Top 10 Women Writers


January 7, 2014
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Portrait (circa 1763) of Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley. Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Portrait (circa 1763) of Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley. Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although half the population was female, writings by women make up only a small portion of the available literature on the American Revolution. There are, nonetheless, quite a number of published tracts to inform and entertain the researcher seeking a woman’s perspective on the events of the era. This list presents only a few, in no particular order, chosen simply because this author happens to enjoy them; there are many others that deserve notice.

Mercy Otis Warren

The premier American woman writer of the era is, undisputedly, Mercy Otis Warren. She wrote one of the first American histories of the war,[1] a work that remains relevant to this day. But she published much more than that. From her vantage point at the center of the Massachusetts political scene, she had the insight to write satirical plays on the eve of armed conflict, and continued her political writings long after the war ended. She also corresponded regularly with many of the rebellion’s key figures, correspondence which augments here publications to make her one of the major political writers of the age.

Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan

As the American-born daughter of a British army officer, Margaret Coghlan’s life was ruined by the onset of revolution. She loved her native land, but was pulled away to the homeland of her parents; she loved an American officer, but was forced to marry a British officer who she despised. Her misery led her into a host of financial, legal, and social problems. Her self-published memoir,[2] in which she struggles to justify her desperate circumstances, provides valuable insight into the pressures faced by well-bred women; it remains resonant today.

Sarah Osborn

It’s debatable whether Sarah Osborn should be called a writer, but the account she gave of years following her soldier husband is too valuable to omit from a list of women’s writings. She dutifully went on campaign with the Continental army, earning her keep by doing laundry. Decades later, as the widow of a veteran, she was eligible for pension benefits and gave a detailed description of her service; as a piece of history, it went unnoticed for over a century before being published in a collection of pension depositions in 1980.[3]

Frederika, Baroness Riedesel

Thousands of women followed their husbands on campaign, including wives of officers and soldiers alike. Few wives of senior officers, however, ventured beyond encampments and cantonments to experience the dangers of active campaigning. Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness Riedesel refused to remain in Canada with her young children when her husband, a major general, led the German forces on Burgoyne’s fateful 1777 campaign. She wrote extensively of the dangers and hardships she faced with her children on the march, in battle and as prisoners of war.[4]

Elizabeth Drinker

The American Revolution was but a short episode in the long life of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, a Pennsylvania Quaker. She was an avid diarist from her young adulthood in 1758 to within days of her death in 1807. She diligently chronicled the many transitions that she experienced both in her personal life and in the society in which she lived. Although she had no aspirations of being an author or historian, her writings are among the best records of daily life during this important era.[5]

Anna Green Winslow

Another teenager who astutely recorded the events she witnesses was Anna Green Winslow of Boston. Although her diary is brief, beginning in late 1771 and ending in 1773, it covers an important part of the pre-war era when tensions were rising in that Massachusetts city. Her writing, first published in 1894 and still in print today, is insightful for its perspective on a child’s concerns during turbulent times.[6]

Phillis Wheatley

While some of the women listed here were of high standing but wrote only privately, one who gained fame for her publications was a slave. Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 book of poems earned acclaim in both America and England, receiving the notice of prominent figures on both sides of the Atlantic. She was freed from servitude when her master died; unfortunately, fame did not bring fortune and she was unable to publish a second book during her lifetime, but her work remains recognized as an important contribution to American literature.[7]

Sarah (“Sally”) Wister

The war gave teenage Sarah Wister a lot to think about, and a lot to write about. When her Philadelphia family left the city in the face of British occupation in 1777; she began a journal, in lieu of letters, to relate her experiences and observations to one of her friends. It gives a wonderful view of events from the perspective of her age, watching the comings and goings of military personnel including charming young officers of the Continental army.[8]

Grace Growden Galloway

What was it like to face the loss of everything you owned to a rebellion that you didn’t support? The diaries of Grace Growden Galloway present the anguish and frustration of a wealthy loyalist struggling to retain her own and her husband’s properties after the British left Philadelphia in 1778. She reveals a perspective of the war often overlooked, that of the many who lost their homes and fortunes simply for having supported the only government they’d known.[9]

Frances Burney

To citizens of Great Britain, the war in America was far away and somewhat abstract, something to read about in newspapers and hear stories about from people returning home; daily life went on undisturbed by conflict. Frances “Fanny” Burney, as one of the most prolific diarists of the era, interspersed concerns of the faraway conflict with the more immediate concerns of life in her native England. Although she wrote several novels and plays, it is her diaries maintained over a remarkable seven decades for which she is most remembered today.[10]


[1] Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1805). This book has been reprinted many times since.

[2] Margaret Coghlan, Memoirs of Mrs. Coghlan (London: privately printed, 1794; reprinted NewYork: Arno Press, 1971).

[3] Deposition of Sarah Osborn, in John C. Dann, The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 243-246.

[4] Friederike Charlotte Luise Riedesel, Letters and memoirs relating to the war of American independence, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga (New York: G. & C. Carvill, 1827; variously reprinted).

[5] Portions of Elizabeth Drinker’s extensive diary have been published in many places, the most recent being The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman, Elaine Forman Crane, ed. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). The manuscript is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[6] Anna Green Winslow, Diary of Anna Green Winslow, A Boston School Girl of 1771. Alice Morse Earle, ed. (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1894).

[7] Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773).

[8] Sarah Wister’s journal has been published in many forms, including The Journal and Occasional Writings of Sarah Wister, Kathryn Zabelle Derounian, ed. (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1987).

[9] Grace Growden Galloway, “Diary of Grace Growden Galloway.” Raymond C. Werner, ed., The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 55#1 (1931), 32-94.

[10] Many portions of Frances Burney’s diaries have been published in various forms; the most comprehensive publication is The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay) 1791-1840, 12 volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972-1984).


  • When I saw this topic, I was expecting an article about women known as writers in early America, such as Catherine Macaulay (British Whig and historian), Judith Sargent Murray (essayist on social and religious issues), or Susanna Rowson (top-selling novelist). Some of these folks fit that model, such as Warren and Wheatley, but most wrote privately for family and friends or themselves. The results are invaluable sources, but would they have considered themselves writers?

    1. A good point, and well taken.
      It’s really just a poorly chosen title. My goal was to draw attention to these writings, because it seems some aren’t very well known, without regard to any particular genre or objective of the writers. Titles like “top ten women who wrote stuff worth reading” or “top ten women who’s writings you should be aware of” just weren’t working, so I went with something short – and misleading.

  • Don – loved these snapshots of women writers of the founding era. I had only been familiar with Warren and Wheatley, so reading about the other eight was a treat. I’m just finishing Jill Lepore’s book “Book of Ages – The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin”, Ben’s sister. It involves mostly the letters written back and forth between the siblings, but also gets interestingly into the life of women during that period. Looking forward to your upcoming book.

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