Feminism and Republicanism - American Motherhood
The great majority of women's lives were changed by the American Revolution: they were increasingly drawn into the political debate – as household producers and consumers, and as wives and mothers.
In the history of Feminism, the 1790s is often seen as a critical decade. Although earlier women writers Christine de Pisan, Mary Astell, 'Sophia' – had written effectively and movingly of the condition of women, and suggested that educational reforms, in particular, might improve their situation, it was only in the context of a world in which revolutions in America and in France opened up the possibilities of reshaping the social as welt as the political order that radical changes in the relationship between the sexes began to seem feasible. The best known feminist of the late eighteenth century was of course Mary Wollstonecraft; earlier Judith Sargent Murray had written of a new role for women in the new American republic, and in the rapidly changing political scene in France after 1789, Olympe de Gouge, Etta Palm D'Aelders, Claire Lacombe, Pauline Leon and others were to draw attention to the rights of women. The philosophy of natural rights, embodied both in the American Declaration of Independence end in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, seemed relevant to women. A small number of women, of nerve and intelligence, were to explore the implication of those natural rights for women, both politically and in their personal lives. And a small number of men were also drawn to speculate on the possibilities of social change. Yet, as so many later historians have remarked with varying degrees of complacency, these feminists of the 1790s seemed to achieve little, to attract more ridicule than followers.
In England and in America, the conservative reaction against Mary Wollstonecraft made her name an impossible one to follow for some generations; in France, even before the conservative reaction of Thermidor, the leaders of the revolution themselves turned against the feminists. But it can be argued that the defeat was by no means a total one, and that the issues raised by feminists were not lost to view. In the age of revolutions, it was suggested, positive reforms were needed to establish the natural rights of women: legal changes in the position of married women, divorce reform, improvements in women's education, in the treatment of women as workers and, perhaps, political recognition. All these concerns were related by feminists to their central acceptance of the immensely important role which women played within their families, their situation as mothers. Mary Wollstonecraft's view of 'the indispensable duty of a mother' was echoed in Judith Sargent Murray's practical advice to her readers, and Etta Palm D'Aelders' rhetorical Appel aux francoises (1791).
For the writers associated with the radicalism of the 1790s in Britain, France or America, the part which women would play in the new society would be inextricably linked to their task of raising new citizens. For them it was a task whose status should be fully recognised, deserving a voice in the political arena. What distinguished the feminist view was that that task should be undertaken by women, freely, rationally, with independence, as their contribution to the new and transformed world of the republic. These conditions for 'republican motherhood' were hardly to be met. Yet feminist support for the improved status of women as mothers remained one important element in the nineteenth-century re-evaluation of the appropriate spheres for the sexes; and the boundaries between feminists and conservatives, in their treatment of family roles, are not always easy to recognise. Briefly, however, in the 1780s and 1790s, the ideal of 'republican motherhood' seemed to offer a way of uniting public and private responsibilities for women, and dominated the feminist arguments of that decade.
Historians of the American Revolution have recently considered the ways in which the war for independence, and the founding of the new republic, affected women's experiences and aspirations. Naturally, their practical experiences were very diverse, yet in some way or another the lives of the great majority of women were changed: northern or southern, black or white, patriot or loyalist. As the political arguments between Britain and the colonies grew fiercer, in the 1760s and 1770s, women were necessarily drawn into the debate, even though they were regarded as incapable of independent political judgment. Yet as purchasers for their households, and as producers too, they had to play a part in economic warfare, in the successive boycotts of goods from Britain. Female patriots were especially involved, for instance, in the boycott of tea and other goods which the British government taxed in 1767. Groups of women responded with enthusiasm, and some even formalised their agreement to abstain from the use of tea.
In 1774 a group of fifty-one North Carolinan women signed an agreement to adhere to the resolutions of the provincial congress on non-importation policies, and to do all in their power to support 'the public good'. The meeting was derided by the British as the 'Edenton Ladies Tea Party' – and yet it represented a serious political initiative by women themselves. As shopkeepers, too, women would be called upon to observe non-importation agreements. Women bore the brunt of appeals for a greatly expanded cloth production for the needs of the army. In the south this would be the work of female slaves. In the north the normal household tasks of spinning and weaving took on a different political significance. Newspapers were now covering spinning bees, seen as examples of female patriotism, christening those who took part 'Daughters of Liberty'.
By the outbreak of war, it was clear that many women were taking an active and informed interest in the progress of public events, and. that a few, such as Mercy Otis Warren, dramatist and historian, sister to James Otis the patriot, were speculating on the right of women to address themselves to major political questions: 'As every domestic enjoyment depends on the decision of the mighty contest, who can be an unconcerned and silent spectator?' she wrote to a friend in 1774. She felt that women's duties to their families positively required them to take a political interest. Other women felt similarly, though they have expressed their views only in their private correspondence. Political awareness might still be confined within the domestic sphere, yet that sphere itself was taking on a new political significance. With the outbreak of the revolutionary war, many women were to face new responsibilities, especially in the absence of their men. If their area was occupied by British troops, they could be subject to forced billeting, and even to political attack. Many women, both on the loyalist and on the patriot side, were forced to define their own political position, even though they were formally regarded as outside the political nation. Some women found that their only access to government lay in the humble petition. The petitions of distressed widows, whose husbands had died in the Continental armies, emphasised their own feeling of political support and sacrifice for the republic.
But these petitions, on the whole, received little attention and had little effect. The most organised form of political action by women in the course of the war was the fund-raising drive organised in Philadelphia and New Jersey in 1780, initiated by a broadside from a Philadelphian, Esther de Berdt Reed, The Sentiments of an American Woman. In this she defended the right of women to contribute to the revolutionary cause, recalling the 'heroines of antiquity, who have rendered their sex illustrious'. The meeting of Philadelphia women that followed this publication organised a highly successful drive for funds, and embarked on correspondence with women in other towns and countries, most effectively in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. The purpose of the movement was to some extent deflected by General Washington's insistence that the considerable funds collected should be used to make shirts, providing ample opportunity for condescension towards the aims of the Ladies Association. Some individual women, of course, took a far more active part in events, directly aiding prisoners to escape, and carrying messages or spying on behalf of revolutionary or loyalist forces, but these were atypical. Most significant was the inescapable infusion of political partisanship into domestic life. Friendships, even marriages, could be strained and broken by strongly held political differences.
Republican rhetoric might, of course, be thought to hold implications for the position of women, yet the leaders of the revolution were on the whole unwilling to contemplate the natural rights of women. However, the legal situation of married women, governed by English common law, whereby the wife's identity was legally entirely subordinated to that of her husband, was questioned in the course of the revolution. Women, though not required to take the oath of loyalty to the republic, could certainly commit treason, even though they were not full citizens; but a married women leaving the republic to join her loyalist husband was not normally treated as a traitor, though her husband was. However, a number of treason statutes passed in different states allowed wives to preserve their own property interests in their husbands' estates, which were forfeit, if they made their own political commitment clear.
In 1779 the Massachusetts legislature promised to protect a wife's property rights if she remained in America, declared herself separated from her husband, and proclaimed her loyalty to the republic. But under this statute, if a wife joined her husband, it would be assumed that she had made her own political decision, and she would suffer the consequences. Therefore the political duties of married women to their country, distinct from their obedience to their husbands, were under some circumstances acknowledged. Some lawyers argued that married women had a political responsibility to influence their husbands, and that if they failed to do so they should suffer the legal penalties with them. The case of Florence Cooke is worth considering. After her Tory husband was exiled and his property confiscated Florence Cooke, in 1783, petitioned the Genera1 Assembly of South Carolina:
She is informed that herself is deprived of her right of Dower, and her child a Daughter of Twelve years of age, of all future claim on the inheritance of her father. This law she humbly thinks the more severe as her Child received early & strong impressions of real attachment to the liberty of her Native Country; with a confirmed aversion to her enemies; principally inculcated by yr Petitr who if Providence had blessed her with a number of sons, would have thought herself happily engaged in employing all the influence & care of a Mother, to render them fit for the defence and support of their country.
Her claim is based on her own patriotism and her maternal responsibilities.
To some, the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness seemed to involve also the right to divorce, to be free of any unhappy marriage. Divorce statutes passed by colonial assemblies had been contrary to the law of England, and liable to veto; in 1773 such an act, passed by Pennsylvania, was disallowed by the Privy Council, and so, in a minor way, became part of the constitutional conflict. Before the Revolution divorce was legal only in New England states, and was most frequently used in Connecticut, where women clearly made more use of the law than men. In Connecticut, the disruptions of the war meant that the court met less frequently and there were fewer divorces in those years, though a marked increase afterwards.
Only in Pennsylvania was a new divorce law adopted as a result of independence. In 1785 the Pennsylvania Assembly claimed the right to regulate divorce for itself. Elsewhere, divorce required a private bill in the state legislature.
Only one state, after the Revolution, made a gesture towards the political recognition of women, and that was an accidental one. In 1790 New Jersey adopted an election law explicitly referring to voters as 'he or she'. The state constitution of 1776 had defined voters as 'all free inhabitants' and it appears that during the 1780s women took advantage of this vagueness and claimed the right to vote in local elections. The 1790 statute simply legitimised the situation and fully established female suffrage.
These minor legislative changes offered little hope to women whose political awareness had been roused. Those who reflected seriously on the position of women in the new American republic did not take women's public standing as their starting point. Rather, a writer such as Judith Sargent Murray used the texts of the Enlightenment and of republicanism to return to virtue as the key principle of the republic, and to stress increasingly the greater potential of women for virtue, and their fitness for the task of instilling virtue into new generations of republican Americans. Judith Sargent Murray, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who married first a sea captain, and then the Universalist minister John Murray, wrote as early as 1779 an essay 'On the Equality of the Sexes', published in the Massachusetts Magazine in 1790. She continued to write plays, poems, and in the 1790s a series of essays entitled The Gleaner, also published in the Massachusetts Magazine. In 'On the Equality of the Sexes' she wrote of the honour that should be attached to the position of wife and mother:
A sensible and informed woman – companionable and serious – possessing also a facility of temper and united to a congenial mind – blest with competency – and rearing to maturity a promising family of children – Surely the wide globe cannot produce a scene more truly interesting.
Such a future could imply real equality. She denied that women were inherently less capable than men. Using the historical material of Antoine Thomas' Essai sur le caractere, les moeurs et 1'esprit des femmes, she pointed to the degraded condition of women in the savage state, the unduly elevated reverence for womanhood in the age of chivalry, and argued that as nations progressed the potential of women was better understood, for they were capable of mastering 'any attainment within the reach of masculine exertion.' Though she accepted Thomas' argument that women might be inferior in reason and judgment, this was, she believed, only because of their inferior education and their lack of opportunity to develop their own talents. Foreseeing a new age, in England, France and America, she looked forward in her essays to that female independence suggested by Mary Wollstonecraft. Women should cease to regard marriage as the highest good and ultimate goal – but they would only be able to make a deliberate and rational choice if they were educated and equipped to live independently. Girls needed to acquire self-respect, to 'reverence themselves'.
In describing the ideal education given to the fictional Margaretta by the wise Mrs Vigilius, Murray emphasised that a liberal, wide-ranging education would give women the ability to reflect and to reason, qualities necessary both for women to exploit their talents to the full and for the mistress of a household. In the story of the contrasted sisters, Helen and Penelope, Helen is portrayed as acquiring only ornamental accomplishments and fashionable manners, Penelope as earning a modest independence through her competence as a seamstress. Useful skills, self-respect, and independence of mind should be the aims of female education in the republic, so that marriage might become a free choice rather than a necessity.
Murray was clear that she did not desire to 'unsex' women, for she too believed them to be superior in the feelings of the heart, in their possession of maternal affection; and she too quoted that passage, already given above from Thomas' essay, which portrayed the suckling mother. The new model of republican womanhood united the higher capacity for virtue and feeling with the rational and competent independence which Judith Sargent Murray looked for. Many of the points made by Murray were also made by other reformers of female education, notably that leading citizen of Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush. In his essays 'Of the modes of education proper in a republic', and 'Thoughts upon female education, accommodated to the present state of society, manners and government in the United States of America', Rush argued that unless women too were involved in the republican education of their sons, it would not succeed:
To qualify our women for this purpose, they should not only be instructed in the usual branches of female education, but they should be taught the principles of liberty and government; and the obligations of patriotism should be inculcated upon them.
Rush, like Murray, contrasted the accomplishments, the habit of novel-reading, the reliance on servants, which were typical of women's education in aristocratic, decadent, Europan societies, with the useful, rational and principled education more appropriate to a republic. The difference between them lay in their starting points. For Rush female education in a republic was significant for what it might achieve for the men and the children of that republic, not as a means of fulfilment for women themselves. He sketched the content of a curriculum designed to fit girls to educate heir children, to be agreeable companions, conduct any necessary business, instil the spirit of patriotism, and run their homes frugally and modestly. Such duties did not necessarily imply increased autonomy or independence for women, though the worth of their contribution was recognised.
These issues were again explored in essays written in the 1790s, partially published only in 1798, and the final section posthumously in 1815, by Charles Brockden Brown, novelist and man of letters. In Alcuin: a dialogue, Brown offered a fierce denunciation of the exclusion of women from political society. In the dialogue, the middle-aged widow, Mrs Carter, pointed out to the schoolmaster, Alcuin, what his platitudes about the high position of women in their society concealed:
While I am conscious of being an intelligent and moral being; while I see myself denied, in so many cases, the exercise of my own direction; incapable of separate property; subject, in all periods of my life, to the will of another, on whose bounty I am made to depend for food, raiment, and shelter: when I see myself, in my relation to society, regarded merely as a beast, or an insect; passed over, in the distribution of public duties, as absolutely nothing, by those who disdain to assign the least apology for their injustice – what though politicians say I am nothing, it is impossible I should assent to their opinion, as long as I am conscious of willing and moving.
And the case for women participating in political life, against the 'act of odious injustice' which excluded the whole sex, was put Alcuin himself was forced to retreat from his early unthinking acceptance of the concept of equality, and his prejudices against such a public role for women revealed. Mrs Carter pointed also to the injustice of assuming that because she opposed the contemporary bondage of women to husbands and fathers, she was necessarily an enemy to marriage, a 'champion of sensuality'. Her view of the current state of marriage was that as an institution it was a sacred one, but that 'iniquitous laws', had made it a 'compact of slavery', depriving women of their property and subjecting them to their husband's authority. She was prepared to defend divorce as a means of freeing women from that kind of constraint. She poked fun at those makers of constitutions who pretended to pursue liberty and equality, yet excluded the young, the poor, the black, the non-resident and all women.
Historians of American women of the later eighteenth century have suggested, from the evidence of correspondence, diaries and manuscripts, that there were signs of a greater freedom in the choice of marriage partners, and a move towards more egalitarian relationships within the family in these years. For example, there is evidence that the decision to limit the size of the family was being taken jointly. Recent studies of divorce records suggests the possibility that women in particular had rising expectations of marriage and were determined to secure that personal satisfaction which they expected. It is of course extremely difficult and controversial to try to estimate such shifts in behaviour; but it has been forcefully argued that the study of the private world of women of the more literate part of the American community does offer glimpses of such a development, co-existing with more traditional patterns of behaviour.
The direct influence of revolutionary republicanism was to be brief, and has to be seen in the context of other major social and economic changes affecting women. Broadly speaking, a white, educated American woman had by 1800 'only a modicum more control over her destiny than her uneducated grandmother... in 1750', and her position in society had been subject to much clearer definition than before. The boundaries of domesticity, the public expectations of women's role within the family, were now unmistakable. The language of natural rights had proved much less powerful than the republican conception of womanhood.
More positively, the major legacy of such a conception lay in the expansion of women's education through the female academies of the new republic, expanding fast from the 1790s. Most of these were cast along the lines indicated by Benjamin Rush, stressing academic subjects to a greater degree than earlier schools. In Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, New York, new academies were founded in the 1780s and many others in the following decade. They were as likely to be situated in small towns as in large cities. These academies often had a stronger financial basis than previous one-woman schools, and were clearly more likely to last. Increasingly, in the new republic, parents were taking for granted the necessity of educating their daughters, and learning was recognised as a permissible goal for girls. Some academy graduates of these years went on to teach or to found new academies – some, like Lydia Maria Child, Prudence Crandall and Zilpah Grant, were to be active participants in the debates on women's role in early nineteenth-century America. Many lesser known students were to go on to teach at the elementary level, especially in the north, as new town schools and charity schools were established.
Though teaching might be seen as an acceptable profession for women, if only temporarily, the academies still saw it as their primary duty to train wives and mothers for the new republic: but such education could carry with it other consequences.
Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Little, Brown, 1980) and Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (University of North Carolina Press, 1980).
- Jane Rendall is lecturer in History at the University of York.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology