Bullies in Petticoats

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The title of These Fiery Frenchified Dames (2001) by Susan Branson is inspired by a quote from a flustered Philadelphia editor named William Cobbett. Adamantly anti-French, Cobbett ranted against women’s public political expression, stating, “of all the monsters in human shape, a bully in petticoats is the most completely odious and detestable” (qtd. in Branson, p. 72). Despite popular sentiment in the post-revolutionary eighteenth century that encouraged a society of the coined term “separate spheres,” Branson argues that (middle-class and elite) women were still able to form political identities through the outlets of print culture, political ceremonies, theater, and salons. Throughout this book, Branson explores the explosion of outlets for women to become politically public in this period. She points to the expansion of avenues of communication (such as print culture and women’s involvement in it), an increase in institutions of leisure (such as salons and theater), as well as the political culture created by partisanship of the Federalists and Democratic Republicans. In this way, Branson challenges traditional scholarship of early American women, which has generally come to place the status of women in this period within the confinement of the domestic private world and the ideal of Republican motherhood.

In this book, Branson explains, in particular, women and events in Philadelphia, which was the nation’s capital in the years 1791-1800. In this period, Branson explains, Philadelphia was a major commercial, social, and political center and the the largest American city, thus attracting wide varieties of people and providing an extraordinary outlet for political involvement and expression. For these reasons, the city of Philadelphia allows Branson to explore and complicate the picture of separate spheres, proving that not all women during this time were explicitly domestic, private, or mothers.

Because of my personal interests, I would like to focus the remainder of this post on Branson’s first chapter, “Women and the Development of Print Culture.” In this chapter, Branson describes the early Republic as a transformative period in print culture; increased literacy meant more people reading and writing contributions to newspapers and periodicals, including women. As evidenced by Branson, more women became contributors to these periodicals, and more periodicals featured subjects pertaining to female readers as well. While many of these subjects were domestic in nature, many also contained pieces on women’s physical and intellectual abilities. Carrying the majority of the chapter is Branson’s discussion on the importance of contributions made by Judith Sargent Murray and the English Mary Wollstonecraft on these topics, each of these women entertaining a massive readership in the early American nation. In Branson’s view, Murray’s essays and poems on female education and intellect “articulated succinctly and clearly many of the thoughts already current in the transatlantic world” (35). Wollstonecraft, however, became a much more controversial figure because of her aim at “tying feminism to political theory” by bringing together “all the various arguments for the social, familial, and political advancement of women…in one place” (35). While likely influenced by Murray, Wollstonecraft’s 1792 essay “A Vindication on the Rights of Women” invokes the political spirit of the French Revolution, taking Murray’s views farther by including the necessity of women’s possession of civil and legal protections. Wollstonecraft’s public popularity waned after knowledge of her private life (meaning her illegitimate child) was exposed; however, as Branson shows, Wollstonecraft’s ideas were nonetheless still shared and continued privately among women.

Had I located this book when completing my undergraduate thesis in English Literature, I would have found it to be immensely useful, for I had written on Judith Sargent Murray and her periodical contributions on women’s equality in the early Republic. Many of these themes are described in enlightening detail in this particular chapter of Branson’s book, and I have come to view the information and sources she uses as important for my future research as well. While I discuss the contents of only one impactful chapter from this book, I found each of them enlightening and convincing proof of Branson’s argument. Her examination of international implications (especially the French Revolution) and partisan politics is neither dry nor difficult to follow; rather, these complex issues are tackled in a way that necessarily drives the narrative (and readers’ eyes) forward. These Fiery Frenchified Dames is well-organized and compelling, providing a necessary glimpse into not only the past of Philadelphia, but the whole nation as well.




One thought on “Bullies in Petticoats

  1. Great post! Even after the rise of 19th c. domesticity, print was a medium available to women (think Godey’s Lady’s Book and Harriet Beecher Stowe). Was it a political act to write and read? Or was the subject of their writing and reading political?

    Why were Frenchified women, and Wollstonecraft, more threatening to American political culture? When and why did women’s political participation decline, or did it?


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