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Feminism and Republicanism - American Motherhood

By Jane Rendall | Published in History Today 2002 
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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.


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