Gender: Ideas of Womanhood

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Gender: Ideas of Womanhood

The early Republic gave rise to a feminine ideal that transformed women's duties in the home into the wellspring of public virtue. This new concept of womanhood changed the colonial ideal of the "good wife" in ways that at first seemed subtle, but which ultimately reshaped women's relationship to the state. The new feminine ideal also helped the white middle class define citizenship according to its own image and interests. Women of color were some of the first to challenge the notion of virtuous republican womanhood as a source of social inequality.

women in colonial america

In early modern England and in colonial America, "good wife" described the female counterpart to the yeoman farmer. The term was also a polite form of address for a mature woman of middling status, regardless of whether or not she was married. A woman called Goodwife Smith might be the wife of John Smith, Yeoman, or she might be his unmarried sister. These usages indicate the strength of the expectation that women would become wives, and the degree to which gender norms were built around household roles.

As a cultural icon, the good wife encompassed contradictory ideas. She exemplified female industriousness and ability, while at the same time she dutifully submitted to masculine authority and acknowledged female inferiority. The ideal good wife was, above all, assiduously engaged in her household's effort to remain competent. She actively managed her domestic affairs and engaged with her community of neighbors. She participated in the production and exchange of household goods and labor, and she monitored the behavior—especially the moral and sexual behavior—of people in her circle. She was the pious backbone of her local church, using faith as the basis for her good works and for her "humble and modest" character. Her piety affirmed her spiritual equality with men, yet prescriptive literature also stressed that faith should make her "submissive from Choice, and obedient by Inclination."


As I am a real friend to the fair sex, as well as to good, strong, energetic family government, it has given me some concern to see the papers so generally silent about therights of women. Permit me, Mr. Printer, through the Museum, to state some few of the many essential rights and duties which belong to Women.

  1. Women by entering upon the marriage state, renounce some of their natural rights, (as men do, when they enter into the civil society) to secure the remainder. In the one instance, men obey the laws of their own making, so should women, cheerfully submit to the government of their own chusing.
  2. While women are under the care of their parents it is their duty, and so should it be their wishes, to shew all filial respect to them—a desire for dress should not exceed their share of that income of the family which can be spared from the necessary domestic wants.
  3. When a woman arrives to an age suitable to make a choice of a companion for life, she has an undoubted right to choose a husband: But this election should be cautiously made, and not without consulting those under whose care she may be at the time.
  4. A single woman, who is the entire mistress of her own time, has a right of acquiring and possessing property—she also has an unquestionable right to invest the fruits of her earnings in gauzes, flounces, ribbons, and other baubles; But she would do wise to lay up savings, that she may exercise the right of bestowing them towards family support, when she alters her condition.
  5. A married woman has a right, in common with her husband, to instruct her children in piety religion and morality, and to instill in them the duties they owe to society, as well as what is due to the parent.
  6. As it is a right, so it is a duty of every woman to be neat and decent in her person and family.
  7. She has a right to promote frugality, industry and economy; but there is nothing in matrimonial con tract to warrant her in the waste of time and prop erty.
  8. In family broils, the wife has a right to expostulate with temper: But when entreaty is unavailing, it is her duty to submit to the controul of that government which she has voluntarily chosen.
  9. The wife has a right to manage the female depart ment of the family, as long as her prudence and good sense are adequate to the task; and when her talents are superior (which is frequently the case) to those of the husband, she has a right to make use of female persuasion to engross the sole government of the home department into her hands.
  10. As the men, living under a free constitution of their own framing, are entitled to the protection of the laws—so likewise has a woman a right to be protected by the man of her own choice.
  11. If rebellion, insurrection, or any other opposition to a just, mild, and free political government is odious, it is not less so to oppose good family administration.
  12. Good government in families creates domestic happiness, and tends to promote the prosperity of the state.

(From The Weekly Museum [New York], 16 March 1793.)

Under ordinary circumstances, her activities followed a division of labor in which women's work was centered within the household. She produced food and goods for home use and local exchange. The ability to work primarily in the service of her own household, rather than for others, was a sign of privilege and prosperity. At least in theory, the good wife left the public world of trade, travel, law, and politics to her household head. In that public realm, her identity was legally subsumed by that of her husband. She did not have the right to make independent contracts, to own property, or to serve in government.

Under extraordinary circumstances, however, many of these constraints might not apply. Colonial ideals emphasized role-specific duties rather than (supposedly) essential natural differences between women and men. This ideology not only acknowledged women's ability to perform masculine duties when the situation required, it made doing so the responsibility of a good wife. In the absence of masculine authority—through distance or death—it fell to women to act as "deputy husbands," carrying out duties a more rigid gender system would deem them incapable of performing. In this regard, colonial ideas of womanhood were more flexible than the reality of most women's lives.

women in the new republic

During the American Revolution, Americans came to reject the power of monarchs in the government of nations, but they remained reluctant to do away with the analogous powers of fathers in the government of households. The Revolution did not substantially change the economic and legal structures that shaped most women's lives. It did, however, generate new ways of explaining women's relationship to the state and of justifying their subordinate political and social status.

In 1976, historian Linda Kerber coined the term "republican motherhood" to describe the feminine ideal that emerged in the early Republic. Her discussion of the topic has been extremely influential, although scholars now dispute the accuracy and usefulness of her key term. The new ideal elevated traditionally feminine duties into a form of public service, while at the same time providing a rationale for women's continued political exclusion. Popular periodical literature depicted women, in their role as nurturing mothers and chaste and loving wives, as the guardians of civic virtue. By promoting morals and manners in the private, domestic sphere, women curbed the corrupting influences that the public realms of government and business had on male citizens, protecting the integrity of the nation.

Many historians have come to see "republican motherhood" as an imprecise description of this ideology. They note that women's civic importance was grounded in their loving influence on their husbands as well as on the young; motherhood was not the most significant element of the new rhetoric. And although scholars agree that this new attitude toward women's roles served political ends in the new Republic, they now emphasize that it was neither primarily republican nor even American in its origin. Rather, this new idea of womanhood was a transatlantic offshoot of the moral philosophy and political economy of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The dominant feminine ideal that emerged in the new American nation served conservative ends in the short term, but it also marked the beginning of several profound, long-term changes in American (and arguably international) concepts of womanhood. The celebration of feminine domestic virtue in the early Republic reordered older conceptions of the spheres of human action, shrinking the "private" into a narrowly defined domestic world. It also inverted classical understandings of the locus of virtue, which had seen household interests (and women in particular) as the primary source of vice in public life. The new feminine ideal emphasized claims about essential, natural female difference; this change eroded the more flexible ideology in which women could assume men's roles, enabling some colonial good wives to exert public power. At the same time, the revised idea of womanhood provided a potent new argument in favor of female education, for mothers could not inculcate civic virtue in their children if they themselves did not understand it. Finally, by recasting traditional female duties in the language of rights, it opened the door for later, more direct claims to the expansion of women's political and economic rights. The new Republic simultaneously created a rigidly defined, separate female sphere and provided new grounds on which women could mount challenges to the limits of that sphere.

women of color

For poor women and women of color, the dominant ideas about virtuous femininity were double-edged. The colonial good wife and early Republic's concept of feminine virtue were ideals shaped by and for the middle ranks of society, but which claimed universal applicability. The middle class offered these ideals as prescriptions for those of the lower sort who sought to better themselves. Yet they also served as a powerful justification for subordination based on class and race.

The logic here was circular (and not unique to this time and place). Poor women could be criticized for failing to be appropriately feminine, implying that the shortcoming was something they could remedy. Simultaneously, their supposed lack of feminine propriety could be used to justify exploiting them for labor and for sex, thereby rendering it impossible for them to conform to the dominant ideals.

This tautology took on an added racial dimension in America. The creation of an ideal for white women that posited their natural virtue and modesty was accompanied by rhetoric about women of color that proclaimed their natural propensity for sexual vice. What in the early modern era had been seen as a universal characteristic of female weakness and inferiority became a specific racial trait. This can be sharply illustrated by the changing usage of the words "wench" and "nasty wench." Originally these terms could designate any woman of low status, especially if she was sexually promiscuous. By the late eighteenth century, however, they were used almost exclusively in reference to black women.

In daily life, Native American women often found themselves in the same exploitative bind that was the lot of African American women. The frequent Revolutionary-era use of the image of the Indian woman as an icon for the American nation is particularly ironic. As a woman and a member of a supposedly disappearing people, her image was deliberately not representative of any faction with a chance at political power. As white Americans confronted strong Indian resistance to their efforts at national expansion, they came to prefer the symbolism of Columbia, a white woman of perfect virtue.

Women of color argued and took action against the injustices and inconsistencies inherent in the early Republic's conceptions of women. Native American basket makers, for example, confounded their New England neighbors by conforming to Anglo-American ideas about respectable femininity for part of each year, only to take up the dress and habits of their forebears every autumn. As these women traveled about the countryside marketing their wares, they defied not only the women's roles assigned to them, but also the very notion of the vanishing Indian. Black women founded the nation's first female benevolent societies in the 1790s, using religious arguments to support a public female presence that was a force for virtue rather than vice. A new era in American gender ideology began with the arguments of a black woman, the antislavery activist Maria Stewart, who by 1831 clearly saw that racial and gender hierarchies reinforced each other and subverted America's professed allegiance to liberty and equality.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indians as Symbols/Icons; Domestic Life; Education: Education of Girls and Women; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Home; Manliness and Masculinity; Marriage; Revolution: Social History; Sexual Morality; Sexuality; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers; Women: Rights; Work: Women's Work .


Bloch, Ruth H. Gender and Morality in Anglo-American Culture, 1650–1800. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Kerber, Linda K. Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750. New York: Vintage, 1991.

——. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Knopf, 2001.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. "The Rights of Man and Woman in Post-Revolutionary America." William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 2 (1998): 203–230.

Kirsten D. Sword

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Gender: Ideas of Womanhood

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