Thursday, April 2, 2015

Women's History Month

Women's History Month

Hi everyone, March was Women's History Month. I like to learn about Rhode Island women and their achievements. It's always hard to choose but this year I picked Catherine Littlefield Greene.

Caty, as she was known, became famous for accompanying her husband General Nathanael Greene during the Revolutionary War and later for (possibly) coming up with the idea for the cotton gin and/or financing the project.

Caty or Kitty was born on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island in 1755. Her mother died when Caty was only one year older than me (10). Caty's dad sent her to the mainland to live with her Aunt Catherine. Aunt Catherine taught Caty all about the womanly arts like flirting and dancing. It was the way women could share their opinions with men and tell men what to do in a way that was acceptable at the time. Caty has a reputation for being ditzy and flirty but she was only doing what women were supposed to do back then. She also loved to read and learn about politics. Her uncle was a politician and Governor of Rhode Island. He was friends with Benjamin Franklin and a Quaker merchant named Nathanael Greene.

Nathanael Greene began courting Caty when she was only 17. They married two years later in 1774. Caty was a fierce supporter of American Independence. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Caty was not content to stay at their home in Coventry, Rhode Island. She insisted on joining her husband or staying near him when he was away fighting.

During the winter at Valley Forge, Caty stayed there with many of the other wives of officers in the Patriot Army. She took tea with Lucy Knox and Martha Washington, among others. The ladies had their own social club and organzied balls to support their men and keep everyone happy. Caty danced, flirted, played card and parlor games and all the men fell in love with her.

During the Southern campaign, Nathanel Greene paid for his troops food, clothing and equipment out of his own pocket. He was supposed to get paid back by Congress but they didn't have any money. Instead, they gave him and his family a former Loyalist plantation in South Carolina, known as Mulberry Grove, as a reward for "saving the south."

Sadly, General Greene died of sunstroke in 1786, leaving Caty alone with five children to support. She worked hard to get back the money owed her husband. She wrote a petition to Congress, spoke to President Washington and appeared before Alexander Hamilton and the officials of the Treasury Departmen. She had the support of all her famous friends and finally, in 1792, she was granted  $23,500 and a promissory note for another $23,500 payable by Congress within three years.

Finally, she could run her plantation and care for her children. She married the children's former tutor and plantation manager, Phinneas Miller in 1796. A neighbor's tutor, Eli Whitney, came to stay and work on some inventions. While staying at Mulberry Grove, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Some people saty it was Caty's idea and other people say she put money into the invention.

Supposedly she told Eli Whitney all about cotton planting and harvesting and how difficult it was and that gave him the idea. Since women were not allowed to hold patents, no one knows for sure. If she had applied for a patent herself, it “would have exposed her to the ridicule” of friends and “a loss of position in society,” which did not like to hear of women’s involvement in any "outside industry."  The story came from an 1883 pamphlet entitled “Woman as Inventor” by Matilda Joslyn Gage. The pamphlet says Caty gave Whitney the tools and Caty suggested using wire instead of wood and so history was made. The National Archives officially says Caty's “support, both moral and financial were critical” to the invention of the cotton gin.

Caty ended up losing money again and could not stay at Mulberry Grove. She moved her family to Cumberland Island, Georgia where she built a manor house, calling it Dungeness. She died there in 1814.

Caty was an important colonial era woman. She's not well known outside of Rhode Island and South Carolina but if you're a kid like me and want to know a bit more about the Greene family, Ann Rinaldi's fictional biography, The Family Greene,   is a good place to start. Grown-up people can look up Caty in books and online. You can read my guardian's blog post about Nathanel Greene and his house. She went there without me! (It was raining that day). Next time I will go and report back on what it must have been like to be Martha or Cornelia Greene. 
~ Susanna

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