Marblehead Woman

Critical Thinking

May 7, 2014
by Ray Raphael 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

In education circles, document-based learning is all the rage. The idea is to present a historical document, ask students to examine it closely, then pose some questions. These DBQs, as they are affectionately called, are expected to introduce young people to the process of historical inquiry.

How sweet it would be, but it’s not that easy.

In 2005, the AP United States History test presented an historical image in which a woman wears a tricorn hat, grasps a powder horn in one hand, and supports a musket with the other; in the distance, a flag waves from a fort. No context was provided except for the title: “Woodcut of Patriot woman, Marblehead, MA, 1779.” Students were expected to write an essay, based on this image, responding to the question, “To what extent did the American Revolution fundamentally change American society?” The official “Scoring Guidelines” explained the “document inferences” students were expected to draw from this single image:

  • Women participated in the American Revolution.
  • Women’s roles were expanded during the American Revolution; women performed tasks previously done solely by men.
  • Hints at the potential for revolutionary change in women’s roles.[1]

Included in the “outside information” students might wish to bring to bear on this document, the Scoring Guidelines stated, was “Molly Pitcher.”

This is no way to train our junior historians.

First off, women did not participate in the American Revolution in the manner depicted, bearing muskets to defend a fort or related military purposes. Very occasionally, when a handful did so, they had to pose as males. True, camp followers participated in artillery teams, and back home, groups of women sometimes strong-armed noted Tories or shopkeepers who hoarded scarce items, but such women were not musket-toting imitations of their male counterparts.

The war did expand women’s roles and their worries, but not in that direction. Indeed, the so-called “Patriot woman” from Marblehead accompanies an explicitly anti-war poem, A New Touch on the Times, well adapted to the distressing situation of every Seaport Town.[2] With men “gone the ocean wide” (during times of peace, Marblehead was a fishing center, but during times of war, men often shipped out on privateering vessels), women were left on their own to face wartime shortages and exorbitant prices: “It’s hard and cruel times to live,/ Takes thirty dollars to buy a sieve.” How did “every Seaport Town” fall upon such hard times, the author asks?

For sin is the cause of this,
We must not take it then amiss,
Wan’t it for our polluted tongues,
This cruel war would ne’er begun.

We should hear no fife and drum,
Nor training bands would never come:
Should we go on our sinful course,
Times will grow on us worse and worse.

Then gracious GOD now cause to cease,
This bloody war and give us peace!
And down our streets send plenty then
With hearts as one we’ll say Amen![3]

This poem hardly celebrates women-turned-soldiers. Indeed, its powerful message is quite the opposite of what the AP text-makers read into the woodcut that accompanies it.

Not only did the AP program present the Marblehead woodcut out of context, but it also erred by assuming the image was purely descriptive. This is a common mistake. Images and words can have many purposes, and reporting is only one. They can praise or condemn, ridicule or scold, warn or cajole. Depending on the accompanying text and social context, a broadside publisher might want readers to interpret an image of an armed woman in different ways. Even if we imagine that this woodcut depicts the actual behavior of some women at that time, how do we know whether that behavior was to be seen as laudable, lamentable, or ridiculous?

Not understanding the genre or the intent, we cannot draw inferences from an isolated document – yet that is exactly what the AP asked students to do. Most likely, test takers followed the errant path the test makers cleared for them and assumed the image was presented as a representation and celebration of real women during the Revolutionary War. Presented with evidence this scanty, students were not merely encouraged but forced to jump to conclusions. They had no choice but to practice hasty history, just as the test-makers did.

Unfortunately, presenting isolated documents with little context is all too common. Various curricula websites have glommed onto Marblehead Woman, making the same faulty assumptions as the AP did. Well-meaning educators, using DBQs to promote “historical thinking” yet poorly trained in historical inquiry, present a documentary snippet, then ask students to make snap judgments on minimal evidence. The actual practice of history, on the other hand, depends on the consultation of multiple documents, as many as can possibly be retrieved.

The real kicker, in this case, is the casual assumption that Marblehead Woman provides evidence of a change in women’s roles. Presumably, the American Revolution gave rise to expanded roles in a militarized society, as portrayed in this particular image. Were it not for the Revolutionary War, there would have been no expanded roles and hence no “patriot woman” woodcut. But what if historical documentation shows that this image did not even arise during the Revolutionary War, but many years before? Stay tuned. J. L. Bell will contextualize the roots of this sturdy lass tomorrow.


[1] “AP United States History 2005 Scoring Guidelines” PDF, accessed March 3, 2014.

[3] Molly Gutridge, Broadside, 1779. Evans Early American Imprints document 43671, repository New-York Historical Society. National Humanities Center website, accessed October 1, 2013.


  • Great article, Ray. All too often contemporary political thought colors historical interpretation. Who wouldn’t want to see women or other groups not well represented in the War have their heroic stories told? The fact that Paul Revere got serious press and Sybil Luddington didn’t has always struck me as ‘sexist’ but that’s a silly contemporary application to a time when women’s rights just didn’t exist. But, hey, she didn’t get captured. What’s important is that researchers continue to mine the documents to find and tell what facts or inferences exist. I taught a high school class as a parent guest teacher and the pre-class assignment was to read the Declaration of Independence. Where else does one find such a well-known and founding document that lists the complaints against the king that collectively translated to the causes of war, at least in the minds of the signers? If one were to instruct a student to pick the 3 most offensive actions and why, I believe the student would not only have gained a productive understanding of an original document, but could advance their own historical arguments on the War itself. Not to mention it’s a stirring read. So kudos for the effort, but I give the questions a C-. I give Ray an A+ for an enlightening article.

    1. I think the major reason fewer people know about Sybil Ludington than about Paul Revere is that her story wasn’t in print until about a century after the event and has no contemporaneous documentation. The route she’s credited with riding is conjectural. I don’t know of any independent evidence that her father and his militia unit were involved in the defense against the Danbury Raid, much less had an important effect on the event. The Sybil Ludington story came to public attention at a time American culture was seeking more active female heroines, and it served that culture. But by then Longfellow had made Revere a household name.

  • Great thoughts Ray. I am not sure if this is directed to the current “Common Core” debate in education. It does sound similar to some of the issues raised with it. It is dangerous when education becomes nothing more than an attempt to further an agenda.

  • As a retired history teacher I can identify with the important issues you raise, Ray. While I agree with the concerns expressed in the other comments regarding agendas being pushed, I also have other concerns about how history is taught and how skills and knowledge are tested in both regular and AP classes. I often told my high school students (in a private school) that I don’t know of any historians who read textbooks and then take multiple choice tests on the material. For me, history is about asking questions, researching to locate as much evidence as possible, pondering its meaning and context, coming to a personal understanding, and then communicating the researcher’s conclusions to others. This takes time and energy – often a great deal of both. An issue I have with the AP test is that the student is presented with the question and then has very limited time to consider it and no chance to search for additional inputs. I have a feeling that many students only thought about the Marblehead Woman question in terms of “what do they want me to say?” rather than really thinking about it. One problem with history teaching is that students look for right and wrong answers rather than personal understandings. When teaching American History I often asked students to decide whether or not the colonists were justified in declaring independence. This question was given at the beginning of the unit and the students had several days after the unit to complete their essays. A major problem I had was convincing students that they didn’t have to agree with the vote on independence. If nothing else, this exercise helped them see that a reasonable person could develop and hold a divergent view. They also experienced changes to their views over the course of the unit. This was not done in an AP class because I never taught one, by my own choice. Since AP courses were originally developed to allow high school students to earn college credits, one must wonder what the AP test shows about the curriculum expectations in colleges. Since we live in an information age, the need to be able to contextualize what information we find, or simply comes at us, is an extremely important skill. Thank you, I very much appreciate this article.

  • Thanks for this, Steven. One sentence in your comment triggered a further thought: “Where else does one find such a well-known and founding document that lists the complaints against the king that collectively translated to the causes of war?” While they are not so well-known, several other documents would help give students a broad concept of what was going on precisely because they were not the Declaration of Independence. Pauline Maier uncovered 90 statements by public bodies promoting independence immediately preceding and concurrent with the congressional declaration. Here are three. The first two list grievances. The third, an extract from Mason’s draft for Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, contextualizes Jefferson’s rephrasing of the same principles in his preamble. Students can have fun seeing all of these, and when they do, they can place the congressional declaration in a broader historical context, noting phrases and ideas that appeared in multiple documents.

    New York mechanics’ petition to the Provincial Congress, May 29, 1776:

    To the Honourable Representatives of the Province of New-York, in Provincial Congress convened. The humble Address of the General Committee of Mechanicks in union, of the City and County of New-York, in behalf of themselves and their constituents:

    GENTLEMAN: We, as a part of your constituents, and devoted friends to our bleeding country, beg leave, in a dutiful manner, at this time to approach unto you, our Representatives, and request your kind attention to this our humble address.

    When we cast a glance upon our beloved continent, where fair freedom, civil and religious, we have long enjoyed, whose fruitful field have made the world glad, and whose trade has filled with plenty of all things, sorrow fills our hearts to behold her now struggling under the heavy load of oppression, tyranny, and death. But when we extend our sight a little farther, and view the iron hand that is lifted up against us, behold it is our King; he who by his oath and station, is bound to support and defend us in the quite enjoyment of all our glorious rights as freemen, and whose dominions have been supported and made rich by our commerce. Shall we any longer sit silent, and contentedly continue the subjects of such a Prince, who is deaf to our petitions for interposing his Royal authority in our behalf, and for redressing our grievances, but, on the contrary, seems to take pleasure in our destruction? When we see that one whole year is not enough to satisfy the rage of a cruel Ministry, in burning our towns, seizing our vessels, and murdering our precious sons of liberty; making weeping widows for the loss of those who were dearer to them than life, and helpless orphans to bemoan the death of an affectionate father; but who are still carrying on the same bloody pursuit; and for no other reason than this, that we will not become their slaves, and be taxed by them without our consent, — therefore, as we would rather choose to be separate from, than to continue any longer in connection with such oppressors, We, the Committee of Mechanicks in union, do, for ourselves and our constituents, hereby publickly declare that, should you, gentlemen of the honourable Provincial Congress, think proper to instruct our most honourable Delegates in Continental Congress to use their utmost endeavors in that august assembly to cause these United Colonies to become independent of Great Britain, it would give us the highest satisfaction; and we hereby sincerely promise to endeavour to support the same with our lives and fortunes.

    Declaration of the Delegates of Maryland, July 6, 1776 (written concurrently with and independently of the congressional declaration):

    The Parliament of Great Britain has of late claimed an uncontrollable right of binding these Colonies in all cases whatsoever. To enforce an unconditional submission to this claim, the Legislative and Executive powers of that state have invariably pursued for these ten years past a studied system of oppression, by passing many impolitick, severe, and cruel acts for raising a revenue from the Colonists; by depriving them in many cases of the trial by Jury; by altering the chartered Constitution of one Colony, and the entire stoppage of the trade of its Capital; by cutting off all intercourse between the Colonies; by restraining them from fishing on their own coasts; by extending the limits of, and erecting an arbitrary Government in the Province of Quebeck; by confiscating the property of the Colonists taken on the seas, and compelling the crews of their vessels, under the pain of death, to act against their native country and dearest friends; by declaring all seizures, detention, or destruction, of the persons or property of the Colonists, to be legal and just.

    A war unjustly commenced hath been prosecuted against the United Colonies with cruelty, outrageous violence, and perfidy; slaves, savages, and foreign mercenaries, have been meanly hired to rob a people of their property, liberties, and lives. …

    Compelled by dire necessity either to surrender our properties, liberties, and lives, into the hands of a British King and Parliament, or to use such means as will most probably secure to us and our posterity those invaluable blessings,

    We, the Delegates of Maryland in Convention assembled, do declare, that the King of Great Britain has violated his compact with this people, and that they owe no allegiance to him; we have therefore thought it just and necessary to empower our Deputies in Congress to join with a majority of the United Colonies in declaring them free and independent States. … We have also thought proper to call a new Convention, for the purpose of establishing a Government of the Colony. … [W]e exhort and conjure every virtuous citizen to join cordially in defence of our common rights, and in maintenance of the freedom of this and her sister Colonies.

    Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12, the day after Jefferson, in Philadelphia, was appointed to the five-man committee to draft a congressional declaration of independence):

    1. That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
    2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the People; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.
    3. That Government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community. Of all the various modes and forms of Government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of mal-administration; and that whenever any Government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, un-alienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the publick weal.

  • Aren’t you guilty of the same misreading that you are accusing the AP exam of? This was one document of eight. The AP rubric specifically says they have to NOT treat the document as isolated but connect it to outside knowledge. Further, other outside influences that were suggested in the rubric, beyond Molly Pitcher, indicated that the AP understood the image to be metaphoric not literal. These included “Republican motherhood” and “Home Manufacturing.” In fact, it’s clear that the AP thinks that many (most?) students would understand the woodcut as a metaphor for change and not as a description of the change since Republican Motherhood would be a lasting social change and women joining the army would not be a lasting change (and would be exceptional and therefore not really a change at all). The fact that the author of the woodcut did not like the changes during the Revolution doesn’t change the fact that they happened. Nor does it change the fact that the last document mentioned the rise of separate spheres ideology that modified some of those same changes.

    I find it curious that you accuse the AP of the very sins you commit here, taking documents out of context to make ideological points.

    1. You are correct, David, that Marblehead woman was one of several documents presented – in fact, there were ten, not just eight. Thanks for pointing this out. Of course students were not expected to write the entire essay on change in American society based on just one document. My bad for the ambiguous “based on this image” in my article. I should have been more clear and apologize for the confusion. While I failed to state that the AP presented other documents, neither did I say that the whole essay should be based on this image alone. I did say, correctly, that they were expected to draw specified inferences (see the article or the paragraph below) “from this single image,” and that is the meat of my article.

      At the outset, the AP announces that this is to be a “document-based question,” and Marblehead Women is the first document it presents. In the scoring guidelines, AP describes the document in its own words: “Shows woman holding a musket and powder horn. Fort and flag in background. Women is wearing a tricorn hat” – all explicitly military, not mere “metaphors.” Then, the guidelines state what inferences students are expected to draw from this document: “Women participated in the American Revolution. Women’s roles were expanded during the American Revolution; women performed tasks previously done solely by men. Hints at the potential for revolutionary change in women’s roles.” Yes, students are encouraged to refer in their essays to “potential outside information triggered by the document,” but still, in a document-based question, the document is key. I don’t see how we can draw any sound historical inferences, let alone these particular ones, about changes in American society from 1775 to 1800 based even in part on an uncontextualized presentation of a worked-over woodcut dating from a previous time. (See John Bell’s article.)

      Of the other nine images, only one refers to “women’s roles,” the topic students are expected to address with reference to Marblehead Woman: “Molly Wallace, valedictory address, Young Ladies’ Academy of Pennsylvania, 1792.” The final “inference” students are supposed to draw from this document is: “Juxtapose with Document A [Marblehead Woman] to demonstrate failure of anticipated changes to materialize.” Clearly, the AP has drawn its own inference from Document A: it had “anticipated changes” in women’s roles, which then failed to materialize. All this from some recycled woodcut? I just don’t get it. This is conjecture, a parlor game, a chance to go off on some topic, whatever – but it’s not history. There is no “evidence” to base anything on.

      I don’t understand your closing sentence. What are my “ideological points”? I am talking about methods and standards of evidence. Where’s the ideology?

      1. Ray,

        I think the point you miss is that students are expected to analyze the documents AND use their historical knowledge to craft a historically defensible thesis and draft an argument.

        A student might approach this question by arguing that changing roles for women during the war (e.g., managing family farms and businesses, actively supporting the war effort, serving as spies or in extreme cases such as Deborah Sampson enlisting as men) led to a new feminine ideal as typified by the woodcut image. They would need support that with further evidence (e.g., Abigail Adam’s admonition that women would rebel if not given more rights, the extension of women’s suffrage in the New Jersey constitution, liberalization of property rights, etc.). A student could also argue that short term changes wrought by the war failed to result in long-term changes, as evidenced by the emerging concept of Republican Motherhood, such as the decision by NJ to end women’s suffrage, etc.).

        Keep in mind that the AP program is the equivalent of a freshman year survey course, not a graduate-level methods course. It asks students to demonstrate historical thinking skills (e.g., periodization, causal relationships, identifying point of view, etc.) by using sources. AP teachers aren’t training students to be historians, but rather training them to be good critical thinkers who know how to use evidence in support of an argument.

        Lastly, they have 60 minutes to draft that response in a high pressure situation. You’d be surprised how well students do.

  • A fascinating piece followed by some wonderfully elucidating comments. I’m no historian, but lived in Marblehead for 33 years and appreciate all myth-busting that gets it right. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *