We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Mere Equals

The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic

by Lucia McMahon

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


pdf iconDownload PDF (2.4 MB)
p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (115.2 KB)
pp. 2-7


pdf iconDownload PDF (64.9 KB)
pp. vii-9

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (106.9 KB)
pp. ix-xiii

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...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (101.1 KB)
pp. xv-xvii

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...

read more

Introduction: Between Cupid and Minerva

pdf iconDownload PDF (283.1 KB)
pp. 1-17

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....

read more

1. “More like a Pleasure than a Study”: Women’s Educational Experiences

pdf iconDownload PDF (243.6 KB)
pp. 18-41

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...

read more

2. “Various Subjects That Passed between Two Young Ladies of America”: Reconstructing Female Friendship

pdf iconDownload PDF (180.3 KB)
pp. 42-66

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]...

read more

3. “The Social Family Circle”: Family Matters

pdf iconDownload PDF (173.6 KB)
pp. 67-89

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...

read more

4. “The Union of Reason and Love”: Courtship Ideals and Practices

pdf iconDownload PDF (277.8 KB)
pp. 90-115

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...

read more

5. “The Sweet Tranquility of Domestic Endearment”: Companionate Marriage

pdf iconDownload PDF (174.6 KB)
pp. 116-138

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...

read more

6. “So Material a Change”: Revisiting Republican Motherhood

pdf iconDownload PDF (199.4 KB)
pp. 139-163

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:...

read more

Conclusion: Education, Equality, or Difference

pdf iconDownload PDF (176.2 KB)
pp. 164-170

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...

List of Archives

pdf iconDownload PDF (80.8 KB)
pp. 171-173


pdf iconDownload PDF (253.0 KB)
pp. 175-221


pdf iconDownload PDF (106.8 KB)
pp. 223-228

E-ISBN-13: 9780801465888
E-ISBN-10: 0801465885
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801450525
Print-ISBN-10: 0801450527

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1