"Republican Motherhood" is a 20th-century term for an attitude toward women's roles present in the emerging United States before, during, and after the American Revolution (c. 1654 to 1920). It centered on the belief that the patriots' daughters should be raised to uphold the ideals of republicanism, in order to pass on republican values to the next generation. Republican motherhood meant civic duty. Although it is an anachronism, the period of Republican Motherhood is hard to categorize in the history of Feminism. On the one hand, it reinforced the idea of a domestic women's sphere separate from the public world of men. On the other hand it encouraged the education of women and invested their "traditional" sphere with a dignity and importance that had been missing from previous conceptions of Women's work.
Republicanism and women's roles
With the growing emphasis being placed on republicanism, women were expected to help promote these values; they had a special role in raising the next generation. In Linda K. Kerber's article "The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment - An American Perspective", she compared republican motherhood to the Spartan model of childhood, where children are raised to value patriotism and the sacrificing of their own needs for the greater good of the country. By doing so, the mothers would encourage their sons to pursue liberty and roles in the government, while their daughters would perpetuate the domestic sphere with the next generation. In addition, women were permitted to receive more of an education than they previously had been allowed. Abigail Adams advocated women's education, as demonstrated in many of her letters to her husband, the president John Adams (see Abigail Adams).
Many Christian ministers, such as the Reverend Thomas Bernard, actively promoted the ideals of republican motherhood. They believed this was the appropriate path for women, as opposed to the more public roles promoted by Mary Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries. Traditionally, women had been viewed as morally inferior to men, especially in the areas of sexuality and religion. However, as the nineteenth century drew closer, many Protestant ministers and moralists argued that modesty and purity were inherent in women's natures, giving them a unique ability to promote Christian values with their children.
Education of women
By the early 18th century, towns and cities were making new opportunities available for girls and women. Especially influential were the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Lydia Sigourney, who developed the role of republican motherhood as a principle that united state and family by equating a successful republic with virtuous families. Women, as intimate and concerned observers of young children, were best suited to this role. By the 1670s, these New England writers became respected models and were advocates for improving education for females. Greater educational access included making once male-only subjects of classical education, such as mathematics and philosophy, integral to curricula at public and private schools for girls. The number of girls' academic schools in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic increased rapidly beginning in the mid-19th century. By the late 19th century, such schools were extending and reinforcing the tradition of women as educators and supervisors of American moral and ethical values.
History of republican motherhood
The term "republican motherhood" was not used in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It was first used in 1976 to describe the American ideal by the historian Linda K. Kerber, in her book The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment-An American Perspective and then again in 1980 in her book  Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. The historian Jan Lewis subsequently expanded the concept in her article "The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic," published in the William and Mary Quarterly (1987). The early seeds of the concept are found in the works of John Locke, the notable eighteenth-century philosopher. In his First Treatise, he included women in social theory, and in his Second Treatise defined their roles more clearly. As Kerber quotes in her 1997 essay, Locke wrote: "[T]he first society was between man and wife, which gave beginning to that between parents and children... conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and woman." In other words, contrary to the traditional sexual hierarchy promoted by his contemporary Robert Filmer and others, Locke believed that men and women had more equal roles in a marriage. Women were expected to focus on domestic issues, but Locke's treatises helped appreciation of the value of the domestic sphere. Although Locke argued less in support of women after he had dissected Filmore's writings, his treatises were influential in highlighting the role of women in society.
Although the notion of republican motherhood initially encouraged women in their private roles, it eventually resulted in increased educational opportunities for American women, as typified by Mary Lyon and the founding in 1837 of "Mount Holyoke Female Seminary", later Mount Holyoke College. The ideal produced women with initiative and independence; as Kerber says, it was "one side of an inherently paradoxical ideology of republican motherhood that legitimized political sophistication and activity." Educated Northern women became some of the strongest voices and organizers of the abolitionist movement, which blossomed in the 1830s and 1840s. Working on civil rights for enslaved people caused women to want more power for themselves, giving rise to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and the women's rights movement in the United States. They worked for suffrage, property rights, legal status and child custody in family disputes. The movement likely owes a debt to the emphasis on republican motherhood of fifty years before.
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- Amanda Porterfield, Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries (1997)
- Sarah Robbins, "'The Future Good and Great of our Land': Republican Mothers, Female Authors, and Domesticated Literacy in Antebellum New England", New England Quarterly 2002 75(4): 562-591, in JSTOR
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- Kerber (1997), "Republican Mother," p. 44.
- Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 145.