Reassessing Republican Motherhood

While I am particularly interested in the lived experience of women in the 1790s, throughout my research I’ve come to value the importance of historiography, theory, and rhetoric. Thus, for the past week, I’ve been looking into theoretical frameworks for assessing the political influence and impact of women in the 1790s. The predominant framework is that of ‘Republican Motherhood’; to be honest, I think it’s the first thing that comes to mind when we think of women in the early Federal era. Republican Motherhood, coined by historian Linda Kerber, refers to the new role placed on women after the American Revolution: raising sons to become proper, educated, republican citizens. On the one hand, this afforded women opportunities for education, in order to properly educate her children, as well as political influence, since they impacted their husbands and sons. However, it still relegated women to a domestic sphere, that of the family and the household. Up until now, I accepted Republican Motherhood as a definite fact, the only framework provided to women in the post-revolutionary era.


However, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t exactly the case. Articles by Margaret Nash (“Rethinking Republican Motherhood”) and Rosemarie Zagarri (“Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother”) served to complicate the concept of Republican Motherhood, showing me that, as I should’ve expected, history is complicated and ideology doesn’t always match lived experience. In testing the difference between ideology and lived experience, Nash examines essays and speeches regarding women’s education. She puts primary focus on Benjamin Rush; Kerber cites Rush’s “Thoughts upon Female Education”, where he discusses the importance of an educated mother to then educate her children, when defining Republican Motherhood. Nash argues that while Rush does mention that “education of children was the most important duty of mothers,” he later justifies subjects that should be taught to women in terms of potential use rather than application to motherhood. Instead of specifically focusing on the domestic, family sphere, Rush advocates what Nash calls ‘Republican womanhood’, for he emphasizes “women’s power over the conduct of adult men.” While educating young citizens was still important to Rush, Nash suggests that “essayists more often mentioned women’s responsibility to inspire good behavior and virtue on the parts of men and to improve society.” In her exploration of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and their views on women, Rosemarie Zagarri similarly concludes that women were similarly seen as having “an absolute control of manners.” This gave women political power outside of the domestic sphere, for, as James Tilton commented in 1790, “Good laws cannot be executed without good manners.” While this advocates for the idea of separate spheres for men and women, it shows that Republican ideology included a place for women and recognized their political influence.


As I’ve stated, rhetoric isn’t always easily translated into lived experience, but Nash provides information on how ideology affected women’s perceptions of themselves and their education. She gives the example of the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia; it is exactly what the title says and was co-founded by Benjamin Rush. Opened between 1780 and 1787, it became the first incorporated institution for female education in the US in 1792. Here, “young women studied reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, composition, rhetoric, and geography” and, like the all-male Academy of Philadelphia, the school encouraged competition among their students and held public examinations with prizes for best performance. The ladies’ valedictory addresses are very telling for how they saw themselves and their education in the post-revolutionary world. Students advocated for education as useful, practical, and enjoyable. In 1792, Molly Wallace thanked her teachers for helping her reach “the ample and spacious field of knowledge: which has been, and I am sensible will always be the reward of the studious.” Ann Negus bemoaned how she and her classmates would likely have to “resign our liberty” to their husbands who “confer in return, hatred and contempt.” Priscilla Mason characterized the words of women to a “sword in the scabbard, to be used only when occasion requires.” Her valedictory address became that occasion, where she argued, “The Church, the Bar, and the Senate are shut against us. Who shut them? Man; despotic man.” Challenging the law and the church, Mason was obviously confident in her beliefs and women’s right to public speech, perhaps cultivated during her studies at the Academy.


In my thesis, I don’t aim to completely overturn Republican Motherhood. However, I agree with Nash’s statement that we need to “remove the blinders that have limited our vision of women in the early republic.” Far from seeing themselves as tied completely to the domestic sphere, women saw themselves as political beings and had opportunities to express their opinions and display their influence.


Works Cited

Nash, Margaret A. “Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia.” Journal of the Early Republic 17, no 2 (1997): 171-191.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother.” American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992): 192-215.


  1. lhcampopiano says:

    Hello Tessa,

    I’m very interested in the conception of “Republican womanhood”, with women being seen as a moderating force in politics. Your mention of Dolley Madison’s cross party friendships seems to fit this role well. I’m wondering if you’re also familiar with cases of women who bucked this standard and had personal conflicts that mirrored the larger political conflicts of the early Republic. I’m also curious if the French Revolution had any effects on the roles or perceptions of “Republican womanhood” in America.



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