Women and the Politics of Petitioning in Virginia, 1776-1800


Women were largely excluded from the expansion of political and civil rights in the American Revolution. When it came to formal politics (citizenship, voting rights, etc), the Revolution was very much a revolution of, by, and for white men, and propertied white men at that. The only real expansion of formal political rights for women came in New Jersey, where between 1776 and 1807 women were legally allowed to vote if they met the property requirement for voting. Since the laws of coverture prevented married women from legally owning property, the “New Jersey Exception” on voting rights actually only applied to a small number of wealthy white widows and only a few hundred women voted in any given election. Aside from that, women in the new United States were largely cut out of the formal political gains enjoyed by men.

To the extent that women enjoyed any political benefits it came through informal politics (non-voting). The Revolution allowed women a new political voice in terms of speaking up about political matters and women increased their participation in political events like parades, patriotic celebrations, and political party gatherings. Wealthy women informally lobbied, often by trading access to their husbands at social events they hosted in exchange for consideration of social policy related to “women’s issues,” usually things like morality policing (i.e. temperance), poverty, and matters that involved children.

Petitioning was a form of politics that fell somewhere in between the formal and informal realms and was an area that women increasingly turned to for expressing themselves during and after the American Revolution. Historian Linda Kerber observes that, in the Revolutionary era, women increasingly petitioned their state legislatures or the US Congress, which put them “directly in contact with people who wielded power.”[i] Over 250 women petitioned the US Congress between 1789 and 1820. Commenting on the upsurge in petitioning, historian Rosemarie Zagarri notes, “After the Revolution, American women, inspired by notions of popular government, seemed to have seized on the petition as a preferred means of expressing their grievances and asking for redress from their legislators.”[ii] By the mid-nineteenth century women used legislative petitions to express themselves on a variety of social issues, call for social reforms, and eventually even lobby for causes like the abolition of slavery and expansion of women’s rights.

The documents below are a sampling of the petitions women in Virginia wrote to their state legislature during the Revolutionary era, between 1776 and 1800. In these years, over 200 women petitioned the Virginia legislature.

Use the petitions of Virginia women to draw conclusions about petitioning as a means of political self-expression for women in the Revolutionary era. What kinds of women petitioned? What kinds of things did these women petition about? How would you categorize the grievances they raised and issues they wanted addressed? How “political” do you consider this form of self-expression to be for women?


[i] Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, 93-94.

[ii] Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash, 39.


[These documents were compiled by former UMBC graduate student Lisa MacFarlane as part of a semester-long project in my American Revolution graduate course].

Petitions of Virginia Women, 1776-1800

Mary Webley (1776)

To The Honourable the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates

The petition of the unfortunate Mary Webley late a resident of the Borough of Norfolk humbly sherveth.

That your Petitioner on new Years Day Last, while suckling her Child the youngest of three now dependent on her, had her leg broken by a Cannon Ball from the Liverpool Man of War.

That her Husband from the Loss of his arm, upwards of twenty years since is scarcely able to maintain himself.

That she hath at present no ways or means to procure shelter or acquire subsistence for herself and miserable little children, her husband left having had all their effects totally destroyed in the Flames of Norfolk from whence they house been drove in most difficult circumstances.

Therefore prays this honorable House will on Consideration of the premises grant unto her such aid and relief as in their justice and mercy should seem right ….

Webley, Mary: Petition, Norfolk [Borough/City], 1776-10-11, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Anne Boling (1777)

To the Honorable The Assembly of Virginia

The Petition of Anne Boling  Humbly Sherveth that she had three sons in the Minute and Regular service in which service they all became sick. Two of them about five months the other about three weeks and died at her house. The two which recovered is now in the regular service your petitioner Being in low circumstances and has suffered with nursing and paying doctors more then she can well bare prays some relief and your petitioner shall pray.

Boling, Anne, Orange County, 1777-10-30, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Jane Dixon (1777)

To the Honorable the Speaker and gentlemen of the House of Delegates

The petition of Jane Dixon, late an inhabitant of Norfolk Borough, for advanced in years, very inform, and in great distress humbly showeth

            That her husband James Dixon late of the said Borough died some years ago testate, leaving your petitioner his Widow, and a small estate personal; which by his will he did not dispose of, that upon the execution refusing to qualify the county court ordered the sheriff to sell the estate and return the produce of the sale into the clerks office, which being done after debts were paid one half the balance was paid your petitioner for the heirs of the said James. That the said clerk hath made the strictest inquiry for the Heir of the said James yet he hath hither to been unable to find any, and your petitioner believes no such Heir will ever be found. That the said clerk being well acquainted with the unfortunate circumstances of your petitioner is very desirous to dispose of the money in his hands for the relief. Wherefore your petitioner prays this honorable House that they will be pleased to order the said money to be paid into the hands of some person or persons who may occasionally advance for her such sums as me be necessary for her substance and your petitioner as in Duty bound shall ever pray.

Dixon, Jane, Norfolk (Borough/City), 1777-5-10, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Susanna Riddle (1778)

The Honorable The Speaker

And House of Delegates

In Petition of Susanna Riddle of York Town Sherveth

That your Petition is in possession of a certain Negro Man slave called John Hope but more generally known by the name of Barber Cescar who has recommended himself in a very particular manner to the inhabitants of this Town, not only on Account of his extraordinary skill in his Profession, but from the uniform good behavior he has evinced in the course of thirty years residence here during his circumstances and conducted himself with so much industry, sobriety, and honest as to engage the approbation of all who know him and as to engage the approbation of all who know him and to induce them to desire earnestly that he may be permitted to enjoy the few unarming years he has to love in freedom; your petitioner Therefore hopes he the said John Hope will be thought worthy of manumission and pray that leave may be given to bring in a Bill for that purpose, and your Petitioner will ever pray.

Sarah Riddell

Riddell, Sarah, York Town, 1779-10-29, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Alphia Wonycutt (1778)

To the honourable the Speaker and Delegates of Virginia.

The petition of Alphia Woyncutt Widow and Executrix of the Will of Nicholas Wonycott late of the Borough of Norfolk Deceased, humbly showeth that at the burning of the said Borough in the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy six there were standing within the same, belonging to the said decedents Estate and dwelling House, one kitchen and some small out House with a garden valued in the whole of five hundred and fifty eight pounds. That the kitchen which was valued at sixty five pounds was burnt by the troops of this state and that the dwelling House and other buildings, valued at four hundred and ninety three pounds were burnt by order of convention.

That the commissioners appointed to estimate the value of the losses of the inhabitants of the said Borough by mistake have inserted the value of the whole building in the column for the houses burnt by the state troops by which no allowance was by the assembly at their last session, made to the said decedents estate for the losses aforesaid as your petitioner believes with appear by the report aforesaid as will also the mistake from the depositions returned with the report, but if it should not do as she can prove the same by sufficient testimony.

Wherefore your petitioner humbly prays that she may be paid the value of the Building burnt by order of convention. And that she may receive compensation for the kitchen burnt by the state troops when their House shall allow the same to the other sufferers which she prays may be soon as their circumstances call for speedy relief. And your petitioners shall pray etc.

Alphia Wonycutt, Norfolk (Borough/City), 1778-10-17, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Elizabeth Crowley (1780)

To the honorable the Speaker & Gentlemen of the House of Delegates

The Petition of Elizabeth Crowley of the County of Henry humbly showeth that whereas her Husband who was appointed one of the Spies in the Expedition in the Year 1774 undertaken by General Lewis at the Point against the Indians & that her husband was then killed in consequence whereof she was allowed the sum of ten pounds for & towards the relict of herself  and the numerous family of small children & that sum by the extraordinary & unexpected deprecation of the money is rendered quite inadequate to that benevolent & charitable purpose: wherefore she hopes that you will take her case under consideration & make such additional allowance as you in your wisdom & benevolence may adjudge reasonable & necessary for which your petition as in duty bound will ever pray.

Elizabeth Crowley

Crowley, Elizabeth, Henry County, 1780-11-23, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Jane Stewart (1780)

To the Honorable the Speaker & Gentlemen of the House of Delegates

The petition of Jane Stewart humbly showeth that your petitioner was possessed of several slaves before the destruction of Norfolk among which was a valuable fellow called Wig, by trade a Cooper, who was carried from Portsmouth by the state Troops, on an exposition as she conceives that he was the property of some other person, that she is informed the said slave was carried to the lead mines & has been employed in the service of the state for four years last past. Your petitioner being an orphan, humbly prays that the said Slave may be returned to her & such compensation made for his service, as you in your wisdom shall think just & right & your petitioner as in duty bound shell ever pray etc.

Stewart, Jane, Norfolk County, 1780-5-18, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Sarah Sanford (1783)

The Honorable Speaker and Gentlemen Members  of The House of Assembly in the Common  Wealth of Virginia now assembled

The petition of Sarah Sanford/Adm.x [Adminitrix, at the time the female form of Administrator, the person who administered the settlement of the estate] of James Wilson, Deceased, humbly beg leaveto show that at a court of Oyer and Terminer [criminal court] held for the County of Norfolk the 5th day of  August 1778- a slave named Bob, belongingto the Estate of His said Descendent James Wilsonwas arraigned at the Bar charged with Treasonand Robbery, and by the court of the said Countywas found guilty of the same and carried tothe place of Execution on the 7th of the said Monthand executed, punnant to his sentence, as willappear by a certificate under the hand of theSheriff and it will further appears to you byHis decree of the count (a copy, attested, here with tobe laid before your Honorable body) that the saidSlave was valued to the sum of Two HundredPounds. Your petitioner therefore humblyprays that the same may be now Levied forthe use of the Estate of the said James Wilsonand your petitioner should pray etc.

Sanford, Sarah: Petition, Norfolk County, 1783-06-17, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Ann and Margaret Rose (1783)

To the honourable the speaker and Gentlemen of the house of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia

            The petition of Ann & Margaret Rose, of the County of Halifax, humbly showeth that your Petitioners were slaves to the late Walter Robertson deceased but in his lifetime being desirous that we should be Emancipated and there being no law in existence that would tolerate such procedure, did by his last Will and Testament, require that the Executors to his said Will, should transport us to a port in great Britain, where he will know that the laws of that Kingdom, would declare us free, to all intents and purposes and that the Estate left us by our Decedent (being considerable) should be sold and a remittance thereof made to us. Your petitioners being desirous of residing in Virginia (the land of their Nativity) have petitioned the Court of Halifax, which said court are of opinion, that your Petitioners ought to be free under a late Act of Assembly in the said court conceive it to be the desire of said Walter, as declared by his said Will and at the request of Thomas Hope, one of the Executors, to the said Will from under his hand that said, Court did order, that your petitioners should become free persons. But as doubts have arisen, with respect to the legality of the order of the said Court and Mr. Robertson, heir at law in great Britain, laying claims to us as slaves and the Estate left us by our Decedent, your petitioners humbly pray that your honourable House will enact a law that shall secure to us our Freedom and the Estate so left us and we as in duty bound shall ever pray etc.

Rose, Ann and Margaret, Halifax County, 1783-12-05, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Amy Barret (1784)

To the Honourable Speaker and Gentlemen of the General Assembly

The petition of Amy Barret humbly showeth that her late Husband Jonathan Barret entered into the service of his country as second Lieutenant, on board and Armed Brig belonging to the State, commanded by Captain Edward Travis, and was taken on a cruise by the British and carried to New York, where he sustained a long and painful imprisonment of near twelve months, when he died in goal to a great grief and misfortune of your petitioner, a very aged mother, and two unhappy orphans who are but barely supported by the utmost efforts of her labour & industry. 

Your petitioner therefore humbly prays that the Assembly will take her case into consideration & grant her the arrearage of pay that’s due to her deceased husband and make sure other provision for herself & children as they in their wisdom & justice shall think of it, and she as in duty bound will ever pray.

Barret, Amy, Miscellaneous (Chronological), 1784-12-3, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Susanna Farmar (1784)

To the Honorable the Speaker & Gentlemen of the General Assembly

The Petition of Susanna Farmer widow & relict of Samuel Farmar deceased late of the Borough of Norfolk Humbly showeth

                        That in the beginning of the year One thousand seven hundred & seventy six, when this Country was involved in a War with Great Britain, the whole of the house in the said Borough was destroyed by a great conflagration by which the said Samuel Farmer who was at that time a very advanced age & inform state of health together with your petitioner & the rest of his family by were exceedingly injured & destroyed, left destitute of a house or even the common necessaries of life at a very inclement season of the year & not knowing when calamities & difficulties like those would end, together with a desire of retiring from a place of warfare & to secure to himself ease at his advanced time of life, the said Samuel Farmer, your petitioner & his two sons (who were at the time infants of very tender years) removed to the Island of Bermuda, where he departed this life, leaving your petitioner & his two sons as aforesaid, previous to which the said decedent duty made & published his last will & testament wherein he devised to your petitioner all his Estate of Land, & within the said Borough, that in consequence thereof immediately after the establishment of peace she returned from Bermuda, took possession of Lands devised to her & expended & considerable sum in building & improving the same supposing that agreeable to the spirit & intention of the treaty she was authorized to do so; but being since informed that the said Lands were escheated [transferred in ownership], which she fears will obstruct the Benefit & advantage intended her by the last Will and testament of her said Husband without the interposition of your Honorable Body, she therefore prays that you will take the same into consideration, hoping that no sale or transfer whatever of said Lands will be permitted to take place, & that your petitioner may be secured in the full enjoyment & possession of them, & she as in duty bound will pray etc.

Farmer, Susanna, 1784-11-21, Norfolk (Borough/City), Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Elizabeth Mohun (1787)

To the Honorable the Speaker & Members of the General Assembly

The petition of Elizabeth Mohum Widow & Relict of Joel Mohum Humbly Showeth

That in the year 1779 her late Husband Joel Mohun who was by Trade a Blacksmith, furnished a great quantity of necessary Iron work for the use of this state—that in the Fall session of 1782 his account was liquidated & a Resolution of both of your Honorable Houses passed in his favour directing the Payment of one Hundred & ninety four pounds nine shilling & ten pence half penny. _____ That your petitioner has made frequent applications to the Treasurer & auditors/ the late husband having been long since dead/for payment of the above sum, but all in vain receiving for answer that no fund being fixed on for the discharge of this Claim, no payment could be made.

                        Your petitioner not having the smallest doubt but that the intention of your Honorable House was that the omission of a fund was merely for hand earned services & that operate in any much less in her case and as she is without remedy but through the interposition of your humble house therefore prays.

                        That a fund may be assigned for the Payment of the foresaid sum & that common interest may be allowed from the passage of the said resolution. And your petitioner as in duty bound will pray etc.

Mohun, Elizabeth, 1787-11-22, Norfolk County, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Fanny Crutchfield (1790)

To the Honorable the Speaker & Gentlemen of the two Houses of General Assembly

The petition of Fanny Crutchfield of the County of Hanover; Most Humbly represents, that her late husband Ralph Crutchfield, became security for one Samuel Cutchfield, as deputy Sheriff under Geddes Winston—that the said Crutchfield failed to collect, and pay into the treasury the taxes assigned to him for Collection, in consequence of which the said Geddes Winston moved for and obtained judgment against the said Deputy and Your testators husband—that an Execution was levied on the estate of the said Deputy and his effects sold, but they proving insufficient, an execution was levied on the estate of your petitioners husband, fifteen negroes of which have been actually sold.

Your Petitioner, therefore, Humbly prays, that as the Balance now due of the principal is but small, that You in your wisdom, and humanity, will remit the damages & interest, to the said Geddes Winston, as far as it respects the said securityship.—upon the money actually paid, and grant a small time of indulgence for the Balance, ______ Your petitioner, is induced to hope relief in this case, from her deceased husband being an innocent security, & from the utter ruin and distress that she now a Widow, & her orphan children, (who from a clever competency) would be thus reduced, in case the damages & interest should be enforced.

trusting on the mercy & clemency of Your Honorable Body your petitioner, as in duty bound, will pray etc.

Fanny Crutchfield

Crutchfield, Fanny, Hanover County, 1790-11-20, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Elizabeth Snale’s (1791)

The Humble the Speaker & Members of the General Assembly

The Petition of Elizabeth Snale Humbly Shereth

That her husband Thomas Snale was a Lietenant in the Navy of the State under the command of Captin John Rodgers. That in the severe Winter of 79-80, he was for a considerable time beating off the cost in a Wesel belonging to the State which with the bays was saved by his exertions, your Petition further showeth that her said husband even so much exposed in her executions to save the said vessel, that he died in consequence of the hardships suffered by him, that ever since his Death she has lived in poverty & distress. Humbly prays that a reasonable pension may be allowed her for her suffering.

Snale, Elizabeth, Miscellaneous (Chronological), 1791-11-12, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Eleanor Bowrey (1792)

To the Honorable

The General Assembly

Of the Commonwealth of Virginia

He Petition of Eleanor Bowrey Humbly Showeth

That upon the second day of September in the year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Seven a certain Negro man Slave was hired by a Captain John Calvert for the Service of the Commonwealth aforesaid for the term of three years from that time and that at the end of two years from that time the said Negro was discharged from the service for a foresaid by a Captain Wright Westcole a considerable sum being than due to your petitioner for the Balance of said Negroes hire as will appear by a stateman hereto adjoined and further that although your said petitioner has often applied by her friends at the Offices she thought proper for payment of the said balance without any affect, she therefore prays that you may order that the said Balance by paid or secured to her as you in your Wisdom shall think just and your petitioner shall ever pray etc.

Eleanor Bowrey

Bowery, Eleanor, 1792-9-28, Elizabeth County, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Mary Boush (1796)

To the honorable the Speaker & members of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia

The petition of Mary Boush of the Borough of Norfolk humbly showeth that your petitioner the widow & relict of Guthridge Bough who died in the service of the state during the late revolution was put upon the list of petitioners & as the time which the said Mary Boush was to enjoy the pension allowed is about to expire. Your petitioner therefore prays as she has now grown old & inform she may be continued on the list of pensions & enjoy during her life the pension which your honorable house in compassion to her reduced circumstances, thought proper some time ago to bestow on your petitioner & your petitioner shall as under bound ever pray etc.

Mary Boush

Boush, Mary, Norfolk (Borough/city), 1796-11-19, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

Sarah Terry (1800)

To the Honorable the Legislature of the State of Virginia

The petition of Sarah Terry Humbly showeth that she was proprietor of a Hogshead of Tobacco [1,000 lbs of tobacco] in Robert Bellings Ware House at Petersburg on the 25th day of August 1779 at the time the said Ware House was consumed by fire—that the said hogshead of tobacco was at the time consumed and she has recovered no compensation therefore—that altho, a law was enacted by the last Gen. Assembly making provisions to restitute those who were unfortunate sufferers at the same time with your petitioners yet your petitioner was never informed of its operation until it has expired—

Your petitioner therefore prays that this assembly will grant her with relief as she in justice is entitled to & she will pray &ca.

Sarah Terry

Terry, Sarah, Petersburg (Town/City), 1800-12-5, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.