The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic
Publication Year: 2012
In Mere Equals, Lucia McMahon narrates a story about how a generation of young women who enjoyed access to new educational opportunities made sense of their individual and social identities in an American nation marked by stark political inequality between the sexes. McMahon's archival research into the private documents of middling and well-to-do Americans in northern states illuminates educated women's experiences with particular life stages and relationship arcs: friendship, family, courtship, marriage, and motherhood. In their personal and social relationships, educated women attempted to live as the "mere equals" of men. Their often frustrated efforts reveal how early national Americans grappled with the competing issues of women's intellectual equality and sexual difference.
In the new nation, a pioneering society, pushing westward and unmooring itself from established institutions, often enlisted women's labor outside the home and in areas that we would deem public. Yet, as a matter of law, women lacked most rights of citizenship and this subordination was authorized by an ideology of sexual difference. What women and men said about education, how they valued it, and how they used it to place themselves and others within social hierarchies is a highly useful way to understand the ongoing negotiation between equality and difference. In public documents, "difference" overwhelmed "equality," because the formal exclusion of women from political activity and from economic parity required justification. McMahon tracks the ways in which this public disparity took hold in private communications. By the 1830s, separate and gendered spheres were firmly in place. This was the social and political heritage with which women's rights activists would contend for the rest of the century.
Published by: Cornell University Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
Between the 1780s and 1820s, American women acquired education during an expanding but experimental stage when scores of female academies proliferated across the new nation, yet decades before colleges and other institutions of higher education admitted women. The literary public sphere eagerly took notice...
In the space of time it took to see these pages to print, there was much living—and dying. I begin by acknowledging the untimely loss of Robert Takesh’s quiet grace, Jim Disbrow’s contagious laughter, Teresa Hom’s joyful spirit, Ana Margarita Gómez’s...
Introduction: Between Cupid and Minerva
In an 1802 essay provocatively titled, “Plan for the Emancipation of the Female Sex,” an anonymous author suggested that women “would willingly relinquish that authority which they have so long enjoyed by courtesy, in order to appear formally on the theatre of the world merely as the equals of man....
1. “More like a Pleasure than a Study”: Women’s Educational Experiences
In 1801, Violetta Bancker left her home in New York to attend Mrs. Capron’s Female Academy in Philadelphia. In a letter to her father, Violetta described her teachers: “you and mama wish to know my opinion of Mrs. Capron: I find her very affectionate and kind. Mrs. Mallon who is the English teacher is a very sensible...
2. “Various Subjects That Passed between Two Young Ladies of America”: Reconstructing Female Friendship
In 1803, Eunice Callender wrote to her friend Sarah Ripley, pleased that they had begun a correspondence. “By the end of the year we may have letters enough in our possession to make a handsome volume,” Eunice mused. “What say you to it don’t you think it would be a good plan, to make a book, and entitle [it]...
3. “The Social Family Circle”: Family Matters
In 1796, sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Shippen and her younger sister, Margaret, left their family home in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to attend “Grammar” and “dancing” school in nearby Philadelphia. Although their brother John would miss his sisters’ presence at home, he took “pleasing consolation” that...
4. “The Union of Reason and Love”: Courtship Ideals and Practices
Writing to his fi ancée, Linda Raymond, in 1818, Benjamin Ward shared his hopes for their relationship: “I anticipate in you, a companion, whose friendship is not founded on the combustible materials of enflamed passions; but in whom is ‘The union of reason and love;’ in whose society I shall ever receive a pleasure, and...
5. “The Sweet Tranquility of Domestic Endearment”: Companionate Marriage
In May 1812, John Griscom, educator, wrote to Jane Bowne Haines, his former student, offering congratulations on her recent marriage to Reuben Haines. Marriage, he noted, “brings to its final accomplishment the period of education” and “opens to the young and glowing mind, a scene, rising in...
6. “So Material a Change”: Revisiting Republican Motherhood
In the eyes of her son-in-law Samuel B. How, Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick “came as near to perfection as any human being I ever knew.” Jane fulfilled her various roles “as daughter, sister, wife, mother, and mistress of a family” with “propriety and grace.” Samuel reserved particular praise for Jane’s intellectual attainments:...
Conclusion: Education, Equality, or Difference
Miss A. M. Burton read this poem at commencement exercises held at Susanna Rowson’s Female Academy in October 1803. The poem was published in the Boston Weekly Magazine, making Burton’s acquisition of education at once a lived experience and a literary representation. The interplay between the personal...
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Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Mere Equals