Reading and writing were collective enterprises within women's literary societies in early America and, as evidenced by one such postrevolutionary reading circle, the Gleaners, this commitment to collaboration had profound and pervasive consequences. The positions fashioned by the Gleaners concerning the right and obligations of female citizenship not only informed their activities but also engaged them in a transatlantic discourse to which they made significant contributions and form which they drew insight. Postrevolutionary and antebellum women practiced reading and writing at a host of sites, ranging from family circles to organizations that promoted cultural uplift and moral reform. Literary societies at female academies and seminaries provided young women with an informal course of study, a well-stocked library, and numerous opportunities to write and speak. Hundreds of literary societies were neither sponsored by nor attached to a female academy or seminary. White women of all ages in towns and cities throughout the United States organized these associations. In inventing their definitions of female citizenship, members of literary societies relied on the printed word, which provided a discourse and a shared language on the rights and obligations of citizenship. They insisted upon the importance of learning and celebrated the intellectual achievements of women, past and present. But they called upon women to direct their learning less to individual ends than social improvement. Individually and collectively, they established the markers of "gendered republicanism," the discourse that investigated the role of women in the nation's public life.
This article introduces the forum, "Women and Civil Society." Four scholars—Philip Gould, Jeanne Boydston, Rosemarie Zagarri, and John Brooke—respond to, critique, and expand on the arguments made in Mary Kelley's book, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education and Public Life in America's Republic (2006). The forum emerged from a roundtable held at the July 2006 annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, in Montréal, Canada. Each essay considers such topics as women's education and intellectual aspirations, the antebellum female academies, the idea of "civil society," and antebellum reform and political culture.
This essay examines the critical occasion of Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak (2006). It situates the book's major arguments in light of critical trends in both literary and historical studies, noting how the work registers important developments in the study of gender and culture in the early American republic. Especially important to the field is the book's central rubric of "civil society," which urges the interrogation of what we mean by the "public sphere" in post-Revolutionary and antebellum America. The book similarly raises crucial questions about literary and cultural nationalism, particularly as it has been expressed by the role of the "republican" woman. In addition to posing challenges about the national contours of republican womanhood, the book also demonstrates the extent to which sentimental culture was not merely a "domestic" construction but a more widely circulating discourse that affected a wide range of cultural practices and languages. This idea particularly affects the way in which literary scholars conceive of the gendered borders of antebellum literary history.
"This essay is a reflection on Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic, which argues that women's private seminary and academy education was critical to the formation the a critical public discourse in the early republic and to women's participation in that discourse. The present essay seeks to extend and enlarge that analysis by focusing on two of Kelley's key concepts: "civil society" and "self-fashioning." The essay suggests that the "civil society" of the early American republic was far larger, more heterogeneous, and messier than most work on the subject acknowledges, that it included individuals and groups with tenuous positions in the new republic as well as members of the middling and elite classes. The struggle of white bourgeois women to become active participants in the making of public opinion was not merely a process of creating new gender identities, Boydston argues, but also of strengthening the bourgeois values of the societies they embraced against other groups vying for power in the making of a critical public arena.
This article explores the relationship between various forms of women's political participation in the early republic and Mary Kelley's notion of civil society. Although Kelley is careful to exclude women's involvement in party politics and electoral affairs from her definition, many women, building on precedents established during the American Revolution, continued to participate informally in politics. Initially, the emergence of the first parties, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans created new opportunities for women's political involvement. By the 1830s, however, a backlash had erupted, making the political realm increasingly inhospitable to women. The expansion of suffrage for white men produced a narrowing of opportunities for women. Nonvoters were marginalized as political leaders increasingly focused on those who could most help them achieve success at the polls: white male electors. Around the same time, however, women began begin to participate in a wide range of social reform activities that were political in nature, if not intent. The article explores why women of the 1830s and 1840s, in contrast to women of the revolutionary generation, refused to acknowledge their connection with party politics and male electoral affairs. It also raises questions about supposed prohibitions on women speaking in public to "mixed" audiences made up men and women and suggests that women's growing literacy and access to print culture prepared some women to agitate for political rights long before the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak is landmark in both the debate over the gendered "doctrine of separate spheres" and our understanding of civil space in antebellum America. Rather than situating women and men in "separate spheres, public and private," she offers a framework of "multiple sites in civil society." Drawn from critical theory, "discursive sites" or "sites of cultural production," describe circles of authors and readers sharing a common framework of language, understanding, and problematic. There is a multiplicity of these sites – or perhaps "publics" -- in a modern culture, and Kelley situates them in "civil society," which she construes broadly as the domain protected by law, but excluding partisan and deliberative politics. The discursive sites that make up the sociology of civil society have both public and private dimensions, cutting across "separate spheres," and rendering them meaningless. Kelley and contributor Philip Gould see powerful continuities in the experience of women between the Revolution and the Civil War, and beyond. The contributions of Jeanne Boydston and Rosemarie Zagarri bring history into play in ways that complicate our abandonment of the doctrine of separate spheres, bringing into focus issues of class and generational experience. Boydston argues that the protection of law in antebellum America had sharp contours and boundaries, and thus "civil society" had a distinctly more limited, class-defined, reach than Kelley would suggest. Zagarri points to a profound generational divide in the 1820s, as American women responded to a "revolutionary backlash" limiting their place in public.
In the 1830s, antislavery advocates used highly sexualized language to recruit Northerners into the growing immediatist movement. The "voyeuristic abolitionism" they developed in speeches, pamphlets and periodicals served to shock and mobilize men and especially women, who were urged to identify with the enslaved of their own sex, and then to act to save these victims. Engaging women in such explicit discussions and encouraging female efforts to strike against slavery challenged established gender norms. Yet as the antislavery movement evolved beyond moral suasion into a political strategy, most abolitionists curtailed their use of sexualized imagery, and women's participation in the antislavery movement took its own form. The rise and fall of the rhetoric of "voyeuristic abolitionism" can be charted by studying the vocabulary used in magazines and other popular publications of the era, now searchable electronically through the American Periodical Series. The explosive potential of this language can also be seen in the ways in which it was employed —and avoided—in the U.S. Congress. By the 1850s, some Americans—among them African American authors and antislavery women, including most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe--found ways to reference the moral evils of slavery without invoking explicitly sexual language. In the end, attacks on slavery framed in political terms prevailed over the voyeuristic abolitionism that had first drawn women into the antislavery coalition.