Esther de Berdt Reed led the largest women’s organization of the American Revolution.
the fall of 1778, when the revolution had been underway for two years, Joseph Reed won election president, or governor, of Pennsylvania. Esther Reed used this elevated position to show her patriotism by forming the Ladies of Philadelphia – an organization through which women could raise funds to assist General Washington’s army. She wrote “The Sentiments of an American Woman,” which was published in local papers and called women to action. She said: “Our ambition is kindled by the same of those heroines of antiquity, who have rendered their sex illustrious, and have proved to the universe, that, if the weakness of our Constitution, if opinion and manners did not forbid us to march to glory by the same paths as the Men, we should at least equal, and sometimes surpass them in our love for the public good. I glory in all that which my sex has done great and commendable.” Although women from North Carolina to Boston had formed earlier supportive organizations, the Philadelphia group would raise the most money.
The Ladies of Philadelphia, headed by Reed, worked to raise the incredible amount of “three hundred thousand continental (paper) dollars, or approximately seventy-five hundred dollars in specie (precious-metal coin)” by walking door to door requesting donations from over 1,600 contributors. This amount of money was extraordinary in this time period. In response to all of Reed’s efforts the French Secretary of Legation, M. de Marbois, wrote a letter to Reed commending her work. He wrote that Reed was “the best patriot, the most zealous and active, and the most attached to the interests of her country.”
Reed believed that the government should pay for the soldiers’ food and supplies, and she anticipated that the money the Ladies of Philadelphia raised would go directly to the soldiers “to render the condition of the Soldier more pleasant.” She wrote General Washington and told him of her plan to give the money to the soldiers, but Washington suggested that instead of giving the money directly to the men, clothing would be a better idea. He explained, “A few provident Soldiers will, probably, avail themselves of the advantages which may result from the generous bounty of two dollars in Specie, but it is equally probable that it will be the means of bringing punishment on a number of others whose [propensity] to drink overcoming all other considerations too frequently leads them into irregularities and disorders.” Washington left the decision up to Reed, however, and concluded: “It was not my intention to divert the benevolent donation of the Ladies from the channel they wished it to flow in.” With this advice, the women used the money to buy linen and began to sew shirts for soldiers.