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What is Republican Motherhood?

By J. Leach
Updated May 17, 2024
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Republican motherhood is a concept that deals with the role of women and their duties to both family and country at the time of the American Revolution. In this context, the word “republican” relates to the foundation of the United States as a new republic and is not at all concerned with the modern-day Republican political party. When the United States was still under English rule, women generally held subservient, largely domestic roles that supported the patriarchal power of the king. As the nation revolted and began carving out its own identity as a independent nation, women slowly began changing their roles. Republican motherhood is essentially an unspoken movement through which women used their influence in the domestic and familial spheres to teach their children about the importance of national freedom and civic duty. It has some significant differences from suffrage, feminism, and true pushes for female equality, but many scholars see a connection and believe that the work of these early American wives and mothers may have paved the way for many of the later movements.

Basic Concept and Underlying Idea

At the time of the revolution, which began in 1775, mothers were largely entrusted with the education of their children at home. Women who were literate and educated were able to provide the best opportunities for their children, though in most cases they passed on far more than just book knowledge. As teachers and leaders, they set the standard for how children should behave and the ideologies they should grow up upholding.

Many scholars today acknowledge that the main tenets of republicanism would probably not have passed as strongly to future generations as they did had the women of the era not spent so much time instilling these sorts of values into their children. The education of daughters was very important in this context, but so was the influence on boys. These boys would turn into young men who, in the social sphere, could help build a prosperous nation and become patriots in their own right.

Connection to Civic Duty

It is sometimes easiest to think about republican motherhood as a civic duty undertaken by women of the era. The United States was founded as system of governance wherein the people are sovereign, and it stresses liberty and the rights of the people. For these values to last beyond the patriots who fought the war, though, and for the country to retain its independence and free spirit, the next generation had to adopt the same beliefs. Not all women who were a part of this movement were active in the social sphere at all. Some were, but the majority exerted more of a quiet influence at home. Through their example and teachings, they were able to make a profound impact on the ideologies of the new nation.

Women During the Revolution

Women were widely believed to be weaker and inferior to men during the time of the revolution, and the country was generally thought of as a patriarchy. A patriarchy is a social structure in which the father is the head of the household, and he has absolute authority over his wife and children. This image of women as weak and subservient was challenged during the Revolutionary War, as women actively participated in the conflicts, whether from home helping house soldiers or in the fields as nurses or caregivers. Their role remained primarily domestic, but the nature of that domestic space changed from a passive place of obedience to a seedbed of change.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment in the 18th century helped further support the ideals of female education and the influence of the domestic sphere. The Enlightenment advocated reason as the source for authority and legitimacy. Under this set of ideas, it was concluded that a stable government required a well-educated and moral population as a foundation, and that such foundations were to be built within the home and family.

Prominent Examples

Women like Abigail Adams, the wife of U.S. founding father John Adams, helped support their husbands in the foundation of a new government and promoted the idea that women had a civic role and duty to their government. Born in 1744, she believed that women should be educated and should not obey laws that were not created with their interests in mind. Until her death in 1801, Adams held that men should no longer have absolute authority in their homes.

Not all leaders of the movement were so outspoken. The poet Lydia Sigourney prominently advocated for education, particularly related to patriotism, and was one of the founders of a girls’ school in Connecticut. The novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick is also credited with being a leader through both words and actions.

Relationship to Suffrage

While republican motherhood was not necessarily the cause of the suffrage movement, it played an important role in women later gaining ability to vote in the United States. From the late 18th to the early 20th centuries, it helped support and increase female literacy and encouraged women to be responsible for their own educations. Many people believed that these movements were the precursors to modern feminism.

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Discussion Comments
By turquoise — On Feb 22, 2011

I've heard arguments and discussions by religious men who feel that the empowerment of women and the importance given to women through republican motherhood to be wrong and against the Bible. If they lived around the same time that these changes took place, they would have stood against women like Abigail Adams for calling women to disobey men's laws.

I've read the Bible as well as Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood which explains through examples from the Bible what men and women equality and submission means. It explains that even though women are expected to be submissive to their husbands, this doesn't mean that women cannot have independent thinking or that they have to fear their husbands and do exactly as they say. The Bible calls for women to be respected and for women to make their own judgments and follow their own morality even if it differs from their husbands.

The importance that enlightenment thinking gave to women is not against Christian doctrine at all. It's actually exactly how it should be.

By ysmina — On Feb 21, 2011

I am all for women rights and I know that women can play a major role in many struggles whether it is a national, social or political struggle. As much as I admire the things that women have done to further this nation and what it stands for, the concept of republican motherhood makes me a little uneasy. Women should absolutely be educated and should provide the first and most essential education to their children. But requiring all women to teach their children on the basis of a political ideology doesn't quite fit the picture I have of society, even if this ideology is supportive of a democratic republican government.

I think that I want to see women as the nurturers and supporters of children and their fresh minds. Mothers should provide for their children education but also the liberty to think for themselves. If all children were to be lectured and pressured to think in a certain way or to see the world through a specific lens, I think there would be few innovations and unique ideas emerging in society. After all, weren't the founders of this nation men of new political, social and religious ideas. How would they have formed this nation and this system otherwise?

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