Liberty’s Daughters

Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 by Mary Beth Norton

The American Revolution – both the chaos of the war itself and the ideological ferment it created – reshaped colonial society and the fifty percent of that society that happened to be female were not exempt from that process. However, as Norton ably shows in Liberty’s Daughters, this revolution did not occur “in the world of law and politics” where previous historians had sought it. For “[t]he post revolutionary years brought no widespread reform of legal codes” – women remained feme covert upon marriage, legal divorce continued to be virtually impossible, and women’s property rights remained very contingent on the men in their lives.[1] However, what the changes that revolution wrought were subtle but quite important. The Revolution redefined how white women thought about themselves and revolutionized the role the domestic sphere – the sphere by which society defined women’s lives – in public life.

What the revolution brought about was the idea of “republican motherhood”, which blurred the “dividing line between the feminine sphere and the masculine realm of the public responsibilities.” “Republican motherhood” politicized white women’s “domestic responsibilities” by creating “obligation [for white women] to create a supportive home life for her husband, and particularly” a “duty to raise republican sons who would love their country and preserve its virtuous character.”[2] This ideological construct had contradictory implications for women. While it did continue to define white women’s lives as primarily domestic, the post-Revolutionary world centered that domestic life on public concerns. Since white women must pass on virtue to their children, they must then be educated enough carry out that duty. This, thus, explains the massive rise of female education among the upper classes in the wake of the Revolution. In Norton’s telling, “white women of nineteenth-century America could take pride in their sex in a way their female ancestors could not.” Because of the republicanization of motherhood “the importance of motherhood was admitted by all.” On the other hand, women still remained confined in “an orthodox, if somewhat broadened, conception of womanhood and its proper function.”[3] As noted above, there was no legal revolution in women’s status. Patriarchy still reigned in American society.

As she admits, Norton’s explanation of white women’s role in society after the Revolution is very much a glass as “half full” sort of argument.[4] Norton stresses the liberating potential of “republican motherhood”, especially in its early years, and stresses that “the republican academies” educated the first generation of women who would challenge the limits the republican motherhood.[5] Thus the republicanization of domesticity contained the seeds of its own greatest challengers.

However, Norton’s ‘glass half full’ perspective causes her to put less stress on the darker sides of this new place for white women in the political order. Ideologically placing women as the central figures for the installation of virtue in the next generation could have troubling implications for white women. If the new generation proves less virtuous than their forebears the burden for that failure would fall onto their mothers. Norton does not draw clear attention to this contradiction. Norton is also too quick to dismiss so-called “female politicians” who in the earliest years of the republic sought to push the place for white women in politics well past the limits defined by “republican motherhood.” As historians like Rosemarie Zagarri have argued, there was a window for direct female participation in politics, at least for white women. Zagarri and others have traced how this window was slammed shut in the first half of the nineteenth century and “[t]he legacy of the Revolution was redefined and circumscribed so as to limit its full benefits to white males.”[6] This is a much darker take on the post-Revolutionary world for white women, than Norton’s. It argues that women had more to gain in the post-Revolutionary world and thus lost more as electoral politics became entirely masculinized.

Yet, whatever minor problems there are with Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters it remains a powerful and, mostly, convincing argument about the place of women after the American Revolution. It is obvious why this book is had been so successful and remained relevant despite its many challengers and intimidators.

 


[1] Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experince of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), xix.

[2] Ibid, 297-298

[3] Ibid, 298

[4] North employs this metaphor in the context of her friendly disagreements with Linda Kerber. See: Ibid, xiii-xiv

[5] See: Ibid, 272-287.

[6] See: Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), esp. 46-81. The quote is found on 185.

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Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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