Republican Motherhood: Women and the Early American Republic

Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic was not only revolutionary in its time, it is a fantastic and easy read. The heart of her argument revolves around women taking control of their own lives, and setting standards for themselves. It is about them finding their place in the newly formed United States of America.

In the beginning of the book, Kerber focuses very heavily on the ideas of coverture and femes covert. She stresses very heavily that prior to the Revolutionary War, women were pushed to the very fringes of society, and not granted a place at its center. During the Enlightenment, philosophes, such as Locke and Montesquieu, made the claim that women needed to be given more credence and position in society. Montesquieu even when so far to say that man’s “authority over women is absolutely tyrannical; they have allowed us to impose it only because they are more gentle than we are, and consequently more humane and reasonable” (20). They attempted to persuade the male population that women did not need to be controlled or forced to comply. Given the option, they were sure that women would choose to stand behind their men. Locke claimed, “the availability of divorce [was] the ultimate test of marital freedom” (20). He was positive that women would always do right by their husbands and follow their lead. They would never leave them to follow their own ideas and passions. That was theory at least. The Revolutionary War proved them wrong.

The problem came in the form of patriotism. Women wanted to express their patriotism, but were constantly being locked out the political realm that men buried themselves within. They were expected to bow down to the same political ideals that the men in their lives held, and to not worry their “pretty little heads” about anything. Their world was tossed into chaos, and they were expected to simply continue with their lives and obey the dictates of their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and guardians. Margarget Livingston wrote, “You know that our Sex are doomed to be obedient in every stage of life so that we shant be great gainers by this contest” (35). They understood that unless something changed and they took a stand, they made a change for themselves, the war would nothing for them but trouble, hardship, and heartache. In an effort to be a more prominent force in the war, many women tried to join in the effort. They went door to door, collecting food, money, clothing, and jewelry for the war effort. They volunteered their services as nurses, cooks, and laundresses for the troops, though they were seen as little more than a “nuisance” (56). They boycotted. They signed petitions. They did everything they could to get their voices heard. In some instances, such as the tea boycott in 1774, they succeeded; however, in many others their voice was simply not loud enough to be heard above the divided shouts of the men.

While many of the men were divided by their loyalties, it was doubly worse for the women. Men needed to choose, whether they were with the patriots and willing to fight for everything they and their ancestors had built in the “new world” or if they were loyal to Great Britain and ready to sacrifice everything they had, stand up to their friends, family, and countrymen, to side with the King and Parliament. Women were simply expected to follow their men, regardless of their own views of the situation. The laws even stated that if a women followed her husband or father into exile as a loyalist, if and when she eventually returned, she was not to be punished for siding with the enemy as it was not her place to make that decision. However, she was, in many cases also not entitled to any of the things that she had been forced to leave behind; her home, land, or possessions. For instance, the law in South Carolina stated that “husbands are oftentimes influenced and governed by the sentiment and conduct of their wives. If, therefore they do not exert this influence, by example and dissuasion, they are considered in the law, as having incurred such a degree of guilt, as to forfeit every right or claim under their husbands” (129). They may not have been guilty of treason in the eyes of the law, but they were guilty of not using their “feminine wiles” to control their men. As if they could.

However, this was the role that women chose to assert themselves at the end of the war. When the fighting ended, they invented the role of the Republican Mother. This personage was an educated woman, who exerted her ideals and ideas in the home, by influencing her husband and children in all things political and religious. As we saw in Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions, this was a time that women were actively attempting to control the number of children they were having. This was a part of Republican Motherhood, as less children allowed her to form stronger relationships with her children and spend more time seeing to their education and moral behavior.

While Kerber coined the term of Republican Mother, she fails to do it justice in this book. The entire book builds on the idea that women were seeking a way to leave the domestic sphere and make a place for themselves in society, yet she ends the discussion with a very brief chapter on the role they chose to wield – within the home! As we see in the posts by Sarah and Michelle on Branson’s Fiery Frenchified Dames, and Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, women were not simply resigned to resuming their place in the home. They wanted more. They wanted a place in society. They wanted their voices heard. Though she spends most of the book showing how women wanted to make a place for themselves in the new revolutionized country, Kerber does not follow through. This book provides a great background to understanding why women felt abandoned by their country during the revolution, but it must be paired with Branson and/or Zagarri, to finalize the narrative.


One thought on “Republican Motherhood: Women and the Early American Republic

  1. Interesting critique of Kerber’s book! What Republican motherhood a private or public/political identity? Or were they making the most out of a circumscribed place in the new nation?

    Did women’s efforts during the war politicize them? Or were they already politicized?

    So would you argue that the Revolution was not a revolution for women?


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