Pages

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber

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 here. 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. 

32 comments:

mudpuddle said...

it sounds as if this might have been a thesis for someone... anyway, a topical and informative post; delving into little known niches of history helps an over-all comprehension of larger subjects, i should think... actual investigation into the laws prevalent at the time would fall into that category; varying approaches to a chosen event or events can't avoid improving one's understanding...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle - It is scholarly and thesis like. It is also a respected book and it is on several 100 best books of the Revolution lists.

Over the years I have tried to delve into niches relating to the Revolution.

Suko said...

This aspect of women's history is fascinating to me. Very interesting topic and review, Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. This topic is a bit of a niche.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, very fine review as always. It sounds like a very well researched book but possibly a bit too academic. Mercy Otis Warren is someone forgotten by history. But in her day she was a true founding mother even wrote a multi volume history of the American Revolution which she lived through. How accurate it is though is another story.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - Warren was very interesting. I think that for my next American Revolutionary era book, I might find a biography of her.

I think that a lot of very old histories may have been plagued by inaccuracies.

James said...

Thanks for your fine review of this interesting book. The reference to Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren has a ring of familiarity for me. This is an area of the revolution that I probably won't get to, but I have Middlekauff on my TBR pile.

Sue Bursztynski said...

An interesting subject, though don’t forget, this is about middle class white women. If you were working class, chances are that you would be rather too busy working in the family business or on the farm to think too much about whether novels were bad for you or how much property you were allowed, at least until you became a widow! And if you were a black woman, you were likely to BE property, perhaps of some of those Republican Mothers! ­čśĆ

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. Both Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were interesting people. I would love to know what you think of The Glorious Cause when you read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - If your family owned a farm of business The Covature Laws would definitely be applicable. The true lower class were left out of it all. Black women more so. Berkin’s book covered just about every class of women.

Susan Kane said...

Revolutionary War women were subjugated as chattel as were the women throughout history before. At least there is some record of these women and their courage through their writing. James above wrote pretty much as I am thinking.

Women's rights--the lack of them--infuriate me. In reading about the women who picketed the White House and what was done to them, I am infuriated by their treatment. Growling here.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Without a doubt, throughout history, women have been discriminated against and treated as second class citizens at best. Revolutionary America, should have been different, however, it was not.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Interesting post, Brian. I would like to read more of this subject. Reading other sources, I think a lot of women then had quite a bit of influence and greater dignity than modern scholars like to admit. Many women ruled "behind the throne" so to speak. And even those who weren't married seemed to have a certain amount of influence. I'm thinking of the letters I've read of women back then and also some biographies of presidents and military leaders. I don't think women back then can be judged by certain standards, i.e. they only owned property jointly with their husbands so they didn't have rights. I think the rights were considered joint, along with her husband and many husbands respected their wives input.

Nevertheless I would like to read this book.although I would also like to read sources with various conclusions.

baili said...

this is wonderful that how such tough and pressured times helped women to share more of their insight and wisdom dear Brain

i so loved this book and your review is remarkable as always

i think the writer should have broadened the canvas of her writing and should have include the all other special women who took part in revolution anyhow

discussing inheritance laws sounds necessary because without economical empowerment there are weak chances for women to rise as politician

i have read about great women who worked hard for freedom when British ruled subcontinent
these stories are frightening but also inspiring
i think no nation can improve without the support of fine women specially wise mothers who built characters of future generation
wishing you more blessings my friend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili. The book was written in 1980. I suspect that if it had been more recent it would have covered a broader variety of women. Times have changed.

You are correct, inheritance laws and the economic status of women are a key part of the place women hold in society.

I think that accounts of women during the time that folks were fighting for independence on the subcontinent would be fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- Things we’re complex. I agree that women had a certain amount of power depending on the situation. Berkin’s book got into that more. Nonetheless, the unfairness if the laws and of society was something that should be examined and it is something that America, as well as other nations needed to work out.

The Liberty Belle said...

Another great review. Your reviews make me want to settle in with a cup of tea, my favorite Snuggie, and whatever book you are reviewing at the moment. This time you sparked my interest in both Women of the Republic AND Revolutionary Mothers.

thecuecard said...

Interesting about divorce and women being encouraged to divorce their loyalist husbands. I wonder how many did this? Also it seems to make sense that as the war started that women became more active politically or in writing letters about matters going on. Interesting review. Food for thought.

Dorothy Borders said...

That's a fascinating and erudite review. I don't actually read a lot of nonfiction, but these books sound like ones that would be interesting to explore.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Liberty Bell. Both books are worth reading. I thought Revolutionary Mothers was more enlightening and enjoyable.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan. The book really does not give a clue as to how many women took the divorce option. War so often spurs social change.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Dorothy. If one is interested in The American Revolution or in women’s history, then these books are worthy reads.

Judy Krueger said...

Good info that fills in more of the picture in those times. Sometimes I wonder if just the idea of creating an independent nation gave even the women more courage and the urge to revolt. I read a great novel set about 100 years prior to the American Revolution that shows the beginnings of women in colonial times reaching for more rights. Puritan beliefs, covered in the novel, were another factor in male/female relations that influenced practices then. The Winthrop Woman by Any Seton.
https://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2011/03/winthrop-woman.html

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - I think that the various factors that liberalized society all fed Into each other. So independent and the values of republicanism helped encourage women to advocate for equality.

The Winthrop Women like it is enlightening and worth the read.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I'm thinking that given this delves into such a lot of detail within the range it covers it is probably just as well that this range is fairly narrow ... but then that could just be me.

What sounds like a wonderfully interesting and informative read. To think there are those who think 'girl power' began with the Spice Girls.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity - The book is very specific. Indeed, women's roles, rights and equality is a topic that is intertwined in human history.

the bookworm said...

Both Women of the Republic and Women of the Republic sound like interesting reads. It's hard to imagine laws like the Coverture Laws. And interesting about the Republican Mothers being expected to raise good sons and keep their husbands in check.
Fantastic post as usual. Enjoy your week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The way in which gender was viewed and regulated seems unimaginable to us. It was not simple however, as we see with the concept of The Republican Mother. We should also note that countries like Saudi Arabia still have repressive laws aimed at women.

Rachel said...

Yet another fantastic review. Someday I will dedicate a year to reading books on the revolutionary war. My interests would mainly be the sociopolitical reasons the revolutionaries had to commit what at the time would have been considered treason. I'll probably be picking your brain for good books whenever I do!

This year, of course, I'm reading about the sociopolitical aspects behind the English Reformation, which I also find quite fascinating, though. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Rachel. The reasons for the colonists deciding to rebel is a fascinating topic. The origins of the Reformation also is a worthy topic that I would love to know more about.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Sounds like this book might have been the author's PhD thesis or something.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - The work is fairly scholarly so several people have gotten that impression.