Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber is an examination of the legal and social changes that a certain group of women experienced in The American Revolutionary era. I read this book because I had heard that, along with Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin, this was the best source on women’s roles during The American Revolution. My commentary on Berkin’s book is . Folks who are familiar with my blog know that The American Revolutionary era is a lifelong interest of mine. This work was first published in 1980. I found that this book was very different from Berkin’s work. I thought that it was less engaging but well researched and informative.
I noted above that this book only covered a certain group of women because, unlike Revolutionary Mothers, Kerber only covers white women living in Continental, and later independent America. There is nothing here about black, or Native American women.
Kerber first covers the role that these women played in colonial and early American society as well as during the Revolution. Women, before the Revolution, were considered apolitical and were expected to follow their husbands’ lead but stay out of all public debates and discussions. Starting in the years before the Revolution, this began to change. Women began to participate in anti - British boycotts and took part on campaigns to produce goods in America instead of importing them from England. Once the war started some women began to be more involved in politics. Women also took over the management of property, farms and businesses when their husbands went off to war.
According to Kerber, before the Revolution, if women engaged in political conversation it was frowned upon. The author details how even political themed letters between Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were derided and caused a bit of a scandal.
Kerber spends some pages exploring Coverture Laws. These laws viewed married couples as one person. Though interpreted differently in different colonies and states, these laws basically had the effect taking any property that a woman brought into marriage and, with some limitations, gave control of it to the husband. If the wife outlived the husband, control of the property was supposed to revert back to her. Other laws only allowed a wife to inherit about one third of a husband’s property, or what today would be considered joint property, after his death.
Kerber goes into great detail explaining these laws and exploring multiple legal cases that led to their evolution during The Revolutionary Era. She concludes that the situation become less advantageous for women during this period. Though I usually find interest in most things I read, I must admit to finding this part of the book a bit tedious.
Kerber also explores divorce during this era. As local governments were mostly in the hands of the rebels, local politicians wanted to encourage women who sympathized with the rebellion to divorce their loyalist husbands. This helped to loosen up divorce laws and customs in some places.
An important concept that is explored is the idea of The Republican Mother. During the years of the Revolution and afterwards, the idea developed that women can have political opinions and that they should be educated. This was so that they could raise good sons and keep their husbands’ worst impulses in check. Though this represented some progress for women, this idea also perpetuated the concept that men’s and women’s spheres were different and that women’s roles was still restricted to the home. Kerber makes honest arguments, while she points out this lack of progress she also speculates that deeper social change might have actually opened the door to the negative outcomes that occurred during the French Revolution. She writes,
Women could be encouraged to contain their judgements as republicans within their homes and families rather than to bridge the world outside and the world within. In this sense, restricting women’s politicization was one of a series of conservative choices that Americans made in the postwar years as they avoided the full implications of their own revolutionary radicalism. In America, responsibility for maintaining public virtue was channeled into domestic life. By these decisions Americans may well have been spared the agony of the French cycle of more blood and produced a political system more retrogressive than had the American war. Nevertheless, the impact of many of these choices was to inhibit the resolution of matters of particular concern for women.
Another interesting concept was the debate as to what women should actually learn. There was a particular concern that reading fiction was bad for both sexes but particularly bad for women. Some beloved that fiction, even when it had a moral behind it, led to sloth and debauchery. Many advocated that women should instead read history. Kerber explored various angles to this debate.
This book is somewhat scholarly and is detailed and theory driven. I would say that those who are very interested in the evolution of women’s rights in both social and legal spheres during this era would be interested in this. The book is nothing like Berkin’s work, which explored very diverse groups of women as well as individual women.
This book has a fairly narrow range. It digs into a lot of detail within that range. At times, even for a reader who is interested in these subjects, it might get a little dull. Thus, Revolutionary Mothers will be better choice for many readers. With that, this book is educational and sheds a lot of light on the subjects that it covers. It also seems to be well researched. I recommend this to this who are very interested and who wish to go deep into to these subjects.