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Founding Mothers: Gender, Natural Rights, and Republican Motherhood

All Men Are Created Equal - But What About the Women?

Slogan of the 20th-century Women’s Movement

When you hear of a family with two brothers who fought heroically in the Revolutionary War, served their state in high office, and emerged as key figures in the new American nation, don’t you immediately think, “They must have had a remarkable mother”?

Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers

[I]ndeed, I think you ladies are in the number of the best patriots America can boast.

George Washington

To identify a core group of Founding Mothers may be even harder than to identify a core group of Founding Fathers. Whereas the Founding Fathers are usually considered in light of their political activism during and after the American Revolution, the concept of ‘Founding Mothers’ is an attempt to come to a gender- specific correlation by way of analogy that may be skewed in a historical context in which women were not considered political actors at all and in which a private-public distinction was firmly in place. This may be one of the reasons why

Mary Beth Norton’s study Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society goes back to colonial New England’s gender discourse, in which structures of family and community were not yet clearly defined by a private-public dichotomy, and focuses on such foundational figures as Anne Hutchinson and Anne Hibbins, whose initiatives, deeds, and statements indeed have to be considered as a form of political participation, and a transgressive one at that. Closer to the revolutionary moment, white women of privilege were bound to their “small circle of domestic concerns” (Norton, Liberty’s Daughters 3) even as they may have shared political ideas with their male contemporaries. In the historical context of the Revolution, women were mostly excluded from the political realm; New Jersey was the only state that permitted women to vote after the Revolutionary War, and this right was revoked in 1806 (cf. Collins, America’s Women 83-4). Women only slowly (re)gained the right to vote in local elections (first and predominantly in New England by the end of the 19th century) and were only granted full suffrage with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. Even though women were barred from the constitutional debates and none ever attended a single constitutional meeting, we can index their role as Founding Mothers in the revolutionary age and in the early republic and look at their contributions to the revolutionary political discourse of the time. Abigail Adams (1744-1818) for instance, the wife of John Adams, is often considered a Founding Mother in her own right. Her letters to her husband have become canonized in the Norton Anthology of American Literature for their political radicalism as well as for their rhetorical beauty. Most famously, in March 1776, she admonished her husband with the following words:

I long to hear that you have declared an Independancy and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. (Quotable Abigail Adams 356)

Illustration 4: Portrait of Abigail Adams

Gilbert Stuart, Abigail Smith Adams (1815).

Abigail Adams used “Portia” as her penname (in reference to Roman senator Marcus Junius Brutus’s wife), by which she implied that she was “the obscure wife of a great politician” (Gelles, Portia 47). Contrary to this image of submissiveness, modesty, and domesticity, Adams’s writings exhibit a proto-feminist streak; she is commonly considered a radical in regard to women’s rights at a time when “[m]ost founders could not imagine a society where women were free and equal, and were governed by their own consent [...]. Generally, the founders took patriarchy for granted and forgot the ladies” (Kann, Gendering 7). John Adams outright dismissed his wife’s request: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh” (qtd. in ibid. 8).

Yet, “the ladies” - at least some of them - articulated their own views, and thus we can identify female participation in the revolutionary effort on many levels and in many forms. First of all, women were authors and publicists who wrote letters, diaries, pamphlets, and commentaries; second, they were caretakers, farmers, and entrepreneurs who through their work enabled their husbands to go off to war and to conduct politics in often far-away places; third, women were considerably involved and depended upon as fundraisers for the war effort, founded associations to develop the needed infrastructure (e.g. the Ladies Association of Philadelphia), called meetings, and gave speeches; fourth, they contributed in many other minor and major ways to the war effort, e.g. by sewing uniforms or by joining the military cross-dressed as men (cf. Roberts, Founding Mothers 125ff.). All of the individuals involved in these revolutionary activities may be considered Founding Mothers of some sort.

The different dimensions of women’s activities for the new republic both affirm and contest the ideological constructions of women at the time of the political founding of the US, and reveal the ambivalences women had to navigate in their social roles. In fact, the term ‘Founding Mothers’ may be read, in view of biological essentialism, as a form of containment that links women to their reproductive function and not so much to some sort of authority in the public sphere. The five justifications for the exclusion of women from political life rooted in stereotypes of women in the late 18th century are reminiscent of the cult of True Womanhood that would dominate much of the 19th century: women’s domesticity, women’s dependency, women’s passions, women’s disorders, and women’s consent to patriarchy (cf. Kann, Gendering 23). And yet, the new republic also created a new ideology of gender roles and gender relations. The discourse of Republican Motherhood (cf. Kerber, Women) has been particularly useful to grasp the contradictions of a doctrine that both consolidates and expands women’s domestic realm. Linda Kerber and Mary Beth Norton have pointed out how, in the name of the republic, women were esteemed as mothers of future citizens, and how their education, as teachers of the next generation, became more relevant and more acceptable. New educational opportunities opened up, and formal schooling for women improved immensely. As Republican Mothers, women were to raise the citizens and leaders of the republic while remaining firmly confined to the domestic sphere without any direct political participation in a kind of domestic patriotism. In fact, by granting women these educational opportunities, one could claim “that women needed no further political involvement, since they already possessed the power to mold their husbands’ and sons’ virtuous citizenship” (Scobell, “Judith Sargent Murray” 12). In historical and feminist scholarship, the Republican Mother has alternately been considered a figure of empowerment or of confinement, and clearly remains an ambivalent role model.

At the time that this discourse is forming in the soon-to-be-independent colonies, we can find women who actively engaged in political activities despite the fact that revolutionary womanhood and Republican Motherhood often may not have been easily reconcilable. For the sake of briefly reviewing the revolutionary activism of American women, I want to turn to Judith Sargent Murray (17511820) and Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814). In her essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790), Judith Sargent Murray proposes the idea of a companionate marriage (such as the one she led with her second husband, John Murray), and argues for the inherent rationality of women and for women’s political participation. She pleads for women’s education on the basis of a subversive reinterpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which she casts Eve as being thirsty for knowledge rather than content and complacent in the Garden of Eden (cf. Scobell, “Judith Sargent Murray” 11). Further, she criticizes women’s domestic role within the patriarchal household, through which women “should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing the seams of a garment” (Murray, “Equality” 7). Murray further suggests that “from the commencement of time to the present day, there hath been as many females, as males, who, by the mere force of natural powers, have merited the crown of applause; who, thus unassisted, have seized the wreath of fame” (ibid. 134, 135). Murray was somewhat of a public figure of her time, and was portrayed by John Singleton Copley in 1763 (who would later paint political figures such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere) and by Gilbert Stuart, who also famously portrayed George Washington. Murray’s writings, in particular her contributions to the Massachusetts Magazine, were very popular and in 1798 appeared in a three-volume collection titled The Gleaner under the pen name Constantia. The collection has been reissued in 1992.

Along with Judith Sargent Murray, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), who self-identified as a “politician” (Kerber, Women 84), has become recognized for her contribution to American revolutionary thought, which she articulated in poems, plays, and pamphlets. Like Murray, Warren frequently adopts a satirical, farcical tone in her writings, which include very prominently female protagonists who struggle within their ‘domestic economy’ in much the same way the author did. Warren also sought “to live in both the world of intellect and the world of domesticity” (ibid. 256). Warren (just as Murray) did not completely reject the traditional roles of wife and mother, quite the contrary; this resulted in an ambivalence exemplified by her outstanding History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), the first history of the American Revolution and for a long time the only female-authored one, in which Warren perhaps somewhat self-consciously and defensively pays almost no attention to women’s revolutionary experiences and efforts but instead focuses on the deeds of the ‘great men,’ i.e. the Founding Fathers (in 1848, Elizabeth Ellet’s The Women of the American Revolution would remedy Warren’s omissions). In her lifetime, Warren was a highly esteemed publicist and, like Murray, was portrayed by John Copley; memorials in her honor were erected in many New England towns, and a US cargo ship launched during World War II, the SS

Mercy Warren, was named after her, perhaps somewhat ironically affirming her (rhetorical) power.

It is thus in the prose and dramas by early republican women writers such as Murray and Warren as well as Eliza Foster Cushing, Susan Sedgwick, and others that we find female protagonists and characters who defy women’s exclusion from politics. As women were not included in the political discourse of the founding, they “were left to invent their own political character” (ibid. 269) and fought for full citizenship by creating their own foundational discourse on the basis of a natural-rights rhetoric:

The founding fathers had used the language of natural rights to argue for the protection and preservation of their prerogatives of citizens. Women could not start from the same place. While no one was likely to deny that they were citizens, it was clear that female citizenship was not the same as male citizenship and that men and women in practice had very different civic duties and prerogatives. Woman’s rights advocates, therefore, had to use Locke not to argue for the preservation of their rights but to gain their rights in the first place. (Hoffert, When Hens Crow 40)

American women arrived at a full-fledged feminist agenda with the Declaration of Sentiments, a document prepared for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, which was the first convention of a national women’s movement; in contemporary newspapers, it was ridiculed as “the hen convention” of “divorced wives, childless women, and some old maids” (qtd. in Clift, Founding Sisters 13). More than 300 people gathered on July 19, a regular weekday, in the small town of Seneca Falls in Upstate New York. With their Declaration of Sentiments, which was rhetorically modeled after the Declaration of Independence, women’s rights activists fashioned themselves as Founding Mothers:

By their act of mirroring, the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments generated a critique of the Declaration of Independence that made it impossible to read the original text in the same way ever again. The Seneca Falls Convention took aim at the Founding Fathers’ ambivalence toward their own “high ideals” with the weapon Homi Bhabha describes as “the displacing gaze of the disciplined [...] that liberates marginal elements and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he extends his sovereignty.” (Wexler, “All Men” 352)

The small canon of revolutionary Founding Mothers that Cokie Roberts identifies for the 18th century, which includes next to Abigail Adams, Judith Sargent Murray, and Mercy Otis Warren also Deborah Read Franklin, Eliza Pinckney, and Betsy Ross, seems as exclusive and elitist as the ranks of the canonical

Founding Fathers. When considering the contributions and achievements of the women under consideration, we have to acknowledge their privileged positions in colonial and postcolonial US society. Somewhat in contrast, we have already discussed the symbolic power of Sally Hemings as a Founding Mother, and we may also note that many African American women were active in the women’s movement. Most famously, Sojourner Truth delivered her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron in 1851, in which she demanded equality not only between whites and blacks, but specifically between white and black women.

Beyond the founding phase and the early 19th-century initiatives to organize and institutionalize women’s political participation, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lu- cretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Hooker, and many others, all of whom Eleanor Clift refers to as “founding sisters,” worked successfully toward the passage of Amendment XIX, which they considered their victory at the end of a “seventy-two year battle” (Founding Sisters 4). The slogan of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s opening this section brings us to the question of gender in our discussion of the Founding Fathers, as they appear to be a paternal if not a patriarchal construction. A feminist revision of the myth of the Founding Fathers not only implies adding women to the canon of male founders, but also points to the Founding Fathers as a patriarchal and paternalistic invention that claimed to speak for women and that denied their natural rights, which - according to Lockean principle - should have been acknowledged. For more than one hundred years after the founding, Motherhood had trumped women’s humanity in philosophical discourse; ‘Founding Mothers’ therefore remains a precarious concept.

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