Esther De Berdt Reed was a civic leader who formed and led the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to provide aid for George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War. She was a female activist in a time when it was frowned upon for women to assert themselves in such situations.
Esther was born in London, England on October 22, 1746 and moved to the Philadelphia in 1770 as a new bride to Joseph Reed, a lawyer, who would become a military secretary to George Washington and eventually President (Governor) of Pennsylvania in 1778. Esther Reed and her husband had 6 children, one of whom died in infancy from smallpox.
Mr. Reed was away from his family for long periods of time during the war and this was particularly taxing on Esther and could have contributed to her failing health. She tried to fill her time with raising their children and caring for her aging mother, which had moved with them from England. She also corresponded with her husband regularly. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, she moved her family to New Jersey but did eventually relocate back to Philadelphia.
While recovering from smallpox in 1780, Esther came up with the idea to raise money for the Continental Army, who were in the fifth year of the war and were living under horrible conditions. She founded the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. She also wrote and published a broadside, “Sentiments of an American Woman” in which she outlined why women should help the army and explained that women were the equals of men in patriotism. She and the other Ladies walked door-to-door, distributing the broadside and requesting donations for the soldiers. They collected over $300,000 in continental paper money, purchased linen and began to sew shirts. In September, as the project was being wrapped up, Esther contracted dysentery and died just one month before her 34th birthday. Sarah Franklin Bache, Ben Franklin’s daughter, took Esther’s position, finished the project and delivered 2,200 shirts to the Continental Army just in time for Christmas.
Want to know an interesting tidbit about the shirts? While the ladies were sewing the shirts, Esther had them personalize the gift by sewing their name into the clothing they made.
Even though Esther de Berdt Reed did not live to see America win its independence, her contribution did not go unnoticed and ladies, in several other colonies, started similar organizations for fundraising. Her patriotism is especially poignant given she was British and had only lived in the colonies a short time before the war began. With freedom as her chief motivation, she undertook a monumental task for a female during that time. She truly was a Daughter of Liberty.