43: Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic

In Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, Linda Kerber rewrites early American history to include women.  In doing so, she defines “Republican Motherhood,” a Revolutionary era “political context in which private female virtues might comfortably co-exist with the civic virtue that was widely regarded as the cement of the Republic.”  Unlike the colonial woman, who lived and worked in the context of her family and community, the Republican Mother “integrated political values into her daily life.”  The ambivalent relationship between motherhood and citizenship, then, becomes one of the most complex legacies of the Revolution.

Republican Motherhood was a way for women to claim a significant political role in the New Republic without totally destroying the existing social fabric, as well as a way for them to enter public life without leaving their homes.  Republican Mothers enacted their newfound political responsibility by nurturing “public-spirited male citizens” and teaching them the virtues that make good citizens; political virtue thus became domesticated, because the mother, not the public, was in charge of civic morality.  However, this new political identity was severely circumscribed, as women were still required to remain isolated in their homes and thus had no way to collectively define themselves or act politically as a group in the public sphere.

Kerber places the figure of the Republican mother in the context of larger social change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when industrialization was increasingly pulling fathers out of the home for work and mothers were left with full childrearing responsibilities.  The new, wildly-fluctuating commercial market also allowed laws regarding women’s ownership of property to relax, as it became increasingly difficult to determine how much anyone’s property was worth, let alone a wife’s versus a husband’s.  And the new expectations for an educated public led many women to read and write more actively than before, though they often spend more time escaping into romance novels than reading political treatises.

While I would have liked more discussion on women of color and on men in conjunction with this concept, and while I’m a little fuzzy on how romance novels led to increased female empowerment, Kerber’s Republican Motherhood clearly elevated the status of mothers, blurred lines between public and private spaces, linked politics and culture through the printed word, and did a host of other fascinating things for women.

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