movements that were created by the Grimke sisters.  Angelina and Sarah Grimke hailed from the South when the institution of slavery was nearing the peak of its time.  They both declared themselves abolitionists and desired equality for men and women.  They were the first to push the boundaries of women’s public speech towards women’s rights and question African American rights.  However, when you think of famous abolitionists you quickly think of names like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  However, women were very much involved in the abolitionist ideas like men were.  Like Ulrich says, “Betsy became famous, not because of what she did or did not do in the 1770s, but because her story embodied nineteenth-century ideas about the place of women” (Ulrich, “How Betsy Ross Became Famous”).  Betsy Ross’s contribution to the American flag helped challenge the notion that only men created the new nation thus becoming a product of recognition for women in our country.

The Grimke sisters lived to see the end of slavery and the beginning of the women’s rights movement.

Women in 18th and 19th Century Paintings by Marguerite Digiorgio

Both “Revolutionary Bodies: Women and the Fertility Transition in the Mid- Atlantic Region” and “How Betsy Ross became Famous” pulls primary evidence from portraits painted by male artists. These men both provide examples to support the cultural shift of women’s perceived sexuality and profit off the imagery and mythology behind significant women in U.S history.

“Revolutionary Bodies” dictates that the style of painting women’s portraits when analyzed reflects their abilities to produce heirs. Frequently women are showed sitting with their legs apart (covered by a dress of course) with either flowers or fruit. This visualization of flowers or fruit at crotch level draws the eyes there and acts as a kind of advertisement that this woman is ready and willing to produce children. Elizabeth Peel by Benjamin West is a prime example of this trend painted in 1751. Elizabeth is shown in the typical pose; legs spread apart, flowers siting on her crotch but this painting quite literally has leaves pointing at her crotch. As well her hands are shaped to make it appear the she already has a rounded belly. The paintings included in this article, that show these characteristic poses were painted by men. Which is a confounding issue because this only portrays men’s portrayals of women not how women view themselves or their own sexuality which would be a vital component for a women’s history class.

How Betsy Ross became famous also struggles with the theme of men profiting of their own portrayals of women figures. Charles H. Weisgerber took the image of Betsy and made her into an enterprise. Beginning with his painting of her called The Birth of our Nation’s flag (1892) which was seen by millions of people at the Chicago’s world fair. Weisgerber created this imagery of a domestic woman doing her part to support the revolution. The idea of a woman being patriotic while still being domestic was a significant idea at a time in which women’s rights were viewed as a radical endeavor. Betsy became an ideal for the place of women with the American society. Not only did Weisberger impose his own idea of the domestic patriotism upon Betsy Ross but he profited off of her name. He started a movement to renovate the home thought to be Betsy’s then moved his family into it. He Was a charter member of the American flag house as well as the Betsy Ross Memorial association. His own promotion of Betsy Ross appears to be much less a desire to increase awareness as it is a business venture. The more popular he makes Betsy Ross the more valuable both his painting and business will be, as he partly supported himself by selling souvenirs.

“Revolutionary Bodies: Women and the Fertility Transition in the Mid- Atlantic Region” and “How Betsy Ross became Famous” share an unfortunate similarity in in both cases men use their own influence to control the way women are viewed to both historical and modern societies. With women subjugated for so long it is not a surprise that we do not have more paintings by women artists. Better known art is more likely to be preserved. Therefore, we as viewers should be aware of such biases and interpret accordingly.


West, Benjamin. “Elizabeth Peel.” PAFA, 2007, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia PA, www.pafa.org/collection/elizabeth-peel.

Weisgerber, Charles. “Birth of Our Nation’s Flag.” Library of Congress, 1893, Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004669130/.

“The Head and the Heart” by Charlotte Wells

Both readings this week, “Revolutionary Bodies” and “How Betsy Ross Became Famous”, revolve around the lives of white women in the pre Civil War era. Both of these texts emphasize the lack of clarity in the historical record about women in America. Many lower class women did not write at all, and when women did produce written documents they were far less likely to be saved and deemed important. Thus, much of the deductions historians make are based on informal letters, popular linguistic terms at the time, and stories passed on verbally through generations. These methods are of course biased and unreliable as compared to official documentation of events.

However, these sources can often provide a look into the social world of these women and how they, as well as men, viewed their role in society. In the Revolutionary Bodies article, Klepp uses linguistic trends to map the attitudes of fertility from 1760-1820. Prior to the 19th century, much emphasis was placed on the belly of pregnant women and the language reflected comparisons between human fertility and the fertility of land and livestock. By the late 18th century, this metaphorical language declined dramatically and along with it the fertility rate. One supposed reason for this is women’s desire to “stress the head and the heart” instead of their bodies. Another plausible correlation is the presence of war causing women to think ahead in terms of economic hardships that come with raising many children.

These reasons depict women as the drivers of their own narrative; however, paintings of women over time also reflect these changes. The portraits shown in the article are all done by men, therefore suggesting that these views also permeated in the minds of men at the time. Paintings also play a role in the Betsy Ross article. Paintings of Betsy Ross presenting the flag to George Washington certainly take control over the narrative and depict Betsy as similar to the Virgin Mary. This mirrors the trends discussed by Klepp about how women were primarily viewed as a source of life.  

Narrative becomes key when discussing the history of colonial women, especially because there is so little documentation to make firm assertions. This problem is at the heart of the Betsy Ross article. There seems to be many conflicting stories in regards to the first flag and who actually made it. What makes Betsy Ross’ story so salient is not its factual accuracy, but it’s appeal to the general public. She has become an icon who is not controversial yet still shows women as strong contributors to the revolution. Ulrich states “her story embodied nineteenth-century ideas about the place of women”. This statement rings true for the changing trends in fertility rates and attitudes as well. As women’s roles shift, so do the art and linguistics surrounding the white female experience. Unfortunately nothing can be extrapolated from these texts to address the trends among lower class women and women of color during this time. It may seem difficult to make deductions about all women during this time period, but uncovering the stories and experiences of women of color is infinitely more difficult.


“How Betsy Ross Became Famous” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

“How Betsy Ross Became Famous” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich challenges the validity of the publically accepted legend that is the story of Betsy Ross.  In her article, “How Betsy Ross Became Famous”, Ulrich takes a look at the “afterlife” of Betsy Ross and explores its significance to the American public from the time the story was first publicized in 1870 until modern times.  Ulrich considers the remarks of other historians and scholars in reference to the story of Betsy Ross and also considers the importance of developing and preserving the image a female Revolutionary heroin.   I found this article to be exploratory and instigating.  Ulrich makes several points and brings in several sources to make her readers really consider, how did Betsy Ross become famous?

Ulrich begins the article with the development of Betsy Ross ‘s story by Ross’s grandson, William Canby at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.  Ulrich makes a strong point, reiterating it towards the end of the article as well, that the original telling of the story of Betsy Ross transpired at a perfect time.  The country had just emerged from the Civil War and was preparing to celebrate its centennial.  There was a preference among many to include women, or a woman, in the history of the American Revolution.  Betsy Ross was the prime candidate to fill that spot.  Ulrich defends this point by acknowledging that several stories about other women creating the first flag for President Washington were also being tossed around during that time.  The stories had some traction but they never caught on.  What made Betsy Ross different?  Ulrich examines this question by considering the image of Betsy Ross and what she represents.  This also requires separating the real person, Elizabeth Claypool, from the Revolutionary character of Betsy Ross.  Betsy Ross is a safe, noncontroversial icon.  She fits the narrative of freedom and the role of a woman during the American Revolution.  The legend of Betsy Ross has become more about the image and the meaning behind the character than about the person herself.  The general public doesn’t particularly care if the story is true or not.  They love Betsy Ross and the reputation that the character has assumed over the years.

Ulrich makes another strong case for the popularity of Betsy Ross by arguing that because no first flag exists, it has been easy for the story of Betsy Ross to survive.  While Ulrich makes clear that there is little evidence confirming that Betsy Ross made the first flag, there is also a lack of evidence contesting that claim.  For a mid-size article, Ulrich goes into great depth trying to piece together, or rather to pull apart, the story of Betsy Ross by comparing the stories told by Canby and Rachel Fletcher, Ross’s daughter.  Ulrich challenges the reader to consider why the story of Betsy Ross has been so widely accepted and does the story deserve to continue into the next century?  I believe that Ulrich’s purpose for this article is to initiate a conversation about how historical symbols reflect the values of a country and highlight the needs and wants of the people.

After analyzing this article, I ask my classmates to consider, if the story of Betsy Ross didn’t exist, do you think a woman of some other profession would have filled the shoes of a female Revolutionary representative? How important was it to have a famous female from the American Revolution?  Does the actual person, Elizabeth Claypool, still hold importance in famous icon of Betsy Ross? Why haven’t writing such as this, challenging the validity of the legend, affected the public’s praise of Betsy Ross?

-Lea Millio