- Different, Difficult, and Dangerous: Educated and Exceptional Women in the Early Republic
For the last few decades, scholars of gender in the post-Revolutionary period have dealt repeatedly and at length with the subject of women’s sphere: the roles, expectations, training, and experiences of women in a new nation. Defining realms of responsibility and appropriate private and public behavior preoccupied some American women and men in the early republic; and historians such as Linda Kerber, Nancy Cott, Rosemarie Zagarri, Ruth Bloch, and others have outlined the parameters of women’s political and domestic roles, providing us with key concepts such as republican motherhood and the ideology of domesticity. In the two works under review here, Charlene M. Boyer Lewis and Lucia McMahon offer their elaborations on these themes, focusing on educated, relatively elite women whose experiences—whether because of intellectual attainments or marital fame—complicated their efforts to grapple with their place in society as well as contemporaries’ reactions to them.
With the title Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic, McMahon underlines the tensions at the center of her study: the urge that contemporaries felt to qualify their assessments of women’s abilities and nature. From the 1780s through the 1820s, women in the new republic gained access to education in unprecedented numbers, prompting an outpouring of literary production highlighting the content and the effect of their educational attainments. While some writers celebrated female academies and female learning, others criticized their intellectual achievement and the potentially destabilizing impact they believed it had on women and their ability to fulfill socially prescribed roles. Even when contemporaries argued for women’s [End Page 644] intellectual equality, they could not overcome a persistent belief in gender difference; educated women “were still women, whose lives remained primarily defined by cultural models of sexual difference” (p. x). They might be equal in intellectual and social terms, but their differences from men, physically and in terms of status, were intrinsic, immutable, and instrumental.
By comparing the ideals of prescriptive literature with the realities of women’s experiences, McMahon attempts to uncover how educated women tried “to live merely as the equals of man” (p. x). She focuses on the private and social experiences of white, elite, or middle-class educated women in New England and the mid-Atlantic—individuals with the resources to pursue new educational opportunities—over the course of the life cycle. There are chapters devoted to different phases of a woman’s life, including courtship, marriage, and motherhood. Occasionally, these educated women claimed equality with men, and in so doing attempted to subvert tenacious notions of gender difference. With such efforts largely confined to their private relationships, the women did not present overt challenges to the gender norms that constrained women legally or politically. Enlightened women could be better women (free of frivolity, for example) as long as they did not become discontented with their lot as women. In scouring the papers of women who attended female academies, McMahon finds ample evidence that many viewed their educational experiences “as positive, life-changing events,” though with qualifications (p. 30). Some, for example, delighted in the chance to prove themselves “learned women” in commencement exercises (p. 33). Such pride was accompanied, however, by a “fear of ‘appearing pedantic’” that led women “to self-censure their public representations of themselves, especially if they were unsure of male response” (p. 37).
Educational pursuits laid the basis for intimacy in friendship, familial, and marital contexts. Close ties to former classmates provided a welcome source of companionship with like-minded, intellectal women. In turn, shared sensibilities also informed family-based sociability—the domestic happiness that characterized the lives of the Shippen family, for instance. As McMahon posits, educated women played an important role in the nineteenth century, as “the emotional...