Resource

Republican Motherhood

A Fourth-of-July speaker outlines the ideal woman’s responsibilities in the new nation.

Mrs. Robert Bolton (Anne Jay, 1793-1859) and Children, Robert and Anne

William Etty (artist), Mrs. Robert Bolton (Anne Jay, 1793-1859) and Children, Robert and Anne, 1818. New-York Historical Society, Bequest of Reginald Pelham Bolton.

Print Image

Document Text

Summary

The ladies resorted in the afternoon to a large and delightful bower, erected for them, on Pepper’s Hill, upon the bank of the Thames, where one of the Ladies, inspired with the rest by the festive and joyful occasion, made an elegant address to her associates. The following is an extract: The ladies went together to a shady spot away from the men, and one woman gave the following speech:
“In every age of the world the conduct of females has had a conspicuous effect on society. Among savage tribes, where our sex being denied all knowledge themselves, are of course incapable of instructing their infant children, we see barbarity is perpetuated. But wherever man has elevated us to the rank of intellectual companions, the rising generation has received with an increased lustre the light we have enjoyed. Females have always had an impact on society. In some societies, women don’t get good educations so they cannot teach their children, and the society becomes barbaric. But wherever men allow women to learn, society has benefitted.
Though our influence be most visible when the olive overshadows every dome, and soft quiet pervades every habitation, when the son matures under the eye of his mother, unmolested by the tyranny of war, yet it often appears in the prowning tumult of a battle. Women’s influence is most noticeable in times of peace, but we have influence during war time too.
“The brave deserve the fair’ has stimulated many a hero to deeds of immortality in the ensanguined field. Sacred story remarks the chagrin which tortured even a king in Israel, when females sang to their umbrels, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands.’ In Sparta and ancient Republic, though it possessed no luxurious refinements, it acquired a sublime height in military glory. Its women were heroines, and a mother’s parting injunction to her son going to battle was ‘to return victorious or be borne home dead on his shield.’
Many ancient heroes fought to earn the love and respect of women.
In the primitive age of our country, witness our maternal ancestors who spurned the delights of wealth and magnificence, to embrace the horrors of a howling desert, for the cause of religious freedom. Witness the pains they endured while extinction daily frowned on its infant establishments. Witness the anxiety, solicitude, watchings, and self denial, which wearied our mothers while they cheerfully aided the purchase of this venerable day. When the colonies were founded, women gave up the wealth and ease of life in Europe to move to wild places in search of religious freedom. They struggled every day. Their sacrifice helped us found our new nation.
Let us then appreciate justly the rank of our sex, not indeed by an affection of political science, nor like the voluptuous ladies of France, who insinuating themselves into the cabinet have blended gallantry and state affairs, until the motley code has inscribed ruin upon the Empire. Nor do the hackneyed paths of Fashion and Frippery afford a just field to display female excellence. Let us appreciate our place in this new country. We don’t need to be politicians, and we don’t need to spend money on the latest fashions to prove our excellence.
In the narrow but liberal walks of domestic life our sphere lies. To act nobly in this be our aim. As mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, we may all be important, teach our little boys, the inestimable value of Freedom, how to blend and harmonize the natural and social rights of man, and as early impressions are indelible, this assist our dear country, to be as glorious in maintaining, as it was great in gaining her immortal independence.” We prove our worth in the home. As mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters we are valuable. We teach little boys everything they need to know to be good citizens someday. This is the best way we can serve our country.

“Fourth of July speech by Norwich woman,” The Courier (Norwich, Connecticut), July 10, 1799. Library of Congress.

Print Text
Print Text And Summary

Background

The lawmakers who drafted the Constitution did not want to give women political rights. But they did believe white women had an important role to play in the new nation. During the Federal period, writers and philosophers crafted new expectations and responsibilities for white American women. Today, historians group these guidelines under the title “republican motherhood.”

The key idea of republican mothers was that women were responsible for the early education of the boys who would someday become voting citizens. This was considered a major responsibility. To prepare women for this role, new schools were founded to provide young girls with better educations. They were also expected to attend religious services and model modest and appropriate behavior. Republican mothers were not supposed to engage in political or economic spheres. They were expected to be content managing their households efficiently and supporting their husbands.

Republican motherhood was a high standard that very few women could live up to. Even the most privileged white women had household responsibilities that took up the majority of their days. Most white women worked to help support their families, leaving very little time to teach their children or model ideal behavior. Black and Indigenous women had their own cultural values that white people ignored. They were barred from most of the educational opportunities available to white women because of institutional racism. But republican motherhood was a convenient myth used to discourage women who wanted the right to vote. For this reason, these expectations continued to be taught throughout the Federal period.

About the Resources

This is a speech given by an unidentified woman from Norwich, Connecticut, at a Fourth of July celebration in 1799. She outlines all of the hallmarks of republican motherhood and urges her listeners to live up to its high standards for the good of the nation. It should be noted that the speaker waited until she was alone with a group of ladies before speaking publicly. She also did not identify herself in the newspaper article published about her speech. By taking these precautions, she preserved her reputation as a modest woman despite taking on a position of authority.

Many portraits produced during the Federal period, like this one of Mrs. Robert Bolton with her children, were meant to show the world that the subject or sitter was observing all the principles of republican motherhood. The portrait paintings were a way for wealthy white women to assert their value to the country.

Vocabulary

  • Constitution: The governing document of the United States.
  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
  • institutional racism: When racism is embedded in the laws and customs that govern a community.
  • republican motherhood: A term historians use to describe the responsibilities and expectations placed on women in the Federal period.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the hallmarks of a good Federal period woman according to the unidentified speaker?
  • Why did the speaker wait until there were only ladies present before beginning? Why was she anonymous in the local newspaper?
  • What function did the idea of republican motherhood serve in the Federal period?
  • Are the ideals of republican motherhood achievable for all women in U.S. society? Why or why not?
  • How did the artist who painted Mrs. Robert Bolton’s portrait make sure the viewer knew the sitter upheld the ideals of republican motherhood?
Print Section

Suggested Activities

Themes

AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; AMERICAN CULTURE; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

Source Notes
Print Section
Print Entire Page