The Complicated World of Female Loyalism: A Review of Kacy Dowd Tillman’s Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution

Any scholar who teaches or writes about the era of the American Revolution understands that the category of loyalism is slippery. For those in favor of the war against the British, the word “loyalist” was a weapon used alongside battles, destruction of property, tarring and feathering, and other tactics to draw the line between friend and enemy. When used this way, the word erased the complicated reality of the women and men in that category, lumping the cautious, the pacifist, and the conflicted alongside those who remained truly loyal to the British Empire.

(Courtesy University of Massachusetts Press)

In Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution, Kacy Dowd Tillman dives into the mire, using letter-journals and other sources written by women who had been defined as loyalists. Their writings reveal not a monolithic identity, of course, but a complicated reality. As the women wrote their own stories for their friends, family members, and sometimes others to read, they laid claim to multiple and shifting selves and resisted the attempts of others to define them. They created what Tillman calls “paper bodies,” or private and public writings that allowed them to define their loyalty or lack of loyalty for themselves. These paper bodies were “the only bodies over which they possessed any semblance of control,” for coverture stripped them of rights over their property and the war stripped them of protection over their physical bodies.1

In examining loyalist women’s paper bodies, Tillman’s Stripped and Script serves as a reminder that scholars do not always remember the ladies. Even after decades of attempts by scholars to describe and decode women’s lives and worlds, male constructs of the past are hard to shake. Much of the revolutionary-era scholarship, for instance, celebrates the public sphere, those communal and print spaces that men used to argue over ideas and create a new republic. For all women, and particularly loyalist women, the public sphere was not a safe space but was fraught with danger. Engaging in the public sphere was considered an unfeminine act, and for women who questioned the actions taken by the Continental Congress or local authorities, engaging in the public sphere could mark them as enemies. Because of this, loyalist women needed to proceed cautiously. Tillman explains that the texts they created often “masquerad[ed] as private or intimate documents” while they “participated in the literary, political, and printed public spheres.”2

Tillman untangles loyalist women’s negotiations of dangerous spaces through a close reading of the sources. She rejects any idea that loyalist women did not tell their own stories, informs her readers that those stories are there if we know how to read them, and then proceeds to demonstrate just how to do this. Tillman’s texts are not just the letter-journals and other written manuscripts that loyalist women left behind but also the actions those written sources describe. For example, in the summer of 1780, loyalist Anna Rawle answered a knock on her grandmother’s door. On the other side of the door was a representative of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, who immediately turned her back on Rawle. As she turned her back, this woman said that “she did not chuse to face Mrs. S[hoemaker] or her daughters” for being loyalists and, therefore, enemies to the cause.3

“Tillman rejects any idea that loyalist women did not tell their own stories.” (Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Tillman reads this action as closely as she reads the written text. By doing so, she turns another familiar story about a patriot woman, Esther DeBerdt Reed, on its head. For years, I have told the story of Reed carefully negotiating the gender norms that guided women away from public political work. In her essay, “Sentiments of An American Woman,” Reed called on the example of historical women who aided men in times of war. She claimed that women, too, were “born for liberty,” and, while they would rather be home nurturing their families, the necessity of the times required them to step into public roles like Deborah in the Bible or Joan of Arc in 15th-century France. In founding the Ladies Association, Reed created a public and political organization in which women could prove their patriotism by doing the work of their sex, going door-to-door to help raise money to supply the Continental Army. With this work, she earned the praise of General George Washington, who wrote that she and her volunteers were entitled “to the highest applause of their Country.”

In Tillman’s book, however, Reed’s story becomes much less heroic and much more complicated. Reed’s husband Joseph was the president of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He had not only issued the order that allowed the confiscation of loyalist property, he had moved with his wife into Anna Rawle’s home. Rawle, who had lost her home to Joseph Reed, answered the door to one of Esther Reed’s volunteers. Within this story, Tillman’s Reed is not a patriot woman boldly inserting herself into masculine space but a woman making herself comfortable in another woman’s space, occupying a home from which Rawle was deposed although she had committed no crime. This moment, fraught with tension and meaning, sucks the reader into a particular space and time, layering emotion on top of the theoretical analyses of women’s lives during the American Revolution.

Women and men occupy physical spaces in Stripped and Script. In a metaphorical sense, the manuscripts do as well. Tillman opens these women’s manuscripts not just for herself but for her readers. As Tillman describes them to us, we can almost smell the vellum and age and feel their heft and composition. The objects themselves become actors in Tillman’s narrative. For example, in describing Margaret Hill Morris’s desire to create “a neutral island,” Tillman writes, “Her diary acted as a sentry, keeping watch and allowing others to keep watch alongside her.”4 Morris created the diary but, in order to work as it was meant to, the diary had to become that paper body to act in the spaces created for it by the writer and the readers.

As Tillman shows how loyalist women scripted themselves, she adds another layer by scripting herself as a searching scholar and interpreter of meaning. She begins each chapter with the story of her modern attempts to visit the homes of loyalist women. These stories delighted me and I laughed out loud at her description of the cranky and tenacious tenant at Grace Growden Galloway’s Trevose Mansion in Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania. The mansion is owned by the Bensalem Historical Society, which leases the house out to tenants. The tenants are required to allow guests inside. However, when Tillman and her guide showed up, the angry resident refused to let them into the house, slamming the door in their faces not once but twice. I laughed again when Tillman ties this story to Grace Growden Galloway’s attempts to stay in that very house during the American Revolution when the confiscation committee came to strip her of her property. Galloway lost that attempt as the committee physically removed her, but perhaps, Tillman muses, “the house itself creates inexorable people.”5 This story, and the ones that start each of the chapters is a reminder that the scholar is never absent from the construction of the past, that we script meaning onto the page in ways we hope are truthful, but that the ongoing dialogue between present and past is as quarrelsome and messy as the categories in which we attempt to place past actors. Stripped and Script is one of the best accounts I have read of loyalist women’s lives. Tillman’s use of women’s writings and actions and her nuanced interpretations of loyalism allow us to see these women not as enemies to the American cause but as actors who worked to understand the world around them and to negotiate dangerous and troubled times.

Notes

  1. Kacy Down Tillman, Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019), 5. Return to text.
  2. Tillman, Stripped and Script, 20. Return to text.
  3. Tillman, 101. Return to text.
  4. Tillman, 75. Return to text.
  5. Tillman, 26. Return to text.

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