Kacy Tillman, Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).
Studies of loyalist women were at the forefront of studies of women in early America and the American Revolution. Scholars including Mary Beth Norton, Janice Potter-MacKinnon, Linda Kerber have examined how women, supporters, neutrals, and opponents alike, experienced and participated in the American Revolution. Contributing to this vibrant area of scholarship, Kacy Tillman’s Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution focuses on loyalist women as writers. While much scholarship on the American Revolution and loyalism examines the rhetoric and war writing in essays, broadsides, and pamphlets typically published by men, Stripped and Script focuses on how women writers used “public, if not published” letters and journals to engage in politics and to craft their own senses of loyalties.
Much of the material in Tillman’s book will be familiar to those who have read Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters or other books on loyalist women. Tillman’s methods are new, although her actors will be familiar to those who have worked on loyalists. Tillman offers a new interpretation of the lives of seven loyalist women: Grace Growden Galloway, Sarah Logan Fisher, Elizabeth Drinker, Margaret Hill Morris, Anna Rawle, Rebecca Shoemaker, and Deborah Norris Logan. In light of this familiarity, it is refreshing to read a new interpretation of the lives of these women and their written materials from the perspective of a historically informed scholar of literature with a keen eye to turns of phrase.
Tillman organizes the book by “the different shades of loyalism as they existed in the manuscripts” in question. Some self-identified with the Crown, others were assumed to be loyalists because their husbands were loyalists, some were disaffected, or neutralists but were treated as loyalists. At the beginning of the war, revolutionaries held that married women were unable to have their own sense of allegiance due to coverture. Over time, the definition of treason became increasingly gender-neutral or inclusive of women, implying that women could be as “politically dangerous as men,” a concept that undermined the status of coverture. This shift–from coverture to “exposure”—made women politically visible and “capable of being treated as legal citizens with their own rights.” Writing in letter-journals allowed women to develop their own definitions of loyalism, but also left them vulnerable. Tillman examines how women “used and were used by these manuscript spaces—how they shaped and manipulated their publicity and privacy, and how they circulated the only bodies over which they possessed any semblance of control: their paper bodies.”
Tillman pays particular attention to how women used typically private sources like letters and diaries for public purposes. Her method of analysis is particularly well suited to offer a new and refreshing interpretation of poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson. Fergusson protested using petitions and letters, and launched a “wide-reaching publicity campaign.” Fergusson filed petitions with the state assembly, sent letters to the newspapers that were published and republished across the colonies, and wrote a poem intended to be circulated. By embracing a range of genres, Fergusson was able to transform herself from someone known as “‘more dangerous to the American cause than any other woman’” to a beloved, admired literary figure and “‘the most learned woman in America.’”
Tillman skillfully walks the reader through the steps of her analysis—a tactic that will be particularly rewarding for scholars who have spent more time with historical rather than literary scholarship (myself included). On the most basic level, Tillman is upfront and clear about defining the terms that form the basis of her analysis. In the second paragraph, Tillman describes that by “stripped” she means how many loyalist women read and reacted to the Revolution by using rhetoric that identified and opposed “violent abuse, oppressive political structures, and sexual assault.” By “script,” she means both the “process of writing” and the “art of creating.” Loyalist women used manuscript writing as a “complex performance that was intended to achieve something,” as well as a writer’s “insistence on creating their own definition of loyalty.” By being explicit about her terminology, Tillman helps readers follow her analysis as well as offers other historians with additional approaches to use in their own research.
For example, in her chapter on Margaret Morris, Tillman “broadens the concept of ‘neutral ground,’ from place to page.” In physical “neutral grounds,” including Westchester County, New York, and Long Island Sound, residents’ allegiances varied based on the relative success and failure of loyalists and revolutionaries, and many became “disaffected” as a result of violence and property destruction. Just as how “neutrality” did not mean “impartiality” in these physical locations, it had a similar meaning in Morris’ letter-journal. Perhaps most importantly, while George Washington and other revolutionaries tried to control physical neutral grounds they failed to fully control the transmission of letters. Reflecting the impact of these letters, correspondence with the enemy was considered treason. Tillman suggests that “[l]etters were as contested as the spaces in which they were written.”
One of the most memorable aspects of the book is the vignette that begins each chapter. In each, Tillman describes her visit, or attempt to visit, the house where the woman in question lived. This approach helps to further develop Tillman’s argument about writing as a kind of space. Given these loyalist women’s fierce associations with and defense of their homes, as well as the sheer number of references these women make to their own homes and property in their writing, it is neat to learn about the present condition of these places. Tillman “breaks the fourth wall” by bringing the reader into her own research experience. Perhaps one of the most striking anecdotes is her trip to visit Grace Growden Galloway’s mansion in Bensalem Township, where the tenant who lived in the mansion would not allow the tour guide and Tillman into the house, the day after she was evicted. In addition to bringing the reader into her own research process, this story has remarkable parallels with Galloway’s own life as the tenant’s actions were nearly the same as Galloway’s when the confiscation committee came to evict her.
It is worth noting that all but one woman Tillman focuses on lived in Philadelphia. Given the prolific amount of writing loyalist women in Philadelphia produced, and the sheer amount of it that has survived in archives such as the Historical Society of Philadelphia, the geographic focus of Stripped and Script is understandable. Yet, by claiming to be painting a national picture, instead of one confined to Philadelphia, Tillman risks overstating her claims. Although it is possible that much of her analysis could be applied to women in other cities, such as Boston, Charleston, or Savannah, further research would be necessary in order to confirm this.
Stripped and Script’s biggest contribution is in the realm of methodology. By successfully using an approach that places literary analysis at the center, Tillman demonstrates the value of closely studying rhetoric. In doing so, Tillman offers new ways to use loyalist women’s diaries and letters to discuss rhetoric and the position of loyalist women during the Revolution. By centering loyalist women and their writings, Tillman shows how some loyalist women “used writing to assert their political agency.”