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  • “Memorials of Exemplary Women Are Peculiarly Interesting”:Female Biography in Early National America
  • Lucia McMahon

In 1811, Susanna Rowson published A Present for Young Ladies, a compilation of essays, poems, and educational materials, including a section on female biography. According to Rowson, the study of worthy women from the past encouraged “a noble emulation to equal those who have gone before us; to young females, the memorials of exemplary women are peculiarly interesting” (84). A Present to Young Ladies included accounts of several “exemplary” women across time and space—from Italian scholars to British noble-women—to inspire a generation of early American women attending female academies, such as the one founded by Rowson. As an educator, Rowson focused on the instructive qualities of biography, arguing that “biography is equally authentic, equally instructive, and in general, more interesting than history” (83).

A Present for Young Ladies was part of a “peculiarly interesting” literary trend in early national America: the publication of various works of female biography. Through collective biographies as well as memoirs of individual women, authors celebrated the lives and works of accomplished women. In particular, these accounts offer important insights into how early national Americans envisioned the place of educated women in their new nation. Yet many of these works—and the women they venerated—were subsequently relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history and remain relatively underrepresented in traditional historical and literary studies of the early national era. As Theresa Strouth Gaul notes, there is still much recovery work to be done to uncover “the range of productions” published by and about women from this era (264).

The work of recovery that has inspired a new generation of scholarship on [End Page 52] literary women also thrived in the early national period. By providing biographical sketches of women from history, writers such as Rowson sought to create what we might call a usable past of female accomplishment. “Every page of history abounds with accounts that do honour to the sex,” she noted. “It is in our power to rise into consequence, and make ourselves venerated. Others have done so, why may not we?” (119–22). Rowson’s promotion of female biography is significant not only because it represented a challenge to conventional notions of “great man” biography but also because it reflected her aspirations for educated women. Rowson’s optimistic faith in the enlightening and liberating effects of education was symptomatic of a new era. As early national women gained access to more educational opportunities, proponents of women’s education emphasized their potential to achieve intellectual equality with men. The education of women thus raised fundamental questions about whether certain traits were the result of innate sexual difference or due to cultural constraints. As Rowson confidently asserted: “It would be absurd to imagine that talents or virtue were confined to sex or station. The human mind, whether possessed by man or woman, is capable of the highest refinement, and most brilliant acquirements” (88). Educated women had important roles to play in the new nation, and works of female biography helped to illustrate their talent and potential.

Such veneration of women was ambitious but also ambiguous. To be worthy of commendation, a woman needed to maintain her identity as respectable, whatever her accomplishments or deeds. Thus, despite her ardent praise of women’s potential, Rowson ultimately stressed their inherent femininity. In her various examples from the past—including Queen Elizabeth and Catherine the Great—she celebrated women’s successful embodiment of what she called “the union of masculine virtues, feminine softness, and Christian meekness” as “most worthy [of] imitation” (105). Along with her bold assertions of women’s intellectual equality, then, Rowson emphasized notions of sexual difference. As Marion Rust, among others, has argued, Rowson carefully constructed this model of womanhood to negotiate the legal, economic, and social limitations that women faced in the early republic. Educated women might be celebrated for their intellect, but they remained constrained within patriarchal models that did not recognize women’s full political or economic equality. As I have argued elsewhere, the best an educated woman could hope for was an incomplete sense of “mere” equality—one that recognized her potential for...