Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic by Lucia McMahon (review)
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Women, Education of Women, Marriage, Female academies, American education

Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic. By Lucia McMahon. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. 248. Cloth, $45.00.)

In 1798, Judith Sargent Murray famously revealed her hopes for a new generation of young women who would take full advantage of the "female [End Page 571] academies" that were dotting the landscape of the new republic in ever increasing numbers. Claiming that women and men were intellectual equals, that only the artificial barriers set by self-important men kept women from reaching their full potential, she imagined that it was only a matter of time before America's daughters would form "a new era in female history."1

Lucia McMahon's deeply researched book analyzes the lives of the daughters who took advantage of these female academies in an effort to assess the extent to which Murray's hopes were realized. Those lives, McMahon asserts, revealed a paradox. On the one hand, the women she examines claimed to be intellectually equal to their male counterparts. They were rational beings. They lived in a society where "men and women freely coming together" could "create a world marked by social, emotional, and intellectual affinity." At the same time, they accepted, even embraced, gendered notions of difference. If men and women in the early republic did not conceive of their relationships in hierarchical terms, neither did they compete with one another. Rather, they complemented one another, moving toward—but not yet embracing—"separate spheres." Most important, by grounding their relationships in difference, these bright and accomplished women were only "mere equals" of men. They did not even consider demanding the economic, social, or political equality that would make them "true equals" (81). For them, the personal was apparently not the political.

Employing a case study model, McMahon examines a series of relationships at various stages of the life cycle to make her case. She begins, aptly enough, with an analysis of the education young women received in those seminaries that Murray praised so highly. Most schools were surprisingly rigorous. Many girls learned Latin and Greek as well as history, philosophy, and mathematics. Proud of their achievements, they saw their education as a "source of self-empowerment" (39) even as it allowed many of them to fashion "new identities for themselves as educated women" (28). Nevertheless, even the most precocious young woman recognized the dangers that threatened those who took themselves and their education too seriously, who became insufferable pedants or who sought to expand their sphere, intruding upon the "traditional male spheres of power and prestige" (39). Women needed [End Page 572] to use their education in the service of others, and they needed to do so in the privacy of their own homes.

And so it went. In subsequent chapters, McMahon analyzes a number of relationships. She looks at two young women whose friendship and whose intellectual interests survived for decades after they graduated from their seminary. She describes the role of natal families, particularly brothers and sisters, who encouraged one another's desire to grow intellectually. She explores the ways that education affected—and was affected by—courtship, marriage, and motherhood. Moreover, while she focuses on particular relationships, she includes enough examples of other, similar, individuals to indicate that her focus is not idiosyncratic.

In each instance, McMahon makes some significant discoveries. Above all, she says, women's relationships (whether with other women or with men) were always characterized by a combination of reason and love, emotion and intellect, "heart and head" (90). In matters of the "mind," women expected and generally received recognition as "mere equals" of men. They discussed literature and history with confidence, assuming that their own interpretations of secular or religious matters were valid. Wives expected their husbands to be intellectual as well as emotional companions—and the men they chose as life partners had the same expectations of their wives. These women either ignored or resisted the prescriptive literature that would have denigrated their intellectual ability and confined them to an inferior, separate sphere. Indeed, McMahon presciently argues that the notion of separate spheres...