The cover of Lucia McMahon’s Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic features an image of a lovely young woman reading in a library as both Cupid and Minerva prepare to crown her with a wreath of laurel leaves. Drawn from a 1791 issue of the Massachusetts Magazine, this image aptly poses the driving question behind McMahon’s valuable new study of the intellectual lives of girls and women in the early national period: How did girls and women construct personal and social identities for [End Page 237] themselves at a time when they were encouraged to pursue educational opportunities even as entrenched notions of sexual difference would limit the social, economic, cultural, and political opportunities available to them? For McMahon, the answer to this question lies in the pliable concept of “mere equality.” As she explains, “implicit in the mere was the persistent notion that women were different from men and, further, that to become merely the equals of man would represent a loss of women’s influence and power as women. . . . Mere equality attempted to reconcile the persistent belief in gender difference of the era with its more liberating and enlightened ideas about equality” (p. x). While Minerva might beckon girls and women of the period to pursue academic achievement, Cupid was ever present to remind members of the female sex that they could best exercise their intellectual talents in the roles of potential mate, wife, or mother.
In a savvy organizational decision that pays rich rhetorical rewards, McMahon structures Mere Equals around the “life stages and relationship arcs” that were prevalent among comfortably circumstanced, European-American women living in the Northeast (p. xii). In six chapters, McMahon moves from the experiences of young women at female academies and the strong friendship bonds and natal family structures that supported their intellectual achievement through the events of courtship, marriage, and motherhood. McMahon’s readers encounter the bold voices of girls like Eliza Pintard Boudinot, who wrote, “We have talents put into our hands and they ought not to be hidden,” while attending the Newark Academy in New Jersey in 1810 (p. 31); follow the earnest epistolary exchanges (1817–23) between Linda Raymond and her fiancé, Benjamin Ward, as they anticipate their “union of reason and love” (p. 90); and become attuned to the silences of mothers like Lowry Wister, who wrote to her sister in 1803, “The various duties that daily press upon me, for my own family, or for my children, leave me but little leisure to devote to my pen” (p. 154). What emerges from McMahon’s orchestration of these and other female voices is an intellectually forceful and emotionally suasive argument that many women of the early national period were indeed [End Page 238] able to fashion intellectually rich lives for themselves and embraced “mere equality” in their personal relationships and immediate social circles, without disrupting broader assumptions about sexual difference and the patriarchal structures that restricted their opportunities for self-determination.
Other important studies of girls’ educational opportunities and women’s intellectual lives in the early national period have focused on the founders of academies and schools and the institutional records they have left behind, on the textbooks, primers, and school fiction that helped to shape popular opinion about female education, and on extraordinary women who crafted public identities for themselves during this period and became widely known. By drawing upon some forty different collections of family papers, diaries, and other documents held at libraries, historical societies, and other repositories from Massachusetts to North Carolina, McMahon has artfully pieced together the intimate textual traces of the lives lived by less-well-known women. In doing so, she productively limns the nuanced roles that both Cupid and Minerva played for American women in this crucial period of history.
Jane Greer is associate professor of English at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She is the editor of Girls and Literacy in America: Historical Perspectives to the...