[On May 21st, 1881, Clara Barton founded the American National Red Cross. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and contexts related to nursing and medical aid, starting with my colleague and friend Irene’s Guest Post on Barton herself! Add your responses and thoughts for a healthy crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On the iconic war hero who might or might not have existed, and why she matters in any case.
I can think of few more AmericanStudies ways to analyze popular memory and prominence than through the eleven rest stops on the New Jersey turnpike—and by that measure, Molly Pitcher and Clara Barton are the two most famous women in New Jersey history and culture (if that last phrase isn’t an oxymoron—I kid, Jerseyites, I kid). Pitcher’s is also the only one of the eleven rest stop referents that wasn’t an actual name, and that might not even link to an individual figure—some historians believe that the name does refer to one woman, Mary Ludwig Hays, who followed her husband and the Continental Army to the Battle of Monmouth and found herself not only serving water to the soldiers but even taking over her wounded husband’s artillery job; but others have linked the name to a number of other Revolutionary-era women who performed one or another of those roles (camp followers, water carriers, and so on), including Margaret Corbin.
So Molly Pitcher is as much a folkloric as a historical figure, one not unlike Paul Bunyan, John Henry, or, perhaps more accurately, Johnny Appleseed. Because like Appleseed’s inspiration John Chapman (about whom see that linked, wonderful Guest Post by William Kerrigan), women like Hays and Corbin most definitely existed; the details of their lives and experiences are as partial and uncertain as most any 18th century histories, even those of the Revolution’s most prominent leaders, but there’s plenty of information out there, such as at the various stories linked in my first paragraph’s closing sentences, and the Molly Pitcher legend provides an excellent starting point for researching and learning about these historical figures. Even absent such research, any collective memory of “Molly Pitcher” itself adds women to our narratives of these Revolutionary war battles and histories, producing a more full and accurate picture of those histories as a result.
I’d take that argument one step further, however. I’ve written on multiple occasions, including in this post on Judith Sargent Murray and this one on John and Abigail Adams, about the striking cultural, social, and political voices and roles of Revolutionary-era American women (including not only Murray and Adams but also Phillis Wheatley, Annis Boudinot Stockton, and others). Indeed, it’s fair to say that such women help us to see the era’s possibilities for gender and society as likewise revolutionary, and as foreshadowing and influencing the 19th century women’s movement. That some of these women, including Adams and Stockton, achieved such success in relationship to their husbands’ lives and work—just as, that is, Hays and Corbin did in relationship to their husband’s wartime efforts—reflects some of the era’s limitations and obstacles; limitations and obstacles that all these women, like Molly Pitcher, pushed well beyond.
Next nursing post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other nursing or medical histories you’d highlight?
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