Women in the Early Republic

Republican Motherhood

Republican Motherhood, while maintaining women’s role in the private sphere, gave women more rights to education.

Learning Objectives

Explain the concept of “Republican Motherhood” and how it shaped the role of women in American society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The term ” Republican Motherhood,” coined in the 1980s, describes a concept based primarily on the writings of John Locke and the revolutionary ideas of republicanism. In Republican Motherhood, women remained in the private sphere, but their work and responsibilities had value in the public sphere as well.
  • Christianity embraced the concept of Republican Motherhood as a method of passing down religious values to children.
  • Women’s access to education was expanded so that they could better instruct their children. After the American Revolution, Republican Motherhood contributed to women’s increased roles in education, abolitionism, and women’s rights.
  • Republican Motherhood differed from other contemporary beliefs, such as those of Mary Wollstonecraft, which advocated for a more public role for women.

Key Terms

  • Mary Wollstonecraft: An eighteenth-century British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights.
  • Private Sphere: The complement or opposite of the public arena; a certain sector of societal life usually consisting of family and home.
  • Catharine Maria Sedgwick: An American novelist of what is now referred to as “domestic fiction,” who promoted Republican Motherhood.

Women in the New Republic

“Republican Motherhood” is a twentieth-century term describing an attitude toward the role of women in the emerging United States before, during, and after the American Revolution. It centered on the belief that the patriots ‘ daughters should be raised to uphold the ideals of republicanism in order to pass on republican values to the next generation. “Republican Motherhood” describes a kind of civic duty.

Development of Republican Motherhood

The early seeds of the concept are found in the works of John Locke, a notable eighteenth-century philosopher. Rather than adhering to the traditional sexual hierarchy promoted by his contemporaries, Locke believed that men and women had more equal roles in a marriage. Women were expected to focus on domestic issues, but Locke’s treatises helped to engender an appreciation for the value of the domestic sphere and were influential in highlighting the important role of women in society.

Women were expected to help promote the values of republicanism; as intimate and concerned observers of young children, they had a special role in raising the next generation to value patriotism and to sacrifice their own needs for the greater good of the country. Because of this special role, women were permitted to receive more of an education than they previously had been allowed. Abigail Adams advocated for women’s education, as demonstrated in many of her letters to her husband, President John Adams.

Portrait of Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams: For the most part, women were excluded from the political realm during this era; however, a few women, such as Abigail Adams, entered the political arena as public figures.

Many Christian ministers actively promoted the ideals of Republican Motherhood. They believed this domestic role—rather than the more public roles promoted by Mary Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries—was the appropriate path for women. Traditionally, the Christian religion viewed women as morally inferior to men, especially in the areas of sexuality and religion. However, as the nineteenth century drew closer, many Protestant ministers and moralists argued that modesty and purity were inherent in women’s natures, giving them a unique ability to promote Christian values among their children.

By the early nineteenth century, towns and cities were making new opportunities available for girls and women. Influential, too, at this time were the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Lydia Sigourney, who, by equating a successful republic with virtuous families, portrayed Republican Motherhood as a principle that united both state and family. By the 1840s, these New England writers became respected models and were advocates for improving education for females. Greater educational access included making subjects of classical education (such as mathematics and philosophy), which were once studied only by males, integral to curricula at public and private schools for girls.

Analysis of Republican Motherhood

The period of Republican Motherhood is hard to categorize in the history of feminism. On the one hand, the concept reinforced the idea of a domestic women’s sphere separate from the public world of men. On the other hand, it encouraged the education of women and imbued their “traditional” sphere with a dignity and importance that had been missing from previous conceptions of women’s work.

Historians are divided on the question of whether Republican Motherhood implied that women were on a path toward political equality at the founding of the United States, or whether it signified a new but subservient role for women in the new republic. The idea of a mother as a key force in the preservation and advancement of democracy can be seen as elevating women to politically vital citizens; however, it also can be seen as a reinforcement of traditional women’s roles, as it did not encourage women’s influence beyond the home.

Although the notion of Republican Motherhood initially encouraged women in their private roles, it eventually resulted in increased educational opportunities for American women, as typified by Mary Lyon and the founding in 1837 of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (later renamed “Mount Holyoke College”).

Educated Northern women became some of the strongest voices and organizers of the abolitionist movement, which blossomed in the 1830s and 1840s. Working on civil rights for enslaved people caused women to want more power for themselves, giving rise to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the women’s rights movement in the United States. Women worked for suffrage, property rights, legal status, and child custody in family disputes. Though an analysis of Republican Motherhood highlights its complexities, it was undoubtedly an influence on later women’s-rights movements.

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Republican mothers: This painting by James Peale depicts a Revolutionary War-era family. Republican Motherhood required a woman to make an important contribution to the republic by training her children (particularly her daughters) to uphold republican values and pass them on to the next generation.

Women and Democracy

During the early nineteenth century, women were mainly relegated to the private sphere through the “cult of domesticity.”

Learning Objectives

Discuss the the political position of women in the early nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Women, African Americans, American Indians, and other minorities were decidedly overlooked in the expansion of democracy across early nineteenth-century America.
  • The ” cult of domesticity ” was an ideal of womanhood that promoted women’s place in the home as men worked in jobs producing goods or services. Women did not always conform to this ideal, however, and many were active outside of their homes in different political and social ventures.
  • Many women in the nineteenth century were involved in reform movements, particularly abolitionism.
  • Direct participation in the public arena was fraught with difficulties and danger; however, despite the abuse and ridicule women abolitionists often faced, many women’s antislavery societies were active before the Civil War.

Key Terms

  • Cult of Domesticity: A prevailing value system among the upper and middle classes regarding the roles of women during the nineteenth century in the United States and Great Britain.

Women and the Cult of Domesticity

The “cult of domesticity” was an ideal of womanhood that was prominent during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This ideal had its roots in the reality that nineteenth-century middle-class families no longer had to produce as a unit what was needed to survive, as previous families had to do. Therefore, men could now work in jobs that produced goods or services while their wives and children stayed at home. Women did not always conform to this ideal, however, and in reality, many were active outside of their homes in different political and social ventures.

Women—along with African Americans, American Indians, and other minorities—were decidedly overlooked in the expansion of democracy across early nineteenth-century America. Suffrage expansion at this time was limited to white males, leaving all women and non-white men behind. Women of this era were generally pushed to the sidelines as dependents of men, without the power to bring suit, make contracts, own property, or vote. During the era of the “cult of domesticity,” women tended to be seen merely as a way of enhancing the social status of their husbands. By the 1830s and 40s, however, the climate began to change when a number of bold, outspoken women championed diverse social reforms of slavery, alcohol, war, prisons, prostitution, and capital punishment.

Women and Politics in the Early Nineteenth Century

Many women in the nineteenth century were involved in reform movements, particularly abolitionism. In 1831, Maria Stewart (who was African American) began to write essays and make speeches against slavery, promoting educational and economic self-sufficiency for African Americans. Although her career was short, she had set the stage for the African-American women speakers who followed her, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. The first women’s antislavery society was created in 1832 by free black women from Salem, Massachusetts.

Activists began to question women’s subservience to men and encouraged a rallying around the abolitionist movement as a way of calling attention to all human rights. Two influential Southern sisters, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, called for women to, “participate in the freeing and educating of slaves.” Harriet Wilson became the first African American to publish a novel addressing the theme of racism. Lucretia Mott, an educated woman from Boston, was one of the most powerful advocates of reform and acted as a bridge between the feminist and the abolitionist movements. Sarah Margaret Fuller wrote “Women in the Nineteenth Century,” an early consideration of feminism, and edited The Dial for the Transcendental Club.

imageAngelina Emily Grimké. Portrait of Angelina Emily Grimké, one of the Grimké sisters who called for women to engage in antislavery reform.

Unfortunately, direct participation in the public arena was fraught with difficulties and danger. For example, Pennsylvania Hall was the site in 1838 of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, and as 3,000 white and black women gathered to hear prominent abolitionists such as Maria Weston Chapman, the speakers’ voices were drowned out by a mob that had gathered outside. When the women emerged, arms linked in solidarity, they were stoned and insulted. Despite the abuse and ridicule women abolitionists faced, many women’s antislavery societies were active before the Civil War.

Women and the Law

While women gained some legal rights in the nineteenth century, African-American women, in particular, remained largely disenfranchised.

Learning Objectives

Describe the protections the law afforded some women and the vulnerability of African Americans before the law

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the early nineteenth century, women were unequally treated by the laws of the United States; they lacked the right to bring suit, file for divorce, pursue legal recourse, buy or sell property, make contracts, or vote.
  • The legal status of married women was defined as “coverture,” meaning a married woman had no legal or economic status independent of her husband.
  • The Married Women’s Property Act of 1839 was an act of statute in the state of Mississippi that significantly altered the law regarding property rights granted to married women, allowing them to own and control their own property.
  • African-American women were even more disenfranchised under the law, facing the intersecting oppressions of gender and race.
  • The Missouri v. Celia case of 1855 illustrated the reality that enslaved women had absolutely no recourse when it came to being raped or otherwise threatened by their masters.

Key Terms

  • coverture: A legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband, in accordance with the wife’s legal status of feme covert.
  • Act of Statute: A formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs a state, city, or county.

Women and the Law

In eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century America, the legal status of married women was defined as “coverture,” meaning a married woman (or feme covert) had no legal or economic status independent of her husband. She could not conduct business or buy and sell property. Her husband controlled any property she brought to the marriage, although he could not sell it without her agreement. Women also lacked the right to bring suit, file for divorce, pursue legal recourse, or vote. Married women’s status as femes covert did not change as a result of the American Revolution, and wives remained economically dependent on their husbands. Many women in the early eighteenth century, however, began to agitate for legal equality between husbands and wives and for the same educational opportunities as men.

Married Women’s Property Act

The Married Women’s Property Act of 1839 was an act of statute in the state of Mississippi that significantly altered the law regarding property rights granted to married women, allowing them to own and control their own property. This was the first of a series of Married Women’s Property Acts issued in the United States.

The Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 was a statute in New York State. Paulina Wright Davis, Ernestine Rose, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were among the activists who pressed for the act. While other states such as Mississippi had already passed the Married Women’s Property Act, the 1848 New York state law was more extensive. Women’s property rights were again extended in 1860. The Married Women’s Property Act set a precedent for women’s property rights that is thought to have influenced legislators’ decision to maintain gender-neutral language in the Homestead Act of 1862, allowing any individual to file an application for a federal land grant.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ca. 1880: One of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s many accomplishments for women’s rights was the Married Women’s Property Act of 1839.

African-American Women

African-American women were even more disenfranchised under the law, facing the intersecting oppressions of gender and race. Missouri v. Celia, a murder trial that took place in Missouri in 1855, clearly illustrates these dual factors. It involved a slave woman named Celia and her master, Robert Newsome. After being purchased at the age of 14 in 1850, Celia bore two of her master’s children. Soon after becoming intimate with another slave while still being sought after by her master, Celia became pregnant. On June 23, 1855, feeling unwell from the pregnancy, Celia pleaded with her master to let her rest; when Newsome ignored her pleas she struck him twice with a heavy stick, killing him.

Although Missouri statutes forbade anyone, “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” the judge residing over the case instructed the jury that Celia, being enslaved, did not fall within the meaning of “any woman.” Thus, because the sexual abuser was her master, the murder was not justified on the claim of self-defense. Celia was found guilty of the crime on October 10, 1855, and was sentenced to be hanged. The case remains significant in American history because it graphically illustrates the reality that enslaved women had no recourse when it came to being raped or otherwise threatened by their masters.

Women and Education

In the early nineteenth century, large discrepancies existed between the educational opportunities for men and women.

Learning Objectives

Describe key moments in the history of women’s education

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Women’s education was not always on the same substantive level as that provided for men; it also varied according to women’s race and socioeconomic background.
  • While white men were expected to handle “worldly affairs” and thereby were required to learn both reading and writing skills, white women often only were required to learn to read so as to ensure religious scholarship.
  • The education of elite white women in Philadelphia after 1740 followed the British model developed by the gentry classes during the early eighteenth century and was used to distinguish economically privileged women from those of lower-class backgrounds.
  • With the rise of “Republican Motherhood,” white women were permitted to receive more of an education than they previously had been allowed.
  • In the nineteenth century, higher-educational opportunities for women became more common; however, they were still limited.

Key Terms

  • coeducational: The integrated education of male and female students in the same institution.

Early Schooling for Girls

Public Funding

Tax-supported schooling for white girls began as early as 1767 in New England. However, because this education was optional and largely funded by public taxes, some towns proved reluctant to provide girls with educational opportunities. For example, Northampton, Massachusetts, was a late adopter because it had many wealthy families who dominated politics and society; these families did not want to pay taxes to aid poor families. Northampton assessed taxes on all households rather than just those with children and used the funds to support a grammar school to prepare boys for college. Not until after 1800 did Northampton move to educate girls with public money. In contrast, the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, was diverse in terms of social leadership and religion at an early point in its history. Sutton paid for its schools by means of taxes on households with children only, thereby creating an active constituency in favor of universal education for both white boys and girls.

Discrepancies Between Boys’ and Girls’ Education

In many areas, writing was taught mainly to boys and a few economically privileged girls. While white men were expected to handle “worldly affairs” and thereby were required to learn both reading and writing skills, white women often only were required to learn to read so as to ensure religious scholarship. This educational disparity between reading and writing explains why colonial women often could read but not write or sign their names.

Education and Class

The education of elite white women in Philadelphia after 1740 followed the British model developed by the gentry classes during the early nineteenth century. Rather than emphasizing ornamental aspects of women’s roles, this new model encouraged women to engage in more substantive education by delving into the arts and sciences to further develop their reasoning skills. Education had the capacity to help colonial women secure their elite (economically privileged) status by giving them traits that those “inferior” to them (of lower-class backgrounds) could not easily mimic.

“Republican Motherhood” and Advancements in Education

With a growing emphasis on republicanism, women were expected to help promote these values through an idea that became known in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as “Republican Motherhood.” Women were seen as having a special role in raising the next generation of children to value patriotism and to sacrifice of their own needs for the greater good of the country. Because of this, white women were permitted to receive more of an education than they previously had been allowed.

By the early nineteenth century, towns and cities were making new opportunities available for white girls and women. Abigail Adams advocated for women’s education, as demonstrated in many of her letters to her husband, President John Adams. Especially influential were the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Lydia Sigourney; by the 1840s, these New England writers became respected models and were advocates for improving education for females for the purpose of promoting the values of republicanism. Greater educational access included making the subjects of classical education such as mathematics and philosophy—once studied by males only—integral to curricula at public and private schools for girls.

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Lydia Maria Child, American activist and writer: Lydia Maria Child, pictured above, helped popularize the idea of “Republican Motherhood,” which called for improved education for females.

Higher Education for Women

The first mixed-gender institute of higher education in the United States was Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, which was established in 1833. Mixed-gender classes were admitted to the preparatory department at Oberlin in 1833 and to the college department in 1837. The first four women to receive bachelor’s degrees in the United States earned them at Oberlin in 1841. Later, in 1862, the first African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree (Mary Jane Patterson) also earned it from Oberlin College. Beginning in 1844, Hillsdale College became the second college to admit mixed-gender classes to four-year degree programs.

The University of Iowa became the first coeducational public or state university in the United States in 1855, and for much of the next century, public universities (and land-grant universities in particular) would lead the way in mixed-gender higher education. There also were many private coeducational universities founded in the nineteenth century, especially west of the Mississippi River. East of the Mississippi, Cornell University admitted its first female student in 1870.

Around the same time, women-only colleges were also appearing. According to scholars Irene Harwarth, Mindi Maline, and Elizabeth DeBra, “women’s colleges were founded during the mid- and late-nineteenth century in response to a need for advanced education for women at a time when they were not admitted to most institutions of higher education.” Notable examples include the prestigious Seven Sisters; within this association of colleges, Vassar College is now coeducational and Radcliffe College has merged with Harvard University. Other notable women’s colleges that have become coeducational include Wheaton College in Massachusetts; Ohio Wesleyan Female College in Ohio; Skidmore College, Wells College, and Sarah Lawrence College in New York state; Goucher College in Maryland; and Connecticut College.