Our interest in commemorating the 250th anniversary of American independence involves a significant look backwards at the American past—and at some of the classics that the OI has published on Revolutionary America. This month, we feature Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, which first appeared in 1980. One of a group of pathbreaking books researched in the 1970s and published in the early 1980s, Women of the Republic has introduced generations to the role of women in the American Revolution and the possibilities of women’s history.
Women of the Republic may be best known for laying out the concept of “Republican motherhood.” Can you explain what you mean by that term? What made someone in Revolutionary America a “Republican mother?”
In framing the new republic, white male leaders worried about sustaining the virtue on which they believed the revolution had depended. They lived in a political world in which women had no approved or obvious political roles – appointments or election to even minor government responsibilities. But men could assign to white women the responsibility for raising the next generation of virtuous republican citizens. It was a role some of them embraced. Some years later, Jan Lewis identified a major extension of this concept in the role of the “Republican wife” – women could sustain the republic by choosing only politically virtuous men for partners. This ideology was tightly linked to a demand for more education for women, which in turn sustained the invention and growth of female academies.
Through your research you reveal a complicated interaction between ideas about women’s role in political society (or lack thereof) and the ways in which women actually engaged in political activity on the ground during the Revolution. How did Americans at the time deal with the disjunctures that you identified?
To live with disjuncture is human – we live with contradictions every day. The Revolution was was a civil war between Loyalists and Patriots as well as a colonial rebellion by settlers against the British Empire. It was often conducted as a guerilla war, in which armed civilians conducted ambushes and sabotage. In the turmoil of this war, women were civilians, vulnerable to and responsive to immediate challenge. Deborah Sampson Gannett served as a sniper while keeping her identity secret from her colleagues; women served as spies, as what we would call orderlies in hospitals. Their blankets and other household resources were seized by occupying troops on both sides.
Loyalism as both political allegiance and identity plays a significant role in your account of women during the Revolutionary War. How did American state governments approach women who were Loyalists, or whose husbands were Loyalists? How did their gender shape government actions?
Much variability among the states’ approach. The common law understanding of coverture meant that women were not guilty of crimes committed under the auspices of their husbands; by extension, women who sought permission to travel to join husbands who were behind British lines were not treated as traitors [though their husbands were]. In some confiscation statutes, the dower rights of wives or widows of exiled Loyalists were protected when the state seized their property IF the woman had broken with her husband and enacted her own loyalty to the Republic. Even in states without explicit statutes, courts often acted as though the remaining wife or widow had indeed dissociated herself from her husband and made her own political commitment.
You devote an entire chapter of the book to divorce law. It’s probably too facile to say that the Declaration of Independence led women to declare their own independence, but the rhetoric did make its way from Philadelphia into homes across America. How did that legal procedure take on political meaning for women during the American Revolution?
I don’t think it’s too facile to say that the rhetoric of independence seeped into homes and intimate life. Since colonies were forbidden to establish laws contrary to the law of Great Britain, the rare colonies that made divorce available by statute [Connecticut and Pennsylvania] were making a revolutionary claim. Lacking political representation and authority, women were not in a position to revise strict divorce law. In an era when the rare divorce was granted only as a result of petition, I found that divorce petitions – from both men and women, though largely from women – were soaked with explicit descriptions of the ingredients of unhappiness and vulnerability, and the desire to be independent of a forced relationship. More recently, in her brilliant Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility and Family Limitation in America: 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), Susan E. Klepp has established that improvement in women’s literacy and education was linked to a rapid fall in birth rates; a “fertility transition” that was contemporaneous with the American Revolution, setting off a pattern that continued into our own time. Mining private letters and journals of middle-class white women, Klepp found that they “applied egalitarian ideas and a virtuous, prudent sensibility to their bodies and to their traditional images of self as revolutions inspired discussion and debate.”
My effort in Women of the Republic was to make clear that divorce was a strategy of particular interest to women.
Americans in the early Republic devoured fiction, especially in the form of novels. Why was reading, and in particular reading fiction, considered such a dangerous activity for women?
Fiction remains dangerous; a place in which alternate relationships can be imagined and implicit criticisms of the present can be masked [as we see in current efforts to censor school curricula and library holdings]. Improvements in printing and the invention of lithography in the mid-eighteenth century contributed to wide availability of books and newspapers in America, especially in New England. Serious learning, however, was widely understood to be a male prerogative, embedded in the growth of schooling for boys and the general neglect of advanced schooling for girls. A literacy gap between men and women closed only slowly between the era of the Revolution and mid-nineteenth century. As women became more literate – and white women in New England are estimated to have been the most literate women in the western world at the turn of the 19th century – their appetite for fiction was widely criticized.
Conservatives argued that women should stick to reading their bibles. “Women of masculine minds,” thundered a well-known Boston minister, “have generally masculine manners.” But women read fiction anyway. Their best defense remains Jane Austen’s, in which a character in Northanger Abbey explains why she avoids reading history: “…it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page: the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.”
Over forty years have passed since the first publication of Women of the Republic. Looking back at the work now, is there any aspect of the research you would approach differently?
I remain dismayed that I was so delighted by finding so much that was new to me that I was blind to inquiry into the lives of Black – both free and enslaved –women. I am also horrified that none of the historians who read my drafts or reviewed my book criticized their absence. I did gather information about women in the economy, but did not develop a chapter on that subject. At the very least, doing so would have forced me to inquire into the role of enslaved women.
There were in the 1970s, when I was writing, many sources on which I could have drawn, among them most obviously Gerda Lerner’s Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (New York: Pantheon, 1972) and biographies and memoirs, like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, first published in 1861. Now there are many powerful books on the subject, including Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Stephane Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slaveowners in the American South, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2019); Karen Cook Bell, Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Had I understood that American society –North as well as South –was polluted by a slave economy, a slave regime, and that most of my sources were drawn from the records of free white women, generally of middle class and elite women [whose papers, after all, are most likely to have been saved] every chapter would require revision.
In addition to questions related to the specific research in your book, we are asking every author the same two questions about the upcoming commemorations of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.
In each interview, we conclude with two questions about how the author sees their work contributing to the project of commemorating America’s 250th.
How does your book change the way we should think about the United States declaring independence in 1776?
Women of the Republic contributes, I’m glad to say, to our understanding of the limitations of the radicalism of the American Revolution. The Founders not only kept in place [and strengthened] the law of slavery; they also kept in place the old law of domestic relations, continuing coverture – aspects of which are still being dismantled in our own time – which, under the guise of “protection,” severely limited the options of the married women [and often, by extension, the not-married woman] to protect their own bodies, to manage their own earnings and to express their political views. Resistance to coverture began with the Revolutionary generation, not with the accomplishment of suffrage in 1920.
What is the one thing you most wish those working on commemorations for America’s 250th would learn from your book?
That our inheritance from 1776 is nuanced, complex, contradictory, and full of ingredients of which we cannot be proud.
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