“Republican Motherhood” is an 18th-century term for an attitude toward women’s roles present in the emerging United States before, during, and after the American Revolution. It centered on the belief that the patriots’ daughters should be raised to uphold the ideals of republicanism, in order to pass on republican values to the next generation. In this way, the “Republican Mother” was considered a custodian of civic virtue responsible for upholding the morality of her husband and children.
Although it is an anachronism, the period of Republican Motherhood is hard to categorize in the history of Feminism. On the one hand, it reinforced the idea of a domestic women’s sphere separate from the public world of men. On the other hand, it encouraged the education of women and invested their “traditional” sphere with a dignity and importance that had been missing from previous conceptions of Women’s work.
Republicanism and Women’s Roles
With the growing emphasis being placed on republicanism, women were expected to help promote these values; they had a special role in raising the next generation. In Linda K. Kerber’s article “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective”, she compared republican motherhood to the Spartan model of childhood, where children are raised to value patriotism and the sacrificing of their own needs for the greater good of the country. By doing so, the mothers would encourage their sons to pursue liberty and roles in the government, while their daughters would perpetuate the domestic sphere with the next generation. In addition, women were permitted to receive more of an education than they previously had been allowed. Abigail Adams advocated women’s education, as demonstrated in many of her letters to her husband, the president John Adams (see Abigail Adams).
Many Christian ministers, such as the Reverend Thomas Bernard, actively promoted the ideals of republican motherhood. They believed this was the appropriate path for women, as opposed to the more public roles promoted by Mary Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries. Traditionally, women had been viewed as morally inferior to men, especially in the areas of sexuality and religion. However, as the nineteenth century drew closer, many Protestant ministers and moralists argued that modesty and purity were inherent in women’s natures, giving them a unique ability to promote Christian values with their children.
Education of Women
By the early 19th century, towns and cities were making new opportunities available for girls and women. Especially influential were the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Lydia Sigourney, who developed the role of republican motherhood as a principle by equating a successful republic with virtuous families. Women, as intimate and concerned observers of young children, were best suited to this role. By the 1830s, these New England writers became respected models and were advocates for improving education for females. Greater educational access included making once male-only subjects of classical education, such as mathematics and philosophy, integral to curricula at public and private schools for girls. The number of girls’ academic schools in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic increased rapidly beginning in the mid-19th century. By the late 19th century, such schools were extending and reinforcing the tradition of women as educators and supervisors of American moral and ethical values.
History of Republican Motherhood
The term “republican motherhood” was not used in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It was first used in 1976 to describe the American ideal by the historian Linda K. Kerber, in her article “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective”  and then again in 1980 in her book Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. The historian Jan Lewis subsequently expanded the concept in her article “The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic,” published in the William and Mary Quarterly (1987). The early seeds of the concept are found in the works of John Locke, the notable seventeenth-century philosopher, particularly his Two Treatises of Government. In his First Treatise, he included women in social theory, and in his Second Treatise defined their roles more clearly. As Kerber quotes in her 1997 essay, Locke wrote:
“[T]he first society was between man and wife, which gave beginning to that between parents and children… conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and woman.”
In other words, contrary to the traditional sexual hierarchy promoted by his contemporary Robert Filmer and others, Locke believed that men and women had more equal roles in a marriage. Women were expected to focus on domestic issues, but Locke’s treatises helped appreciation of the value of the domestic sphere. Although Locke argued less in support of women after he had dissected Filmore’s writings, his treatises were influential in highlighting the role of women in society.
Although the notion of republican motherhood initially encouraged women in their private roles, it eventually resulted in increased educational opportunities for American women, as typified by Mary Lyon and the founding in 1837 of “Mount Holyoke Female Seminary”, later Mount Holyoke College. The ideal produced women with initiative and independence; as Kerber says, it was “one side of an inherently paradoxical ideology of republican motherhood that legitimized political sophistication and activity.”
Educated Northern women became some of the strongest voices and organizers of the abolitionist movement, which blossomed in the 1830s and 1840s. Working on civil rights for enslaved people caused women to realize they themselves were enslaved by the patriarchy and wanted rights for themselves, giving rise to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and the women’s rights movement in the United States. They worked for suffrage, property rights, legal status and child custody in family disputes. The movement likely owes a debt to the emphasis on republican motherhood of fifty years before.
The Origins of Republican Motherhood
The first presence of republican motherhood was seen in Classical Rome during the years 600 BC to 500 CE. In Classical Rome, women played a much larger role in society than women in other societies around the world did during that period in time. In the eyes of Classical Romans, the familia, or family, was the core of their civilization, and this yielded relatively healthy marriages between Roman men and women. In Merry Wiesner-Hanks book Gender in History: Global Perspectives, she details the “model marriage” through the eyes of Classical Romans as “one in which husbands and wives were loyal to one another and shared interests, activities, and property.”.
Due to the vital role that women and mothers had in their children’s education, they were granted the right to receive and have access to education. This was a rare privilege in Classical civilizations, as women were barred from obtaining education in most cultures around the globe at this time. The example in Rome has been used in more recent times all across the world in the fight for women’s suffrage, and was a main argument that mothers and women made in the United States during the years leading up to 1920, when the 19th Amendment finally awarded women the right to vote.
- Linda K. Kerber, “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective,” in Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays by Linda K. Kerber (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 43.
- Porterfield, Mary Lyon, 1997.
- Amanda Porterfield, Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries (1997).
- Sarah Robbins, “‘The Future Good and Great of our Land’: Republican Mothers, Female Authors, and Domesticated Literacy in Antebellum New England”, New England Quarterly 2002 75(4): 562–91, in JSTOR.
- Kerber, Linda (1976). The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective. American Quarterly. pp. Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: An American Enlightenment pp. 187–205. JSTOR2712349.
- Kerber (1997), “Republican Mother,” p. 44.
- Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 145.
- Wiesner-Hanks, Merry (2011). Gender in History: Global Perspectives. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 32.
- Wiesner-Hanks, Merry (2011). Gender in History: Global Perspectives. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 32.
- Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Boylan, Anne M. The Origins of Women’s Activism: New York and Boston, 1797-1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
- Hall, Mark David. “Beyond Self-interest: the Political Theory and Practice of Evangelical Women in Antebellum America,” Journal of Church and State Volume: 44. Issue: 3. 2002. pp 477+ online edition
- Kerber, Linda K. “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment-An American Perspective,” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, (Summer, 1976), pp. 187–205 in JSTOR
- Kerber, Linda K. Intellectual History of Women: Essays by Linda K. Kerber. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
- Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.
- Kleinberg, S J. Women in the United States, 1830-1945. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
- Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.
- Porterfield, Amanda . Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries (1997) online edition
- Robbins, Sarah. “‘The Future Good and Great of our Land’: Republican Mothers, Female Authors, and Domesticated Literacy in Antebellum New England,” New England Quarterly 2002 75(4): 562-591 in JSTOR
- Wiesner, Merry E. “Gender in History: Global Perspectives.” Gender in History: Global Perspectives, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 32.
- Zagari, Rosemarie. “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother,” American Quarterly Vol. 44, No. 2 (June 1992), pp. 192–215 in JSTOR
Originally published by Wikipedia, 08.04.2005, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.