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Literacy, Republican Motherhood, and the Women’s Movement in the Rare Book Room

Shannon Kupfer,State Library of Ohio

When one considers the topic of literacy in the United States, one generally thinks of programs for early readers, adults, non-English speakers, and so on.  It is unlikely, however, that one thinks of the women’s movement in the United States.  Yet an increase in women’s literacy during the period following the American Revolution contributed to the women’s movement, and the Rare Book Room has many fine examples of texts that either argued for, or were a result of, increased literacy rates.  Following is a brief description of the period and movement that sparked these increases in women’s literacy, with examples of some of the related titles in the Rare Book Room.

18th century Enlightenment philosophy proclaimed, in part, that a nation’s success depended upon an educated, moral population.  For men, the path to morality and education was in place; their roles in the public sphere allowed them to attend college and take an active part in politics, the formation of laws, and other nation-building activities.  Women, however, were confined to the private sphere and limited by cultural restraints, not to mention lacking easy access to education.  How might they participate in strengthening their new nation?  The answer lay in their role as caregivers to their children.  By educating their children and guiding them in their proper roles in society, they could help lay the groundwork for a prosperous nation.  This would require, in part, that mothers also be educated.  It is no coincidence, then, that education and literacy rates for women increased tremendously during this period.  This movement has been dubbed “Republican Motherhood” and some describe it as having been a precursor of the women’s movement in the United States; indeed, Judith Sargent Murray, whom some call one of the first feminists in the United States, began arguing for the equality of the sexes and the rights of women to be educated during this period.

The Journal and Correspondence of Miss Adams (call number E322.1 S64x) reflects one family’s belief in education for women during this period.  The “Miss Adams” of the title is Abigail Adams Smith (1765-1813), daughter of John and Abigail Adams.  The journal was written from 1784 to 1787 and details the experiences of Miss Adams (who married William S. Smith during this period) while she resided in Europe.  The published correspondence was not written by Abigail Smith but includes letters from her husband, her father, and her mother.  It is in the letters from her mother that we see a reflection of Republican Motherhood: a strong education for Abigail the daughter, an understanding of politics and of the current events of the day, and an interest in domestic life. 

Approximately thirty years after Abigail Adams Smith’s correspondence ends, Margaret Coxe reflects upon women’s roles in her two-volume piece, entitled Claims of the Country on American Females (call number HQ1423.C8).   Women, she says, are given “the solemn responsibility of watching over the hearts and minds of our youthful citizens, who are soon to take their place in the public arena, and to give form and individuality to our national character.”  To that end, Miss Coxe argues that women have an obligation to educate themselves and to participate fully as citizens, with that participation limited, of course, to those roles appropriate to their sex.  One can clearly see a continuation of Republican Motherhood and an argument for literacy for women fully fifty years after its introduction.

The middle and latter parts of the 19th century witnessed an increase in women’s civic activities, culminating with the woman suffrage movement.  In 1881, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage penned their multi-volume title, History of Woman Suffrage (call number JK1896 .S8 1881).  No detailed description of this title is necessary; the roles of the authors and their fellow participants in U.S. history are both well-documented and well-respected.  Nor is it necessary to explain the tie between the woman suffrage movement and literacy!  We do not, however, generally consider the woman suffrage movement as a result of the post-Revolutionary period until we consider Republican Motherhood and its arguments for increased education for women.  When we do take Republican Motherhood into consideration, the path from the 18th century through the 19th century and to present day becomes clear.

Please visit the State Library Rare Book Room to view these titles, as well as the others in our collection. 

To read more on Republican Motherhood:

Cohen, Patricia Kline: Women in the Early Republic
Kerber, Linda: The Republican Mother: Women and Enlightenment – an American Perspective

Murray, Judith Sargent: On the Equality of the Sexes