29 Mar

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in response to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly. The report suggested that girls should only be educated with boys until the age of eight. Thereafter, girls should only receive a domestic education. Wollstonecraft attacked this suggestion and the larger inequalities in women’s rights, including their education and social positions. Wollstonecraft argued that women had the right to be educated as men were educated.  She called for women’s intellectual equality.

Wollstonecraft condemned Rousseau’s Emile as well as other educational books that saw men as intellectually superior to women. She suggested that men who defined women as weak and vain did not see that these “characteristics” were based on the failure of women’s education that had been outlined by men. Like other pedagogues, Wollstonecraft outlined methods for educating children. Wollstonecraft recognized that children’s characters were formed by the age of seven. Mothers needed to be educated properly so they could mold their children’s natures. Wollstonecraft did not advocate for complete independence for women. She did suggest that with intellectual equality, women would gain more political and economic equality.

Wollstonecraft developed a plan for national education. She argued against private education as this was for the elite alone and did not allow children to be around one another. She also argued against boarding schools as these had too many holiday interruptions. Day schools were the best option because they allowed children to go to school together and for longer periods. Wollstonecraft also advocated for state supported schools because she didn’t think education should be left to parents alone. She also emphasized the importance of letting children play, like Rousseau.

These ideas were revolutionary because Wollstonecraft argued that girls should be educated equally, alongside boys, not relative to them. She noted that “If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever fulfill the peculiar duties of their sex….Nay, marriage will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses” (177). At the age of nine, boys and girls dedicated to domestic employments or mechanical trades would go to other schools. All other boys and girls would remain in school together in the mornings. In the afternoons, boys and girls would be separated to learn specific trades according to their gender. Wollstonecraft suggested that educating boys and girls together would make the sexes more amenable to one another. Women should also be taught anatomy and medicine so they could attend to their children and husbands in efficient ways.

By the end of 1792, Wollstonecraft’s book had been published in Britain, Boston, Philadelphia, and France. Advocates of “Republican Motherhood” in the early America Republic used Wollstonecraft work to support the education of women. Others used Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Rousseau’s Emile to attack Wollstonecraft and women’s education in general.  

29 Mar

Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic (1980)

In Women of the Republic Linda K. Kerber examines how the American Revolution affected women’s roles in political and domestic life. Kerber traces these roles through the origin and adoption of the language of “Republican Motherhood.” To understand the transformation of the female political imagination, Kerber analyzes political treatises, women’s diaries and letters, published materials, legal documents, probate inventories, and court records.

Kerber argues that Anglo-Americans inherited the Enlightenment tradition from Europe, which ignored the role of women in conceptions of the new social order. Women challenged this ideology during the Revolution as they negotiated contradictory loyalties to their families and the state. Women adopted the language of Republican Motherhood, which “provided the justification of women’s political behavior; it bridged the gap between idiocy and the polis” (11-12). Women exhibited patriotism by serving as army nurses, joining voluntary associations, and signing petitions. Yet, women were not recognized as political beings in the new republic. After the Revolution, courts upheld coverture laws, limited dower rights, and restricted divorce. American women had few legal rights as citizens. The language of Republican Motherhood was also adopted to promote women’s education. Republican mothers were informed citizens, well-read in religious texts, histories, and politics. Yet, education served women’s domestic duties, especially the training of virtuous sons and husbands for the republic.

Kerber’s work is noteworthy for its consideration of the gendered notions of Enlightenment ideals, politics, and freedom during the Revolution and Early Republic. Kerber demonstrates how women participated in politics in their everyday lives by adopting the language of Republican Motherhood. Republican Motherhood was a revolutionary invention in that it allowed for the intersection of women’s domestic life and the polis. Women used Republican Motherhood “to articulate a poltical ideology that blended the domestic and public sphere” (36). Thus, Republican Motherhood represents “a stage in the process of women’s political socialization” (284). Kerber’s work is also noteworthy as it encourages scholars to recognize the limitations of Republican Motherhood. The role was liberating, but it also severely limited women. Republican Motherhood masked women’s actual positions in the polis: “women remained on the periphery of the political community” (12). The American Revolution did not provide women with the same political and legal privileges as it did white males in the early American Republic.

For a historiography of separate spheres and a critique of Kerber’s “Republican Motherhood” see: the tag “separate spheres.”

20 Mar

Nina Baym, “Onward Christian Women” (1990)

In “Onward Christian Women” Nina Baym examines Sarah J. Hale’s Woman’s Record (1853) to better understand Hale’s notion of the “woman’s sphere” and its implications for gender studies and women’s rights in nineteenth-century America. Woman’s Record was the “most fully expressive of [Hale’s] theory of womanhood.”[1] This work reconceived world and Christian history in terms of women’s history. Hale divided history into four eras that highlighted the biographies of over 1,600 women. This history conflated the progress of Christianity with the progress of women. The two were not separate because, according to Hale, the “Gospel harmonizes best with the feminine nature.”[2] Christianity supported the moral superiority and progress of women, especially mothers. God called Christian women as missionaries to lead the evangelization of the world and usher in the millennium.[3]

Baym maintains that by arguing with her contemporaries in Woman’s Record about notions of womanhood, “Hale brought a female polyvocality into the public arena, instituting—for all her talk of “woman”—not woman’s voice, but women’s voices, at the center of contemporary history….Instead of just speaking softly among themselves, women were invited to address each other in public, within earshot of men.”[4] Thus, Woman’s Record created a public space for women to express their voices. It opposed New Historicist and Foucauldian interpretations that antebellum women were “increasingly passive, compliant, and privatized consumers.”[5] Antebellum women, as expressed by Hale, were Christians, spiritually superior to men, diverse, different, and able to endure and adapt.


Contemporary Americans remember Hale (1788-1879) as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and as an advocate for the inauguration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale also achieved widespread notoriety in nineteenth-century America for championing women’s education, women’s missionary activities, and the “woman’s sphere.” Scholars have examined Hale’s “woman’s sphere” with a critical eye. Some have seen Hale “as either a profound conservative or equally as a progressive liberal.”[6] More often, scholars have interpreted Hale as “a retrograde force, a woman who impeded the development of egalitarian feminism through her espousal of the ideology of separate spheres for the sexes and contributed to the weakening of an older, vigorously masculine cultural style through her successful championing of an alternative feminine (i.e., sentimental, consumerist) aesthetic sensibility” [See: Ann Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture]. Since the 1960s, feminist scholars have interpreted Hale and women like her as opposing egalitarian feminism. Thus, most scholars have refused to recognize Hale as a feminist.

Baym essay is critical for re-reading Hale and recognizing that Hale would have considered herself a Christian feminist. Hale understood women as the morally superior agents of God who would usher in the millennium through their domestic and social work. Baym also recognizes the political role that Hale supported for women. In the introduction to the second edition of Woman’s Record (1855), Hale makes two points: “on the right influence of women depends the moral improvement of men; and that the condition of the female sex decides the destiny of the nation.”[7] Elsewhere, Baym notes Hale’s intervention into the political sphere in her discussions of “woman’s sphere.” Hale recognizes the Anglo-Saxons as the exemplars of moral development, and, further, she elevates the United States over Britain as the leading Anglo-Saxon nation. In doing so, Baym argues that Hale “demolishes, inadvertently but irreparably, the very boundaries between the male political and material sphere and the female spiritual and moral sphere on which her argument has depended….Hale cannot ultimately avoid becoming conventionally political. And her politics are conventional: Anglo-Saxonist, expansionist, nationalist.”[8] In other words, Hale promotes political roles and responsibilities for women.

Baym insights are crucial: nineteenth-century American women recognized that they had religious, social, and political roles in the Republic. Other scholars have recognized one of these elements, but left others out. Barbara Welter recognized the religious, but not the social or political aspects. Linda Kerber recognized the political , social, and moral aspects. But these moral aspects had very little, if anything at all, to do with religion, particularly Protestantism. Baym recognizes the religious, social, and political aspects. Nonetheless, Baym interprets Hale’s support of politics as an inadvertent dismantling of the woman’s sphere. This interpretation misses the points of Hale’s argument.

Hale fully intended and recognized that women could and should influence the political sphere. But, the way that nineteenth-century women defined the political sphere is not the way that twenty- and twenty-first century American define the political sphere. The political sphere in the nineteenth-century was a public sphere, but it was defined in more narrowly institutional forms. Hale recognized that women should not vote, work in industry and mechanics, lecture to men, or hold public office. But, this did not mean that women could not influence the political sphere through their writing and religious efforts. The woman’s sphere was a literal construction for women like Hale. But, Hale never defined this sphere as purely private and purely domestic. For Hale, the woman’s sphere included any space where Christian women needed to act, except for narrowly defined political spaces. Hale did not have a problem commenting on the moral implications of slavery. And, she hoped that her commentary would influence politics and politicians. She did not think, however, that women should vote about slavery in the states because this was a decidedly political act.

To better understand how women like Hale used and defined “woman’s sphere,” scholars must rethink how this term was defined in the nineteenth-century and how it was related to religion, politics, and women’s moral influence on the world. Nineteenth-century American defined religion and politics in very specific ways because they did not want the states or Federal government to support an official religion. The legacy of disestablishment complicated how religion and politics were defined in the woman’s sphere. Moral influence on the world was not apolitical in the nineteenth-century. Contemporary scholars recognize it as apolitical because our contemporary moment recognizes the separation of religion and politics, and defines political action in very specific ways.

[1] Nina Baym, “Onward Christian Women: Sarah J. Hale’s History of the World,” The New England Quarterly 63, no. 2 (June 1, 1990): 251.

[2] Quoted in ibid., 255.

[3] Ibid., 253.

[4] Ibid., 268.

[5] Ibid., 269.

[6] Ibid., 249.

[7] Ibid., 254.

[8] Ibid., 261.

19 Mar

Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee (1835)

Jarena Lee was the first woman ordained to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In 1835, Lee published her autobiography, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee. The book was published in 3 editions and distributed at camp meetings, Christian societies, and on the street. Lee’s autobiography describes her encounters with Christianity, and her emotional conversion experience and sanctification.

Lee was born free in New Jersey on February 11, 1783. Her parents did not introduce her to religion. Growing up Lee felt the spirit of God and realized she was a “wretched sinner.”[1] Nonetheless, Lee did not experience conversion as a child. Lee came to religion in her twenties. In 1804, she heard a Presbyterian missionary preach at a local school and read the Psalms. Over the next few months, Lee experienced an illness that she attributed to “fearful oppressions of a judgment to come.”[2] Lee moved to work for a Roman Catholic family outside of Philadelphia. She attended an English church in the city, but realized it was not the church for her. Lee began attending a Methodist church in Philadelphia where she experienced her conversion to evangelical Protestantism. Lee recorded the ecstasy she felt while listening to Reverend Richard Allen preach: “Great was the ecstasy of my mind, for I felt that not only the sin of malice was pardoned, but all other sins were swept away all together. That day was the first when my heart had believed, and my tongue had made confession unto salvation—the first words uttered…was glory to God.”[3] Despite these feelings, Lee wrestled with her faith and doubted that she could find happiness in this world. After contemplating suicide for a second time, Lee had a vision of hell and Satan. One night she wept and cried aloud. Lee became ill again and went to stay with a physician. Soon, she came to accept her conversion and was baptized in the Methodist church in 1807. After her baptism, Lee also experienced sanctification. She asked the Lord to sanctify her soul and “That very instant, as if lightening had darted through me, I sprang to my feet, and cried, ‘The Lord has sanctified my soul!’ There was none to hear this but the angels who stood around to witness my joy—and Satan, whose malice raged the more.”[4] Lee’s autobiography reminds scholars that for many nineteenth-century Americans conversion experiences were long and emotional processes filled with visions, words, songs, crying, doubt, the heart, and the supernatural.

Four or five years after her conversion and sanctification, Lee felt called by God to preach. During the Second Great Awakening, more than 100 women served as itinerant preachers. Women preachers were white and black. They preached in barns, schools, and at camp meetings, but rarely, if at all, in churches. Denominations that supported women’s preaching included the Quakers, Freewill Baptists, Christian Connection, northern Methodists, African Methodists, and Millerites. In 1811, Jarena married Mr. Joseph Lee, the “Pastor of a Colored Society at Snow Hill.”[5] Lee preached less while married, but by 1819 resumed her itineracy. Rev. Richard Allen heard Lee preach and recognized her abilities. Rev. Allen ordained Lee as the first woman preacher in the AME Church in 1819. Lee preached to black and white audiences, and often meet with hostility in the field. Lee recorded one incident in her autobiography. Once a white man told her that “he did not believe the coloured people had any souls.”[6] Thus, the man tried to undermine Lee’s profession as a black, female preacher. Lee’s calling was far from easy, but she continued to carve out space in black and white circles to preach. In fact, in one year Lee traveled 2,325 miles and preached 78 sermons.

Lee expanded her Christian calling in 1838 by joining American Antislavery Society. Like many other nineteenth-century women, Lee challenged the notions of “Republican Motherhood” and “True Womanhood.” Lee was a black, female preacher. She preached outside the home in the public sphere. She became a woman author. And, she joined Christian voluntary associations. Jarena Lee carved out a space for herself in American Protestantism.

[1] Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pub. for the author, 1849), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

19 Mar

Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” (1966)

Barbara Welter examines how nineteenth-century Americans defined womanhood from the 1820s to 1860s in women’s magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature. Authors and writers used the phrase “True Womanhood” to express their ideals surrounding women’s gender roles. While nineteenth-century Americans never explicitly defined True Womanhood, Welter argues that the phrase attributed religion (or piety), purity, submissiveness, and domesticity to womanhood. Religion was the core of True Womanhood. Domesticity, or the woman’s sphere, was also central to True Womanhood. Welter reasoned that religion and domesticity in went in hand: “One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere,” her home. Unlike participation in other societies or movements, church work would not make her less domestic or submissive.”[1] Americans depended on their mothers to “raise up a whole generation of Christian statesmen who could say ‘all that I am I owe to my angel mother.’”[2] American mothers played a political role in the religious education of their families and society.

Expanding “The Cult of True Womanhood”

“The Cult of True Womanhood” is just as significant as Linda Kerber’s “Republican Motherhood.” In fact, “The Cult of True Womanhood” may be more significant for scholars of American Protestantism. Welter recognizes the ways that Americans centralized religion as a part of womanhood and motherhood from the 1820s to 1860s. In fact, Welter’s work has been foundational to scholarly work on woman’s sphere and the separate sphere. Yet, Welter’s work is not above critique.

Welter overstated the degree to which True Womanhood relied on domesticity and the home. Welter argued that “Woman…was the hostage in the home.”[3] Elsewhere, she stated: “There was only one place to look for her—at home. Clearly and confidently these authorities proclaimed the True Woman of the nineteenth century to be the Valiant Woman of the Bible, in whom the heart of her husband rejoiced and whose price was above reproach.”[4] To be sure, Welter is correct that the home was central to True Womanhood and nineteenth-century Protestantism. Lithographs pictured women at home reading the bible to their children and husbands. Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe equated homes with churches in The American Woman’s Home. But, these ideals of womanhood did not seclude women in homes in the domestic sphere. True Womanhood called women to reform their homes and then reform society.

The end of True Womanhood was women’s evangelization of the world. In this sense, Welter ignores the social dimension of True Womanhood that many of her primary sources laud. For example, Mrs. S.E. Farely wrote: “As society is constituted on the Domestic and Social Claims on Woman, the true dignity and beauty of the female character seem to consist in a right understanding and faithful and cheerful performance of social and family duties.”[5] Elsewhere, Welter cited other nineteenth-century titles that evoked women’s social, not just domestic duties. One essay was titled, “Woman, the Greatest Social Benefit.” Many of women’s social duties included participating in local churches, but also Christian benevolent societies for the uplift of other Americans. Church work was not valued because it would not make women less domestic or submissive. It was valued because women recognized their role in the evangelization of the world. Women’s duties went far beyond the home and the domestic circle for this evangelization. But, the home was a place to start. The Lady at Home suggested that “even if we cannot reform the world in a moment, we can begin the work by reforming ourselves and our households—It is woman’s mission. Let her not look away from her own little family circle for the means of producing moral and social reforms, but begin at home.” Evangelization started at home with women’s families, but ended in social reforms movements in the world. The sphere and duties of woman included all that was religious, whether that was at home or in society. Women had domestic, social, political roles as Christian mothers. But as many nineteenth-century women (see Sarah J. Hale) pointed out, their sphere did not include participation in the institutional political sphere.

[1] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (July 1, 1966): 153.

[2] Ibid., 171.

[3] Ibid., 151.

[4] Ibid., 174.

[5] Ibid., 162.

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.