When John Adams was working on the road to Independence and new government, his wife, Abigail asked him, "don't forget the women, dear." He did unfortunately, but then the new government wrestled with many issues that could have destroyed it before the nation ever got started.
What is sometimes forgotten when the historians speak of boycotting British goods, is who makes the purchases, who has to plan meals and design clothing around the American goods available. In my novel I don't forget the women, and their efforts. I don't forget either that it is the women and children who are most hurt by the blockaded harbor and unemployment, or that it is the women who feel the need to act. Here is part of a chapter extolling the role of women, the numbers are historically accurate.
It was thirteen year old Sarah who said it first, “Mother, we women have acted throughout this time of turmoil. We have refused to purchase British goods or shop where British goods were being sold. Other women too have refused to purchase British goods or to sell them. We are stronger than Father thinks. I cannot bear to see Gabe carry this burden alone and I fear Rafe may do something rash. They helped a couple by giving them Tuck’s cabin. We gave food to Uncle when he was ill. Surely we can do something more substantial!”
Mother listened thoughtfully, then spoke, “Well child or should I say young lady. Thee have said much of what I was thinking. I may not have signed a boycott agreement but I have not served tea to our family, in fact I gave Uncle the last of the tea we had in the cupboard.”
“Yes,” Sarah replied. “And you taught me to spin and weave and all our new clothes are homespun. Not only that but our knit scarves and gloves are warmer than any British goods. Say Mother, maybe that is a way. We could get women together to make clothing, or at least scarves and gloves for the poor.”
“That is a great start. I know several women who would like to help. But I still want to find Mrs. Watson and Jean. Do thee think thee can lead me to them?”
“Thee knew I followed the boys, did thee not?”
“Of course. Thy errands always took longer if the boys had gone to see Uncle.”
“Well, it will serve us in good stead. I know where Mrs. Watson is for sure, she always has laundry on the line.”
Mother replied, “It is my thought that she does laundry to support or help support her family. She took in Luke, Jean and the baby. She must have ideas for us.”
Sarah led Mother toward the wharf, she got confused at first about the direction to the harbor cabins, but then saw the white blowing in the breeze and was sure it was Mrs. Watson’s laundry on the line. When they arrived, they found an exhausted woman, frustrated at the situation she and others found themselves in. How could the town let this all happen? Why did not they act to help those made poor by the soldiers taking the only work available?
Mrs. Watson told the women she felt overwhelmed by the depth of the problem, the sheer numbers of the poor. Except for taking in a couple now and then, or providing a meal for someone, she did not know what else she could do. With the non-importation acts by the colonists, the price of clothing was out of reach. The poorest had no spinning wheels or looms and were in desperate need of warm clothing. They needed food and shelter too, but for the most part those not in the almshouses would rather starve than go there and face the breakup of their family.
Mrs. Watson pointed to what had been Tucks’ cabin. There was only a little smoke coming from the chimney.
Sarah asked, “Why do not Luke and Jean have a larger fire today? It is cold.”
Mrs. Watson replied, wiping the tears from her eyes. “The Nelson’s baby died two days after they settled in, probably from the two nights spent in the open. Since the burial Jean just sits and stares at the floor. She does not clean, or cook, or wash. She just sits. Luke stays with her as much as he can for she lets the fire go out, but he needs to find work to do and so must leave her alone at times.”
“Their story is fairly typical. Luke earned money as an able seaman, they rented nice rooms for a time and were able to save a bit. When the British arrived and ice covered the harbor, no ships were sailing so he found work on the ropewalk, until all the trouble. Since he earned less on land than he did at sea they moved to attic rooms for less rent. By watching their money carefully they were able to stay in the attic until the landlord asked them to leave, as his son and wife had to move home as he too had no work.
“Luke, Jean, and the baby were given three days to find another place. They could not find one they could afford, and so spent two nights huddled under a fishing boat along the harbor. I saw them shivering in the cold and brought them home with me. The Nelsons had only been here one day when your boys stopped by. I thought the boys were a godsend. But their kindness was too late for the baby, and maybe for the mother. So many good people have been hurt by the arrival of the British and it has been such a hard winter.”
Mrs. Watson finished by saying. “I do what I can but the problem is beyond me. I do not know what you folks can do to help but food and warm clothing would be a blessing.”
Charity explained that they planned to have women join them to spin and to knit at least scarves, socks and gloves. They hoped that they could bring the goods to Mrs. Watson and she could distribute the items to the poor.
Mrs. Watson smiled and said, “I might not have the time for distribution, but I have an idea about who might have the time. Let me work on my idea. You can bring the finished projects here.”
Sarah’s idea seemed to be the way to help. Mother gathered her Quaker friends. They talked, they laughed, and they made thread and yarn. Anyone with a spinning wheel was welcome, and if a person did not know how to spin, they were taught. Sarah and her friends were never without some sort of needle work. Even conversations after dinner were accompanied by the clicking of needles, as scarf after scarf was completed.
The Boston Gazette, interpreted their acts, and those of other women, as ones of patriotism, saying, “the industry and frugality of American ladies must exalt their character in the Eyes of the World and serve to show how greatly they are contributing to bring about the political salvation of a whole continent.”
Some of the wealthier women, wanting to support the non-importation of British goods, began employing poor women to sew their clothing. Some merchants began loaning spinning wheels and purchasing the spun thread which they then put out to weavers. More than 170,000 yards of homespun were purchased before the repeal of the Townsend Act. For some, independence from British goods continued to be their aim, and many a poor woman now supplied with equipment and a purchaser could spin and remain at home to support her family.
Sarah and Mother felt they were making a difference. They knew that their actions and those of other women like them helped the poorest of the poor. If even a few mothers could stay home to work and care for their children that was better than it had been before, when the youngest of children as well as both parents strove to find paying work to put food on the table.
That many still wandered, or remained in poverty, came from foolish laws and a mistaken idea about poverty. Mother and daughter often thought out loud together, “What good was done by putting a man into jail because he could not pay his debts. Would he earn the money there? And what of his family, would not they just be placed on the relief rolls? And almshouses, why separate families? Would not a man work harder to keep his family fed and clothed. What was the almshouse incentive? And the ‘warnings out?’ If a family was poor, a woman could not leave to go to her family for help, she had to stay with her husband. The man could not go to his wife’s family for help, because he did not have residence where his wife’s family lived. How did these poverty laws help anyone?”
So, if the law couldn’t or wouldn’t help, an individual might. After three weeks, Sarah, Rafe, and Charity returned to the home of Mrs. Watson. Mary told them her idea and it was agreed that Rafe would approach Jean with their needs. When Rafe arrived at the cabin, Jean was cleaning up after lunch. Her eyes were red from crying, and though she was out of her chair and moving about, her countenance plainly showed the depth of her depression. Jean welcomed Rafe however, saying Uncle had not ever arrived.
Rafe took the chair she offered, and began by saying, “Jean, I know you and Luke have been through great sadness, but I have a problem I hope you can help me with.”
Jean said, “You have been so generous, Luke and I would do anything to help you if we can.”
“I know Luke needs to find work,” Rafe began, “It is your help I need right now. My sister and mother and their friends have been knitting and sewing and have completed a large quantity of items to be handed to the poorest of those in need. We don’t have the time to hand them out, and we know with certainty that Mary with her laundry business does not have time to deliver the items either. We are hoping we can depend on you.”
Jean was thoughtful, and did not say anything for a while. Rafe waited patiently, hoping his offer would be accepted and that this might raise Jean out of her depression. Finally Jean looked up, she said, “I don’t know if I can.”
Rafe responded, “Then why not come with me to Mrs. Watson’s and together maybe we can find a solution.” Jean agreed though she felt nervous about leaving the cabin. She had not seen anyone or been anywhere since their baby died.
Mary Watson was pleased to see Jean. Jean shyly thanked Mrs. Watson for her kindness after the baby’s death. Both women expressed their pleasure at the number and quality of items the Bellsons had brought. At Mrs. Watson’s nod, Rafe, Charity and Sarah rose to take their leave. Mrs. Watson said, “Thank you. Jean and I can figure this out. Keep up the excellent work. Your items will save many from the cold.” As Sarah and Charity left, they immediately began making plans for more items. Rafe looked back to see young Hope waving goodbye to him from the doorway. She called, “Come back soon.”
And they did come back soon. Every three weeks Charity, Sarah, or Rafe would take the finished items to the home of Mrs. Watson. Mary told them that she and Jean had delivered the first group of items together. The next time Jean did it alone. Later, Jean had set up a sewing circle in her home with the women and children they had helped. Jean grew happier and healthier, and finally rounder, as she became pregnant with another child.