“Europe,” Women, and the American Political Imaginary: The 1790s and the 1990s
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“Europe,” Women, and the American Political Imaginary
The 1790s and the 1990s
Keywords

Europe, Women’s history, U.S First Ladies, Civil society, Salons

“America,” that mythological place of simplicity and natural equality, occupied an outsized space in early modern European thought.1 The same might be said of that similarly mythological place “Europe” in the social and political imaginary of the early American republic. This geographically unspecified site—referring sometimes to England, sometimes to France, and sometimes to anywhere between the British Isles and the Urals, up to the borders of Ottoman lands—was above all a political construct, a synonym for “civilization,” but also for aristocratic and monarchical displays of power. Ideas of Europe in the early republic were thus always inextricably bound up with ideas about the status and function of women in the public realm.2 [End Page 271]

This was especially the case, Fredrika Teute and David Shields show us in a series of fascinating, interconnected essays mostly from the late 1990s, when it came time to forge a new American republican political culture and, more specifically, to define the role that the wives and daughters of key (male) political actors, including so-called First Ladies, would play in it. In this extended conversation, “Europe” came to stand for all that had to be avoided in republican manners as well as institutions: an obsession with status, rank, and the maintenance of hierarchy; overly elaborate or formal ceremonies; high fashion, luxury, and ostentation; bodily indulgences that led potentially to indecency or indolence; and not least, the excessive influence of women on public life—even as it was understood that women were vital to the maintenance of civilized decorum.

Jeffersonians from the 1790s into the new century, we learn, relentlessly pursued these themes, melding them together (along with the threat of male effeminacy) in speeches, letters, published texts, and finally, a refusal to establish new protocols for manners in the new capital at all. Earlier circles around George and Martha Washington and then John and Abigail Adams, even as they tried to create social rituals in New York and Philadelphia based on recognized European models, took considerable pains to define those rituals and social practices in contradistinction to European courtly and salon ways, whether by serving lemonade in place of wine or by encouraging plain if dignified styles of dress. For the first First Ladies, Europe was at once a source of aspirational prototypes and, at least for show, a subject of anxiety lest its pernicious influence infiltrate foreign shores. [End Page 272]

No matter that England and France were very different places at the end of that century and that “court society” in the feudal sense had long been in decline in much of the west. The scandalous pro-British “Meschianza” of 1779 that Teute and Shields describe also took place in an imagined Old World right down to its chivalrous gender politics. To evoke “Europe” in the years before the French Revolution was to conjure up all that was not republican and egalitarian, all that was foreign to new—and superior—American ways, especially when it came to women. A similarly gendered dichotomy, based exclusively on time as opposed to geography too, would characterize French political culture of the early 1790s. Think of the invention of the (feminized, aristocratic, tyrannical) Old Regime alongside the (feminized, aristocratic, tyrannical) Old World.3

But that was then. What about the end of the twentieth century? One of the interesting aspects of these essays of Teute and Shields—which can now been seen as historical texts in their own right, that is, as documents of a more recent moment in the development of thinking about women’s roles in American political culture—is the way they demonstrate the continuing potency of the Europe/America binary. Indeed, we might even say that this pattern holds just as much, albeit with certain critical differences in interpretation, in the early 1990s as in the early 1790s. Critical to Teute and Shield’s important reimagining of the so-called “republican court”—already an oddly ironic and hybrid term reminiscent of Napoleon calling himself “emperor of the French republic”—was the...