Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America explores the ideological shifts through which women’s political roles expanded. The American Revolution accelerated the “integration of women into the civil polity,” as ideas concerning Republicanism proliferated and the economic world colonists had known shifted from the household to the marketplace.
Beginning with the thought of Enlightenment philosophers, Kerber traces the ideological ferment that led to a gradual expansion of women’s roles in the republic. Locke and Montesquieu were especially notable for their ideas concerning government and marriage requiring a level of power sharing. Despite these Enlightenment influences, Republican leaders illustrated reticence regarding the political role of women. In most cases, coverture persisted; women’s political voice remained entwined with that of her husband’s. Like Gordon Wood, Kerber notes the power of property, the idea that to have a legitimate political standing one must have land. Laws denying women property ownership or placing it under the purview of their husbands diminished their political rights.
Accelerating thought on women’s roles, the Revolution created a space for women to exert political beliefs. The war politicized their daily activities, whether it was providing aid to soldiers, rationing the use of various goods, or presenting petitions to colonial leaders, women occupied a developing political role. Women could appeal for independence from their loyalist husbands, breaking from the idea of coverture. Though many revolutionaries encouraged such actions, independence from her husband threatened a women’s economic security. After the war, divorce requests increased which Kerber argues contributed to the gradual expansion of women’s political worlds.
The idea of Republican motherhood emerged since it provided a political space for women in the private sphere, at once allowing for political thought but in the confines of the domestic household. Moreover, coverture retarded the market economy while America’s gradual move toward industrialization created a world in which virtue and traditional values seemed to evaporate. Thus, women’s education became a vessel by which, mother’s could pass on Republican virtues to their children, “The terms of domesticity were changed … The best [pundits] could do was to assert that properly educated republican women would stay in their homes … and shape the characters of their sons and husbands in the direction of benevolence, self restraint, and responsible independence.”