The expanded political, economic, and social roles that many American women forged during the American Revolution generated postwar questions about the proper place of women in the new United States. One prominent ideology to emerge from this debate was Republican Womanhood, the idea that women could play an important yet indirect role in the political process by inculcating and maintaining the civic virtues of their husbands and sons, the present and future citizens of the republic.
women in and after the revolution
Even before armed hostilities began in 1775, American women were engaged in the growing conflict between Britain and her colonies. Politicizing domestic production and consumption, women boycotted merchants, pledged not to buy or use imported goods, and organized spinning and weaving bees to produce homespun cloth. During wartime (1775–1781), patriot women continued to support the war effort by making clothing and bandages. Some poorer women followed their soldier-husbands on campaign, cooking and washing for them or serving as nurses at camp.
When peace broke out, women seemed poised to reap the benefits of a revolution that had swept away patriarchal political authority and replaced it with a republican system of government. However, except in New Jersey where women were briefly given the right to vote, a similar revolution in gender relations never materialized. Rather, in the 1790s, a more moderate gender ideology emerged that seemed to recognize the changes wrought in the past decades of political protest and war while harnessing that momentum for essentially conservative purposes.
By the late 1780s, it had become apparent that the biggest threat to the new republic lay not in external military attack but in the hearts and minds of its own citizens. In a society in which government was conducted for and by the people, civic-mindedness—understood as a combination of self-sacrifice and disinterest—became the lynchpin of the republican experiment. Eager to recognize and reward women's contribution to the war effort and to enlist them in the construction and maintenance of the new republic, a generation of writers and theorists argued that women were, by virtue of their domestic responsibilities, ideally positioned to instill and endorse the civic-mindedness necessary to save the republic from ruin.
the concept of republican womanhood
Writing in Philadelphia and Boston, physician and reformer Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), playwright and essayist Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), and educator and dramatist Susanna Rowson (1762–1824) fashioned a new way of conceptualizing women's place in the home and the political sphere—a way that responded to the challenges of this changed world. All three worked in their writings to fuse the traditional attributes of the puritan goodwife—piety, virtue, wisdom, sobriety, industry, love, and fidelity—with the socializing, manners—shaping function recently envisioned by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. This new set of responsibilities enjoined women of the republic to consider the performance of their domestic duties as important tools of politicization and socialization. In Thoughts upon Female Education (1787), Rush laid out the stakes in plain terms: "The equal share that every citizen has in the liberty and the possible share he may have in the government of our country make it necessary that our ladies should … concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government" (p. 28)—a sentiment that the spirit of the times extended to brothers and husbands as well.
Rush's pamphlet was soon supplemented by Murray's collection of essays, The Gleaner (1792–1794), and Rowson's Slaves in Algiers (1794). The authors used the ideology of republican womanhood to legitimate the relatively controversial expansion of female educational opportunities that they helped orchestrate in the decades following the Revolution. Rush had served as a founding trustee of the Young Ladies' Academy in Philadelphia (founded 1786) and in 1797 Rowson opened her Female Academy in Boston, quickly attracting a hundred new students a year. In a graduation oration delivered at Rowson's academy, P. W. Jackson of Boston explained how the curriculum brought glory to her sex: "A woman who is skilled in every useful art, who practices every domestic virtue … may, by her precept and example, inspire her brother, her husband, or her sons, with such a love of virtue, such just ideas of the true value of civil liberty … that future heroes and statesmen, who arrive at the summit of military or political fame, shall exaltingly declare, it is to my mother I owe this elevation" (quoted in Kerber 1974, p. 56). Couching the function of these academies in terms of preparing young ladies to dedicate themselves to a life of self-sacrificing domesticity soon silenced opponents of female education, who had argued that such establishments unsexed young women and threatened morality.
legacy of the revolution
How radical was this new model of female political participation? On the one hand, the movement institutionalized female higher education, implicitly credited women's moral and intellectual equality, and explicitly recognized the pseudopolitical role women have always assumed as domestic confidants, tutors, and counselors.
By blurring the boundary between public and private and by politicizing the domestic sphere, it may also have defined the terms of the woman's rights movement that was christened at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. On the other hand, at a time when many women appeared to be testing the limits of patriarchy, it confined women to the domestic sphere by persuading them of the newfound importance of their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers, inaugurating the paradigm of Victorian sexuality that woman's rights activists would spend the next decades trying to undermine.
Ultimately, the ideology of republican womanhood offered women no new power; indeed, it served to highlight the limits of their domestic influence. As Rowson warned in The Exemplary Wife (1813), and as many women no doubt discovered for themselves, a virtuous example was no guarantee that a man would undergo a moral reformation. A successful moral makeover required susceptibility and compliance, but too often, Rowson suggested, men proved obstinate. In such standoffs, women as the inferior authorities were required to honor, obey, and concede to their husbands.
Although we may never know the extent to which women internalized this ideology, the currency it received, both in the early republic and in twentieth-century scholarly articles, seems to have had one lasting effect: It diverted attention from those women whose political influence was not circumscribed within the domestic sphere. Only recently have historians begun to recognize how many women circumvented prescriptions for their domestic confinement, taking leading roles in business and public political actions such as street protests and mob actions.
Bloch, Ruth H. "American Feminine Ideals in Transition: The Rise of the Moral Mother, 1785–1815." Feminist Studies 4 (1978): 101–126.
Kerber, Linda K. "Daughters of Columbia: Educating Women for the Republic, 1787–1805." In The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial, edited by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. New York: Knopf, 1974.
Kerber, Linda K. "The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment—An American Perspective." American Quarterly 28 (1976): 187–205.
Lewis, Jan. "The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic." William and Mary Quarterly 44 (1987): 689–721.
Murray, Judith Sargent. The Gleaner [1792–1794; 1798]. Schenectady, NY: Union College Press, 1992.
Rowson, Susanna. Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedom: A Play, Interspersed with Songs, in Three Acts. Philadelphia: Wrigley and Berriman, 1794.
Rowson, Susanna. Sarah, or the Exemplary wife. Boston: C. Williams, 1813.
Rush, Benjamin. "Thoughts upon Female Education Accommodated to the Present State of Society, Manners, and Government in the United States of America." In Essays on Education in the Early Republic, edited by Frederick Rudolph. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
Zagarri, Rosemarie. "Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother." American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992): 192–215.
Richard J. Bell