- Masculine Republics and “Female Politicians” in the Age of Revolution
Women’s history, Feminist history, Habermas, Republican Court
Ever since the advent of women’s history as a specialized discipline, feminists have been debating the impact of the age of revolutions on women’s political participation. In early iterations of this debate, liberals and many Marxist feminists thought that the language of natural rights made it possible for excluded groups, including women, to make claims upon the state for full citizenship rights. Of course, it would take over a century of collective struggle to hold the powers that be to the promise of civil and political equality. In contrast, the radical feminist position taken by Catherine MacKinnon and Carole Patemen, among others, was that modern liberal regimes were in principle masculine: The new republican citizen and subject of rights was founded on exclusion and by definition, male and white.1
Teute and Shields’s essays on the republican court were, on the American side, crucial interventions into this debate, which had, by the early 1990s, taken a Habermasian turn. The central utility of Habermas, for all of us, whether we identified ourselves as working within the Habermasian camp or simply as in conversation with it, was that it broadened greatly our understanding of what constituted politically relevant modes of communication and places of debate. This was especially true of revisionists like Teute and Shields, who rejected narrowly orthodox readings of the Habermasian public sphere and favored, instead, a more capacious [End Page 263] version of what counted as politically relevant. They cite Dena Goodman as an important influence, and this is significant because she sympathetically reread Habermas in light of the scholarly work on sociability and manners originating with Norbert Elias and Philippe Ariès and elaborated, on the British side, by John Pocock, Lawrence Klein, and many others. The result was a new conceptual map of “the political,” “the social,” and “the private” in the late eighteenth century. This new map reframed the debate on gender and politics not least because it upended the older, blunt opposition between public and private life, in which the private had been taken by historians to mean the merely domestic and feminized. Instead, the public sphere now embraced many of the cultural institutions and spaces that fostered heterosociability, including interior places, like drawing rooms and tea tables, that were especially closely associated with women.2
Teute and Shields’s focus on the republican court and its central institution, the salon, was right on the money precisely because in Habermasian terms, the salon was part of an intermediate zone where women (and men) “projected public concerns.” Their work helped launch a vibrant line of scholarship associated with Catherine Allgor, Susan Branson, Rosemary Zagarri, and, for a later period, Elizabeth Varon, among others, on the political activities of elite and middle-class white women. The result has been a startling reappraisal.3 [End Page 264]
Although they have since scaled back the strongest of their claims, Teute and Shields unequivocally argue in these essays that women of the republican court were powerful political agents who helped to forge a national “governing class” in the era stretching from the Confederation through the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison. And the list of what they did was long. They presided over salons that linked the capital city to different regions of the country and provided the spaces of sociability where political partisans could mingle and converse; they fostered marriages that consolidated links between leading political families and regional commercial elites; they managed the demands of local constituents; they brokered what federal patronage there was to dispense; and they massaged political news and opinion as it traveled along the circuits of communication that linked conversational circles, personal correspondence, unpublished belle lettres, and press.4
Teute and Shields also perceptively argue that there was nothing invisible to their contemporaries, or, for that matter, to later nineteenth century historians, about the power of these women, however oblivious to it twentieth-century professional historians may have been. Among federalist nation-builders, at least, women’s political influence and gate-keeping functions were normative; discourses on sensibility and...