Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Women of the Republic: A Review

Note: this post relates to another topic I plan to discuss here tomorrow.

The Revolutionary Era in American history was revolutionary largely for white men. "Unhappily, the ability of humans to live with their contradictions is legendary," it has been said of the immediate aftermath of independence and the creation of a radical new republic, as the social and legal repression of women and minorities continued despite egalitarian rhetoric of rights, liberty, and freedom. The situation was arguably better for the former, however, as (white) women did see some gains, though only within the context of their traditional domestic sphere. The core definition of gender, according to Joan W. Scott, is its role as a "constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes" and "a primary way of signifying relationships of power" (Scott 1067). Linda K. Kerber's Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980) effectively demonstrates how these two functions intersected and interacted in a crucial, transformative time in American history. If contemporary notions of femininity continued to restrict women's participation in war and politics, they also expanded to incorporate new responsibilities for women in family and society.

In attempting to explain and account for the current state of affairs in Europe, many Enlightenment thinkers composed sweeping panoramas of the march of human history (15). The Scientific Revolution had taught that the study of nature, as revealed by the discoveries of Newton, was to be "motivated and guided solely by the search for truth, which, as it turned out, came to consist only in what could be proclaimed as general laws, universally applicable" (Appleby, et al; 28). To many modern historians, the subsequent use of the pronoun "he" in the broadly generalized works of Montesquieu and Lord Kames was merely a neutral syntactical utilization without historical significance. Kerber disagrees: the he literally referred to man, and the word "philosophe" is a male noun (15). Furthermore, as Scott also observes,"[g]ender has been literally and analogically used in political theory to justify or criticize the reign of monarchs and to express the relationship between ruler and ruled," as well as to explain and legitimize the "[p]ower relationships among nations and the status of colonial subjects" (1070, 1079). Eighteenth-century theoretical and abstract thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke, who invariably began with the family as the basis of human society in the state of nature, did in fact discuss women, but even then it was almost as though their line of reasoning had forced them into this corner. Locke, for example, explored the issue of gender only to refute Robert Filmer's justification of absolute monarchy by divine right out of the biblical precept to "honor thy father" (15-18).

In the English Whig tradition, which Bernard Bailyn has argued was an even greater influence on the ideology of the American Revolution, women did not fare much better. Lacking the concept of the "presocial family," Whig theorists often framed their thoughts on politics and the state in terms of the father-son relationship (Kerber 28). Indeed, many of the Whigs' American heirs argued that it was precisely those qualities labeled "feminine" that republics ought to avoid. "Luxury, effeminacy, and corruption" and "ignorance, effeminacy, and vice" were recurring trios in cautionary political tracts by such patriots as Samuel Adams (31). At the end of the day, then, women entered and emerged from the American Revolution with little theoretical guidance on what should be their role in the new republic.

One task of political history, says Joan Scott, should be to explore why, and since when, women have been largely absent as historical subjects when it is well known that they participated in many pivotal events (1074). For American Revolutionary women, this can perhaps be explained by the definition of female patriotism that emerged from the war, which George Washington described as "the love of country . . . blended with those softer domestic virtues." The duty of women was to suffer the hard times, support the military, and "maintain their innocence"; in other words, to passively endure while the men performed feats of republican heroism (Kerber 106). This probably evolved from the coverture laws that effectively merged a woman's civil identity with that of her husband to create a single unit (not unlike the modern corporation), which then translated into constraints on a married woman's legitimacy as a thinking, opinionated individual in her own right (120). The English legal practice, which America never sought to entirely abandon, defined domestic law as the bond between "Baron and Feme," the very wording of which signifies a political relationship: the husband has both power status and gender, while the wife has only gender (119). Not surprisingly then, many felt that women were necessarily vulnerable to the coercion and manipulation of their husbands and therefore could not be considered rightful citizens of a free republic (139). It was also for these reasons that the wives of loyalists were especially vulnerable to revolutionary zeal, as they faced the difficult task of proving their own allegiance to the patriotic cause (50). On the reverse side, women who left home to join loyalist husbands were generally not considered traitors (123).

In the end, women's contributions were seen as a self-evidently justified "free gift" to the nation (119). Women were called upon to apply their domestic skills to the revolution: they made clothing and bandages, melted lead window weights for bullets, served as nurses (though in the generations before Florence Nightingale this was primarily a custodial function), and followed the troops to do their cooking and cleaning (42, 58). One of the few employments open to genteel women was to operate a boardinghouse, which enabled the spinster or widow to remain at home performing traditional female tasks; during the war they hosted soldiers and delegates (61). In other words, while the Revolution sought to expand men's political and social roles, women were expected to continue in their domestic sphere. Women themselves seemed to have made political decisions based predominantly on their roles as wives, mothers, and managers of households. Their most common political act, the petition, is fundamentally based on a position of subordination that relies heavily on rhetoric of humility (85). Since their patriotic sacrifices were, again, considered a "free gift," the destitute war widows who composed the largest percentage of petitioners usually saw their efforts come to nothing. Both the states and new federal government had other, more pressing issues, including war debt (93).

As connotations of gender and power mutually reinforce and build upon one another, it must be asked how these meanings may be altered. Massive political disruption is one method: old concepts of gender and political organization can be either transformed or reused to validate the new regime (Scott 1073). One of the most well-known organized political actions taken by women during the Revolutionary War was the campaign of well-to-do female patriots in Philadelphia, including Benjamin Franklin's daughter, to go door-to-door raising funds for Washington's troops, an act that inevitably signifies confrontation (102). This in turn inspired a flurry of broadsides justifying female political participation. The idea of a woman patriot was wholly novel; again, neither the Whig tradition nor the Enlightenment put much thought into women's issues (104-105). While Americans at the end of the day did not choose to follow the logical course of their own egalitarian rhetoric, new openings for women were beginning to appear (283).

Though the old coverture laws continued to inextricably bind women to their husbands, the Massachusetts state legislature began to punish absent male loyalists by encouraging their wives to break with their husbands and declare allegiance to the patriot cause, a radical departure from the English past (124-125). It was after the war and during the rise of the capitalist economy, however, that coverture was widely challenged – and not necessarily for women's benefit. Coverture froze the wives' lands until they could be passed on to a male heir, which prevented their exploitation as an economic asset. Though the permission of the wife was technically required for her lands to be sold or developed, in reality women rarely had a choice (144-145). Divorce, meanwhile, underwent few changes. If political democracy "allows the people, the weak of political society, to rise against the established power," so too does divorce, "veritable domestic democracy," enable the wife, "the weak part, to rebel against marital authority" (Scott 1071). Although Britain's right to regulate colonial divorce became an issue during the Revolution (Kerber 160), restrictions remained even after the independence had been realized. Cruelty was still not sufficient grounds for divorce, which had become increasingly expensive by the nineteenth century (170,180). Civil divorce existed only in Pennsylvania, where it was adopted as part of the revolutionary rhetoric of "the pursuit of happiness"; elsewhere, however, a private bill in the state legislature was still required (181).

Where women did see considerable gain, on the other hand, was in education. Though colonial America had a highly literate overall population, education for girls was not a high priority. For all Benjamin Franklin's accomplishments, his wife Deborah was nearly illiterate (191). If one of the most telling measures of modernization in a society is the extent to which printed has replaced oral communication, then female culture was pre-modern in a time when male culture was rapidly increasing its dependence on the printed word (192). Since girls were going to be simply wives and mothers, it was believed, they did not need to learn much, and those who did were unnaturally masculine and an intrusion into the male sphere of scholarship (198). Both the Revolutionary War and the emerging Industrial Revolution did much to alter this. While the expansion of capitalism and the free market made printed communication essential, it was also believed that republics were built on the virtue of their citizens and that only education could ensure that future generations had this virtue. It would come not from a formal branch of government, but from churches, schools and the home (199-200). Hence the ideology of the Republican Mother.

Though the first girls' schools, founded primarily by women, were largely marginal enterprises, their very newness inspired innovation. Emma Willard, for example, wrote some of America's very first history and geography textbooks for her school and also utilized progressive teaching methods (203, 215). The early years of the United States, according to Daniel Feller, were a "glimmering moment [where] everything seemed possible," including "the revolutionizing of human character" and "raising a generation of perfected youth" (Feller 76). Women had a major role in this. They were to be the mothers whose knowledge and virtue were the crucial influences in shaping future citizens. They would also be "self-reliant (within limits), literate, untempted by the frivolities of fashion. She had a responsibility to the political scene, though was not active in it." Women were still not allowed far beyond the home, but what they could do in the home had been enlarged (Kerber 228-229). They even developed their own literary culture, that of the romance novel, which, unlike the history books they were encouraged to read instead, centered on contemporary female characters and how they coped with events in their lives (263-264). Female heroes were also found in the devotional literature also highly popular at the time and which blended history with narrative to reveal the lives of real women (260-261).

Anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo has stated that "[i]t now appears to me that women's place in human social life is not in any direct sense a product of the things she does, but the meaning her activities acquire through concrete social interaction" (Scott 1067). Women of the early United States, lacking as they did any Whig or Enlightenment thought to build upon, transformed their traditional domestic sphere into a center of the "new public ideology of individual responsibility and civic virtue." Though at the end of the day Americans did not choose to explore the obvious implications of their egalitarian ideals, women did manage to attach new significance to their timeworn roles as wives and mothers (Kerber 269). The goal of the Republican Mother was an inherently political one: she was to "encourage her sons' civic interest and participation" and "educate her children and guide them on paths of morality and virtue" (283). Of course, the Republican Mother ideal was always vulnerable to absorption into the Victorian "cult of domesticity," which is arguably precisely what happened. "By the 1840s the idea of a distinct feminine character was transmuting from an instrument of change to a bulwark of stasis, from a way to arm women for uplift to a rationale for confining them in the circle of home and family" (Feller 198). Kerber, on the other hand, believes that the Republican Mother was in fact only the first stage of women's political socialization, a process in which they simply lagged behind men but would eventually catch up (Kerber 284-285).

Women of the Republic: Ideology and Intellect in Revolutionary America is a fascinating, though somewhat limited, look into a frequently neglected aspect of the American Revolutionary era. Limited, because it seems to focus mostly on Northern women, while African-American women are never even mentioned. Kerber's sources are nicely varied, however, as she draws on both modern-day scholarship and contemporary materials such as diaries, plays, speeches, articles, and court documents. It has been common practice to catalogue women's personal papers under their husbands' names, she notes in the bibliography, and women have been subsequently buried in family records so that it is difficult to locate them (289). Given that restriction, Kerber has still done an admirable job incorporating women's own writings into her book. Nevertheless, the "proliferation of case studies in women's history seems to call for some synthesizing perspective that can explain continuities and discontinuities and account for persisting inequalities as well as radically different social experiences," says Joan Scott (1055). In other words, then, Kerber's book is best read alongside other works also covering Revolutionary women of different backgrounds and from different angles. Only then will the historian be able to develop a fuller understanding of gender and the American Revolution.

Note: In his fascinating book The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence, T.H. Breen also points out that, as "women had long exercised broad discretion over day-to-day household expenditures . . . [and] regularly dealt with the shopkeepers and itinerant traders who merchandised imported British goods," they played a huge role in the boycotts and non-importation movements that marked the pre-war years beginning in the 1760s with the Stamp Act (Breen 280). Without women, these protests would most likely have failed. Kerber, however, dismisses such economic appeals as "the most frivolous terms" (45), though she does acknowledge the effectiveness of mobilizing citizens against British fashions (44).


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