The Traitor’s Wife: An Innocent? or a Co-Conspirator?

That question is crucial, says Professor of History Charlene Boyer-Lewis ’87, to a deeper understanding of the American revolutionary war era, a time of instability for much more than politics. Exactly what role did Margaret Shippen Arnold—wife of notorious traitor Benedict Arnold—play in the plot to deliver West Point to the British Army? Turns out a very active one, notwithstanding the many decades of her presumed innocence. A role active enough to be worthy of a post-war annuity of 500 pounds—for espionage services rendered at great personal risk. Boyer-Lewis contends that a revision of Margaret’s role from the margin of this spy story to its center more accurately illuminates the cultural upheaval that was part of the revolutionary era, a tumult that included a fluidity of identity that was eroding the rigidity and constraint of weakening gender roles. Like Margaret, many women of the era were strong actors who made political choices separate of their husbands. Margaret’s story shows the war transpired in households as much as on battlefields. The spy plot’s crisis of exposure reveals a capable woman who, in a “performance without faking,” exploits a gendered thinking that her leading role in the story is in the very process of revolutionizing.

WATCH the Smithsonian Channel’s episode of American Hidden Stories: Mrs. Benedict Arnold, featuring Dr. Boyer Lewis.
LISTEN to the podcast: Another Badly Behaving Woman featuring Dr. Boyer Lewis.