Who Counts?: Women and the Title of “Traitor”

While researching primary documents for my bibliography, I stumbled upon a “Black List” of Tories printed in Pennsylvania in 1802. Though I doubted there would be any women among them, there was still that small seed of hope—and simple curiosity about what such a list looked like, since my research hours aren’t typically devoted to primary documents about the American Revolution. Unsurprisingly, there were no women listed, but rather a lot of men with names like John and James, and even Benedict Arnold.

The list demonstrates what a traitor looked like in the early republic: for the most part, white men of property. Such a list seems to counterintuitively (or, perhaps, intuitively) reinforce a definition of citizenship, for to betray one’s country, it follows that one has to belong to a country. Treason, by definition, is betraying one’s own country, one’s own people. However, in a revolution, these lines become blurred: what is being betrayed, and by whom, and in the interest of what? Who belongs where? What, precisely, is the “country” in question? One man’s treason is another man’s patriotism.

For the purposes of this post, I am specifically interested in the question of who can betray, because to ask who can betray also indicates who can belong. Women were infamously excluded from official citizenship in both the American and French constitutions, and yet there is ample evidence of women participating in revolution in varied and layered ways, “revolutionary” and “counter-revolutionary” alike. However, while women’s participation in revolutionary activity clearly was not enough to merit citizenship or recognition in either the American or French case, participating in counter-revolutionary efforts was, in revolutionary France at least, enough to be sent to the guillotine.

In the colonies, statutes on treason were uniformly gender neutral in using the term “persons,” thus understanding treason as a crime both men and women could commit. However, Linda Kerber writes that oaths of allegiance “seem almost always to have been selectively imposed on men” (358). Though it seems that opportunities to try women for treason were few, states had other legal avenues through which to root out and “test” loyalist women—or, rather, women who had been married to loyalist men. Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia sought to determine a wife’s loyalty apart from her husband by way of property rights, only allowing a loyalist “widow” to claim her dower right (technically a third of her husband’s property) if she continued to reside in America. This option for recourse through the legal system in itself complicates a notion of citizenship (not to mention the principles of the revolution, given that the widows were only allowed their property if they reneged on any personally held convictions or hope of reuniting with family elsewhere). However, I haven’t found records of any women who were either arrested and/or executed for counter-revolutionary activity during the American Revolution and would welcome suggestions (though the case of Bathsheba Spooner has loyalist connections).

In France, conversely, numerous women were executed during the Terror. However, many women were arrested and executed in connection with their families’ sympathies. The legal notion of coverture, by which a woman was legally subsumed (and theoretically protected) under her husband also seemed to imply that she could be condemned with him; indeed, there are records of multiple generations of families, grandparents through grandchildren, being sent to the scaffold together. Even Madame Roland, a considerable threat to the Jacobins in her own right, was arrested at least partly as a political move against her husband. Roland was a radical writer and salonnière who was intimately connected with the Girondins. Her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, was a prominent politician who had fled Paris prior to the Terror. Madame Roland’s arrest and subsequent execution are considered to have been a part of Robespierre’s attempt to purge the Girondins, but, perhaps more importantly, to flush out her husband, who was in hiding. Jean-Marie Roland committed suicide shortly after hearing of his wife’s execution.

However, some women were arrested due to their own individual revolutionary activity, independent of marital status. Marie-Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, is a prime example. A longtime ally of the Girondins, she was also sympathetic to Marie-Antoinette and, in the face of the Jacobins’ increased radicalism, called for a more tempered government. In 1793, she published a pamphlet that considered a constitutional monarchy (among others) as a potential form of government, which led to her arrest and eventual execution. Her official charge was sedition and harboring monarchist sympathies—or, trying to overthrow the current state power (Madame Roland was similarly charged).

Though a direct comparison between American and French counter-revolutionary women would be a fraught enterprise, I think that comparing the cases side by side is highly suggestive. For one, both revolutions raise questions regarding the treatment of married women and the varied uses and implications of coverture (disregarding the fact that, as a legal doctrine, it is antithetical to the principles of both the American and French Revolutions). Moreover, there are both practical and theoretical distinctions between executing women en masse and officially naming them as traitors in a published document. Naming traitors years after the fact doesn’t only discredit the people named; it further articulates a discourse of proper citizenship and helps further the ever-evolving project of creating the ideal subject. It keeps names like “Benedict Arnold” in the air. When women were sent to the guillotine during the Terror, they were largely anonymous. Madame Roland and Marie-Olympe de Gouges were published writers and notable personalities, but in most cases, those women remain faceless, nameless—they are not remembered as traitors or counter-revolutionaries, but, rather, as victims of the Terror.

So, at the end of the day, when it comes to being a “traitor,” is it important to be named in order to be remembered? Can we think about this in connection with citizenship, and how being “counted” as a traitor connects to “counting,” in some respects, as a citizen?


Black List. A List of Those Tories who took part with Great Britain, In the Revolutionary
War, and Were Attained of High Treason, Commonly Called the Black List! To
which is Prefixed the Legal Opinions of Attorney Generals, McKean & Dallas
Philadelphia, 1802.

Kerber, Linda K. “The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case
of Martin vs. Massachusetts, 1805.” The American Historical Review 97.2 (1992):

About Jeanna Kadlec

Jeanna Kadlec is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University.
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1 Response to Who Counts?: Women and the Title of “Traitor”

  1. g271187 says:

    Thanks for a really interesting post Jeanna!
    I think that this source raises many other questions as well.
    Considering that the “Black list” was published almost twenty years after the end of the American revolution, I was wondering who compiled and decided to print it, what for, and who the intended audience was.
    Is Mc Kean Joseph Mckean, the son of Governor Thomas McKean (a patriot and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence)?
    I am also curious about the content of the “legal opinions” that prefix the list-this raises interesting questions about the relationship between law and the memory of the revolution.
    Was it a common practice to publish lists of “traitors” decades after the revolution? What exactly was at stake in drawing a list of traitors? In what political/social context did these lists emerge?
    Finally, the existence of such a list seems to suggest that remembering the “traitors” is part of the processes of nation-building and the creation of a citizen identity. Does this seem right and can you think of other contexts in which this is the case? What do you need traitors for once the revolution is over?

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