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Female Spies of the Revolutionary War

Introduction

During the American Revolution, women helped the war effort in official and unofficial capacities. They kept their households and farms running while their husbands, fathers, and brothers fought; collected and donated money for the troops; sewed shirts, stockings, and other supplies for the troops; accompanied the army as camp followers, cooking and doing laundry for the soldiers; and assisted in many other capacities. But one of the more controversial ways women helped the war effort was by spying for one side or the other—or both—during the conflict. Today such actions are sometimes viewed as glamorous and exciting, but these women put themselves and their families in danger and overcame great risks for the patriot or the loyalist cause. These women did not always receive recognition for their work, and many have been relegated to the back pages and margins of history. But their actions affected the outcome of battles, furthered the causes they believed in, and in some cases, protected their families.

In this lesson, students read biographies of the lesser-known female spies Lydia Darragh, Elizabeth Thompson, and Dicey Langston, all of whom contributed to the Revolutionary War effort in unusual ways. Students then analyze the actions of these women and identify and infer the consequences of their participation both to the conflict and in their personal lives.

Objectives

In this lesson, students:

  • Describe the actions taken by each of these female spies.
  • Discuss how their actions affected the war.
  • Analyze the personal consequences of their actions.

Materials

    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Female Spies Biography Cards
  • Graphic Organizer: Female Spies of the Revolution
  • Graphic Organizer: Female Spies of the Revolution – Answer Key

Strategy

  1. Ask students to access their prior knowledge of women involved the Revolutionary War. Who are some of the women they've heard about? You may wish to write these names on the board. If students cannot answer, guide them toward Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, or Abigail Adams, or use these legendary women as examples to start discussion.
  2. Point out that these famous women did something special that caused them to be remembered. Ask, what about all the other women who didn't become famous? What do you think other women did during the Revolution? Guide students toward the idea that women contributed to the war effort on both sides, and in many different ways.
  3. Introduce to the class that a few women became spies for the patriots and loyalists.
  4. Explain that in this lesson, students will work in small groups to learn about specific female spies during the Revolutionary War. They will record the women's actions, how those actions affected the war, and what the personal consequences were for them.
  5. Divide the class into small groups of about three students each. Provide each student with a copy of the Graphic Organizer: Female Spies.
  6. Distribute a Biography Card to each group. Note to teacher: You may choose to modify this activity by assigning all three Biography Cards to each group, depending on your students' abilities and available class time.
  7. Allow students time to read and discuss their groups' Biography Card. They may wish to highlight or underline important information as they read. Circulate to ensure understanding, and to help students answer the questions on their graphic organizers. Help students extrapolate general information from each specific person's story.
  8. When all groups have had a chance to read and to answer the questions, reassemble the class. Have a representative from each group briefly summarize for the class each individual the group studied, and answer the questions. Note: larger classes may wish to do this as a jigsaw activity. Rearrange groups so that each group of three has one person in it who analyzed each Biography Card. Have each student share what they learned about that woman with the others in their group.
  9. As each group's representative presents its findings, have the rest of the class fill out the appropriate sections of their graphic organizers.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Have students use art materials to illustrate a scene from the life of one of the featured women, and explain how the chosen scene shows the value of this woman's contributions to the American Revolution.
  2. Have groups write a list of interview questions to ask their chosen or assigned person, or one of the other individuals featured in the activity. If time allows, students could work in pairs to conduct the interview, each taking a turn as the interviewer and the chosen individual subject. (Technology Adaptation: Digitally record the interviews.)
  3. Students may conduct further research on other female spies of the Revolutionary War, such as Miss Jenny and Ann Bates.




This lesson was written by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Master Teachers Chris Whitehead, Mesa, AZ, and Kim O'Neil, Liverpool, NY.


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