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  • The Republican Court and the Historiography of a Women’s Domain in the Public Sphere
  • David S. Shields (bio) and Fredrika J. Teute (bio)

Republican Court, Feminist historiography, Salons, Martha Washington, Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Elizabeth F. L. Ellet, Anne Hollingsworth

One of the more useful recent developments in feminist historiography has been the turn away from the simple binarism of public/ private in discussions of the social activities of early modern women in western cultures. In particular Dena Goodman’s work on the salons of ancien regime France has recovered the public work of women in the private institutions of sociability that operated in distinction to court and state.1

Goodman’s understanding of the public sphere is Habermasian in that [End Page 169] it understands the public to have been a highly ramified ideal, entailing the antique concept of publicum as the depersonalized authority of state, the idea of public as a discursive space in which the vox populi can speak in distinction to the dictates of the state, and as an array of private institutions—clubs, coffeehouses, tea tables, salons—that constituted an autonomous region of political and cultural power. Women operated differently in light of the different forms of public in which they participated. One could make a quick and crude distinction: Women of the court in the absolutist public sphere exerted influence through secrecy, intrigue, and deception; one might say they were feminized and privatized. The salonnières, in contrast, molded public opinion by sponsoring and participating in a liberty of conversation; they were publicizers of philosophy and manners.

What does Goodman’s renovation of the understanding of women’s public roles in France have to do with the historiography of the early republic? It permits us to question the all-powerful dominion of the domesticity thesis in the historiography of women.2

The domesticity thesis holds that republican ideology entirely constrained woman’s work within the world of the private household. Goodman’s work permits us to imagine for early America a fully formed woman’s domain in the public sphere, an arena of expression where domesticity does not restrict communication, or republican ideology limit women’s roles to virtuous daughter, wife, and mother. She gives us as an alternative to the practice of the salon. The great salons were superintended by women who set rules for conversation, enforcing politeness by wit and quashing incivility with charm. The salonnières promoted a colloquy between persons of state, savants, artists, and women of taste. The company was exclusive, but not so much in terms of class or nationality as in terms of talent and conversational skill. The conversation of the salon became the crucible in which the ideas of politicians and philosophers were tried.

Let us imagine for early America a space where femmes savantes might speak freely about politics with politicians, art with artists, gentility with gentlemen, and even the theory and practice of domesticity if they so chose. It should have the cosmopolitanism of the French salon—with its [End Page 170] heterosociability—yet there should be something more, an interest in forming a civil sorority found in certain British women’s circles. We can visualize a domain of private society that, while permitting mixed conversation, also enabled women to project public concerns—to reform manners, cultivate taste, and critique culture. For the sake of argument, let us also conceive that this domain, or community, is organized so that it can project its views throughout the continent, say by means of a network of subsidiary provincial salons. Or let us be more concrete: Let us imagine Abigail Adams not in the meditative solitude of her household in Braintree, but at the center of a metropolitan company of men and especially women of learning, sensibility, and taste. And let us imagine this company actively publicizing an ideal of civility.

Such an institution did exist during the final decade of the eighteenth century in America. It was called the Republican Court. Until the rise of the progressive historians early in this century, the Republican Court and its doings were matters of common knowledge among literate Americans.3 [End Page 171...