19 Mar

Linda Kerber, “The Republican Mother” (1976)

In “The Republican Mother” Linda Kerber traces how Enlightenment thinkers defined women’s relationships to the state and how early Americans adopted and adapted these relationships. Kerber argues that the role of the “Republican Mother” defined American women’s relationships to the state after the American Revolution. The ideology of Republican Motherhood rested on the idea that women, particularly mothers, had a political purpose in the early American Republic. Republican Mothers’ duties involved “raising sons and disciplining husbands to be virtuous citizens of the republic.”[1]


Kerber recognizes that the relationship between women and the state remained mostly unexamined in Enlightenment works from France, England, and the colonies. The term “man” in these works literally referred to men’s political roles and relationships to the state. When philosophers referred to women, it was usually to expand on men’s relationships to the state.  Richard Filmer’s Patriarcha justified the divine right of absolute monarchy through biblical injunctions about children’s roles in families. Filmer suggested that just as the Bible commanded children to honor they father, subjects should honor their rulers. Filmer’s government was masculine, absolute, and descended through primogeniture. Locke’s Two Treatises on Government attacked Filmer. Locke noted in the First Treatise that the commandment stated “Honor they father and mother.”[2] Locke argued that men and women shared familial power and that power was limited by mutual responsibilities. Thus, government should also be shared and limited. With this, Locke integrated women into social theory. The Second Treatise came close to defining a political role for women, but stopped short. Locke outlined the rights and powers women should have in their domestic lives, including independent relationships with their children and the right to control their own property. Montesquieu argued that the best form of government for women to live under was a republic. “In a republic,” he argued, “the condition of citizens is moderate, equal, mild, and agreeable…an empire over women cannot be so well exerted.”[3] Condorcet argued that men recognized reason and moral ideas as qualifications for having a voice in a republic. Women also exhibited these qualities, and, thus, Condorcet reasoned that women should have voices as citizens in republics. Since they were not represented in republican governments, Condorcet urged women to refuse to pay taxes. In Equisse, Condorcet came close to promoting the idea that the more rational a government, the better the status of women. Condorcet’s ideas about women in the social and political world challenged Rousseau’s ideas about women. Rousseau’s Émile explained that women lived in another world “the empire of softness, of address, of complacency; her commands are caresses; her menaces are tears.”[4] Women had physical and moral relationships to men, but not political ones. Émile’s task was to show how male children should be educated and raised as good citizens for society. Émile criticized Plato’s Republic for employing men and women in the same professions for the good of the republic. Rousseau did not see women as part of a political community. Those who attempted to join the political community were unsexed and accused of becoming men. Lord Kames’ Sketches of the History of Man also accused women of becoming men if they concerned themselves with politics. Moreover, Kames did not support women’s education: “Cultivation of the female mind, is not of great importance in a republic, where men pass little of their time with women.” [5] Most male Enlightenment thinkers recognized that women had no relationship with the state. Women’s roles were defined primarily as wives and mothers.

Post-revolutionary Americans justified and popularized “a political role for women, accomplishing what the English and French Enlightenment had not.”[6] By the 1790s, writers like Judith Sargent Murray, Susannah Rowson, and Bejamin Rush emphasized the qualities of good American women. They were self-reliant, literate, and untempted by frivolous fashions. American women had responsibilities to the political sphere, although they were not to act within that sphere. American political theorists advocated the ideology of Republican Motherhood. It merged motherhood and republicanism so that women’s lives were dedicated to the service of civic virtue. Republican Mothers were to raise sons and discipline husbands “to be virtuous citizens of the republic.” Women were to fulfill their political purpose through motherhood, not direct participation in the political realm.

Expanding “Republican Motherhood”

Kerber’s definition of the ideology of Republican Motherhood has transformed the ways scholars understand women in the early American Republic. American men and women carved out spaces for women to participate in the social and political order of the Republic. Scholars have embraced the ideology of Republican motherhood to such a degree that most books on women and the American Republic include the phrase in their indices. Republican Motherhood is a commonplace in early American studies.

The ideology of Republican Motherhood, however, is not above reproach. In the definition of the Republican Motherhood, Kerber focuses solely on the political aspects of the ideology. This is logical and commendable. However in this definition, Kerber dismisses the relationship between the political and the religious in a mother’s civic virtue. The Enlightenment thinkers that Kerber examines defined the social and political realms in terms of biblical injunctions, commandments, and Reformation family values. The states that these thinkers supported were theocracies and/or governments that supported state religions (Protestantism, Puritanism, and Catholicism). Politics and religion were not mutually exclusive in these Enlightenment works. Political power was tied to religion. In fact, virtue as defined by Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and Rousseau in Émile (1762) meant religious or moral virtue. This virtue was central to the education of male children and their participation in society and politics as good citizens. Without religion, or virtue, being a good citizen was impossible. The same can be said of Republican Motherhood: without religion being a Republican Mother was impossible.

The America Revolution transformed they ways that former British subjects thought about politics. This also meant that it transformed the ways they thought about religion’s relationship to politics. American’s increasingly separated religion from politics through disestablishment clauses. Religion moved from the realm of the state (the public) to the home (private). Many American Protestants recognized that the wedding of the two had corrupted religion. Thus, part of the American experiment involved working out the relationship between politics and religion. Kerber recognizes how Americans redefined women’s relationship to the private and public realms: “The political traditions on which American politics were built offered little assistance in defining the point at which the woman’s private domain intersected with the public one. The Republican Mother seemed to offer a solution.”[7] Neither of these domains seems to involve religion, which was a major part of the political traditions on which American politics were built.  I agree with Kerber that Republican Motherhood offered a solution in defining the intersection of the public and private domains. But, this solution meant that women were increasingly seen as the arbiters of religion in the Republic. In fact, as Barber Welter recognized, womanhood in American came to be defined by the 1820s as purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. To understand the development of Republican Motherhood from the 1790s to 1830s, scholars must investigate the changing relationship between politics, religion, men, and women. Politics and religion were not mutually exclusive in the early Republic as they have been conceived since the 1970s. Women’s roles as mothers in post-revolutionary America was to cultivate civic virtue, but Americans, like their Enlightenment predecessors, recognized that virtue was tied to religion and politics.

[1] Linda Kerber, “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment-An American Perspective,” American Quarterly 28, no. 2 (July 1, 1976): 203.

[2] Ibid., 189.

[3] Ibid., 191.

[4] Ibid., 194.

[5] Ibid., 196.

[6] Ibid., 199.

[7] Ibid., 204.

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