By Mark Tully, 55th Foot
We often refer to the women on the field or in our recreated camps as "Mollies." But exactly what is a Molly? Where did this term originate? When was it used? "Molly" was a common 18th-century diminutive for Mary and/or Margaret.(1)
"Molly" probably came to denote a camp follower in modern times simply because some of our better-known Revolutionary-era heroines happened to have the name of Margaret or Mary; Margaret Corbin (Captain Molly) and Mary Ludwig Hayes (Molly Pitcher) for example.(2) The term "Molly" was also a term used in England to describe an effeminate fellow or sodomite.(3) In the 18th century the similar word, "Moll," was sometimes used to denote a whore or a prostitute, and in late 18th-century American slang it referred to "...a woman regardless of character or condition," or in other words, a slut. In England during this same period, "Moll" was also often used contemptuously to denote a wench or "the unmarried female companion of a professional thief or vagrant."(4)
So far I found nothing to suggest that camp followers or soldier's wives were typically called "Molls" or "Mollies." Is it wrong to refer to our NWTA women as Mollies? I don't know. Perhaps someone has more information on this topic, but to date my research seems to suggest that the term "Molly" should only be used when addressing women whose names are Margaret or Mary.
1) The Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: University Press, Clarendon Press) 1978
2) Montross, Lynn, Rag, Tag and Bobtail: The Story of the Continental Army, 1775-1783 (New York) 1952. In this book the author that: "There is much to support the theory that this generic term [Molly pitcher] was given to various women who carried pitchers of water for thirsty soldiers on duty," however, Montross offers no documentation to support this statement.
3) Grose, Captain Francis, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Eric Partridge, ed., (New York: Dorset Press) 1992. Webster's New World Dictionary defines a slut as: "a dirty, slovenly woman."
4) ibid. Grose and OED