New Hampshire is known as the “live free or die” state. The motto used to carry a fiery sting; today it is nothing but a mumbling and a kick in the dirt. The true meaning behind “live free or die” has nothing to do with politics or the state at all. It means one thing and one thing only: I am a soverign entity and no one owns me.

Today I happened to browse a little book in the library’s reference section, They Paved the Way: A History of New Hampshire Women by Olive Tardiff. I decided to sit back, relax, and read up on these fiesty characters. These are women who, in their private lives, exercised liberty in their own way.

First,  I would like to set the stage for you. Life was hard in New Hampshire during the colonial and post-colonial eras. Men had their work cut out for them, but the women shared the same challenges, perhaps experiencing even more. Everyone tended to the farm, but the wives raised the children as well. This was a time when it was a norm to birth upwards of ten children or more, that is, if they all survived. The survival rate for offspring was around 50%.

If their husbands were gone from the farm/estate, they were also in charge of the farm itself, and any threat to the property (wildlife, Indians, etc.). And when their hot-headed, impatient husbands were home, the women also had to manage them.

It’s not uncommon for a man of letters to refer to his wife as his “ballast.” In this tumultuous time in history, many men were put in the forefront, often resorting to behaviors he previously avoided, such as oratory or engaging in war. Returning home to their intelligent and supportive loved ones provided a sturdy support, and emotional stability. Most famously, John Adams viewed his “Dearest Friend” Abigail this way.

MOLLY STARK

Revolutionary War General John Stark felt the same way about his wife. In fact, one of his most famous utterances was voiced moments before riding into battle in 1777: “There is the enemy — redcoats and Tories — we beat them tonight, or Molly Stark lies a widow!”

Molly Stark was a hearty, adventurous woman for her time. She managed the farm in her husband’s absense, as well as mothering 11 children — 10 to maturity — which was no easy task in those times. Having acted as a sentinel in her younger years at a fort her father built, Molly wasn’t shy around firearms. She’d been known to take down a bear and perhaps an Indian in her day.

She also didn’t take any gruff from her husband. Acording to  Tardiff, “Molly apparently enjoyed the social gatherings of Derryfield more than her husband did. Once he locked her out when she had gone alone to a party, then waited for her to beg to be admitted. Molly outsmarted John by climbing into the house over a shed roof, spent the night in a spare bedroom, then greeted her husband cheerfully at breakfast the next morning as if nothing had happened.” There is a cannon named after Molly Stark, and I don’t doubt the name is fitting.

I had a laugh reading that story about Molly Stark sneaking into her own house, but as you’ll read below, it was a more common practice than I thought it to be…

MARTHA HILTON WENTWORTH
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Martha Hilton married Governor Benning Wentworth at the age of 23. He was 64. Governor Wentworth was stout, had gout, and was a bit of a curmudgeon. He had proposed to, and was turned down by, another young woman, but Martha Hilton thought herself up to the task for the poop (if I may quote a more modern radical, independent New Hampshire woman from the film On Golden Pond, performed by Katherine Hepburn).

Having been a servant girl in her previous life, Martha Hilton Wentworth wasn’t particularly respected amonst the elite Portsmouth crowd. Her own maids disregarded her orders. Nonetheless, she did as she pleased. After attending a party by herself, Governor Wentworth decided to lock his wife out. Concerned of her whereabouts when she didn’t return, servants were sent to find her, finding only the dress she wore to the party, floating in a pond. This was all part of a plan to distract them, as Martha snuck through the open gate and was found not long after, sound asleep in her bed. Sly!

DOLLY COPP

Look at that huge smile!

Perhaps my favorite woman in New Hampshire history is Dolly Copp. In 1831 she married Hayes Copp and together they joined the pioneer movement and settled in the mountains of New Hampshire. Dolly was a tiny woman, but she lived large. Not only did the Copps offer their farmstead as a full-service inn for tourists to Mt. Washington, but Dolly ran a farmstand where she sold her own apple butter, honey, wool products from her own sheep, and other goods. There are stories of her throwing down with guests at the inn, including drinking, smoking, and dancing after dinners around the fire.

After fifty years of marriage, and what sounds like a satisfying, enriching life, Dolly announced at her anniversary celebration: “Hayes is well enough, but fifty years is plenty long for any woman to live with any man.” The couple split peacefully and she soon moved back to Maine to live out her final days with her sister.

Conclusion

We live in a world today where a lot people take a lot of gruff from a lot of stuff — whether it be the state, their job, their community, or whether it be the one person who loves them more than anyone else in the world. No one deserves to be trudged over, ever, so I hope these examples of radical, independent living ladies lead to communication and activism in your own lives. Anything to help inspire someone to be a little more free, themselves. That is what “live free or die” means.