Mere Equals

Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic

Lucia McMahon
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Mere Equals
    Book Description:

    In Mere Equals, Lucia McMahon narrates a story about how a generation of young women who enjoyed access to new educational opportunities made sense of their individual and social identities in an American nation marked by stark political inequality between the sexes. McMahon's archival research into the private documents of middling and well-to-do Americans in northern states illuminates educated women's experiences with particular life stages and relationship arcs: friendship, family, courtship, marriage, and motherhood. In their personal and social relationships, educated women attempted to live as the "mere equals" of men. Their often frustrated efforts reveal how early national Americans grappled with the competing issues of women's intellectual equality and sexual difference.

    In the new nation, a pioneering society, pushing westward and unmooring itself from established institutions, often enlisted women's labor outside the home and in areas that we would deem public. Yet, as a matter of law, women lacked most rights of citizenship and this subordination was authorized by an ideology of sexual difference. What women and men said about education, how they valued it, and how they used it to place themselves and others within social hierarchies is a highly useful way to understand the ongoing negotiation between equality and difference. In public documents, "difference" overwhelmed "equality," because the formal exclusion of women from political activity and from economic parity required justification. McMahon tracks the ways in which this public disparity took hold in private communications. By the 1830s, separate and gendered spheres were firmly in place. This was the social and political heritage with which women's rights activists would contend for the rest of the century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6588-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Introduction: Between Cupid and Minerva
    (pp. 1-17)

    In an 1802 essay provocatively titled, “Plan for the Emancipation of the Female Sex,” an anonymous author suggested that women “would willingly relinquish that authority which they have so long enjoyed by courtesy, in order to appear formally on the theatre of the world merely as the equals of man.” To achieve mere equality, women could “petition the legislature to sanction their emancipation by law.” To gain equality, women needed only to ask for it—equality was, in essence, already theirs for the taking because no “gallant man” would allow his wife or mother to “sue in vain.” This author...

  6. Chapter 1 “More like a Pleasure than a Study”: Women’s Educational Experiences
    (pp. 18-41)

    In 1801, Violetta Bancker left her home in New York to attend Mrs. Capron’s Female Academy in Philadelphia. In a letter to her father, Violetta described her teachers: “you and mama wish to know my opinion of Mrs. Capron: I find her very affectionate and kind. Mrs. Mallon who is the English teacher is a very sensible woman and very capable. . . . the other teachers are all very agreeable.” Among her various studies, Violetta expressed particular interest in geography, which as she noted, “is so very pleasing that it seems more like a pleasure than a study.” A...

  7. Chapter 2 “Various Subjects That Passed between Two Young Ladies of America”: Reconstructing Female Friendship
    (pp. 42-66)

    In 1803, Eunice Callender wrote to her friend Sarah Ripley, pleased that they had begun a correspondence. “By the end of the year we may have letters enough in our possession to make a handsome volume,” Eunice mused. “What say you to it don’t you think it would be a good plan, to make a book, and entitle [it] ‘Letters upon various subjects, that passed between two young Ladies of America’—how do you like the plan?” Eunice had read several works modeled on the epistolary form, so the idea for her book fit nicely with literary conventions of the...

  8. Chapter 3 “The Social Family Circle”: Family Matters
    (pp. 67-89)

    In 1796, sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Shippen and her younger sister, Margaret, left their family home in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to attend “Grammar” and “dancing” school in nearby Philadelphia. Although their brother John would miss his sisters’ presence at home, he took “pleasing consolation” that an extended visit to Philadelphia offered “advantages of improvement in an important degree, and at a very important period of Life.” Philadelphia was home to some of the most prestigious institutions in the nation for women’s education and would provide the Shippen sisters, as John noted, “the golden opportunity . . . of becoming sensible, amiable, and...

  9. Chapter 4 “The Union of Reason and Love”: Courtship Ideals and Practices
    (pp. 90-115)

    Writing to his fiancée, Linda Raymond, in 1818, Benjamin Ward shared his hopes for their relationship: “I anticipate in you, a companion, whose friendship is not founded on the combustible materials of enflamed passions; but in whom is ‘The union of reason and love;’ in whose society I shall ever receive a pleasure, and who would abhor to awaken in the bosom of your friend a sensation destructive of his peace and comfort.” Like many early national couples, Benjamin and Linda’s expectations for marital happiness centered on a companionate ideal that privileged an affectionate union between loving partners.¹ As Benjamin’s...

  10. Chapter 5 “The Sweet Tranquility of Domestic Endearment”: Companionate Marriage
    (pp. 116-138)

    In May 1812, John Griscom, educator, wrote to Jane Bowne Haines, his former student, offering congratulations on her recent marriage to Reuben Haines. Marriage, he noted, “brings to its final accomplishment the period of education” and “opens to the young and glowing mind, a scene, rising in alternate prospect, under the sober colouring of care and solicitude, and shining with all the brilliancy of hope and expectation.” The transition from student and daughter to wife and mother would serve as perhaps the best test of a woman’s education. John Griscom held fond hopes for his former pupil, certain that the...

  11. Chapter 6 “So Material a Change”: Revisiting Republican Motherhood
    (pp. 139-163)

    In the eyes of her son-in-law Samuel B. How, Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick “came as near to perfection as any human being I ever knew.” Jane fulfilled her various roles “as daughter, sister, wife, mother, and mistress of a family” with “propriety and grace.” Samuel reserved particular praise for Jane’s intellectual attainments: “Her mind was naturally strong, and she had diligently cultivated and improved its powers. She was remarkable for the union of a lively imagination, with a solid judgment.” Through all stages of her life, “at all times, and in all places and company, she was the accomplished lady.” As...

  12. Conclusion: Education, Equality, or Difference
    (pp. 164-170)

    Miss A. M. Burton read this poem at commencement exercises held at Susanna Rowson’s Female Academy in October 1803. The poem was published in the Boston Weekly Magazine, making Burton’s acquisition of education at once a lived experience and a literary representation. The interplay between the personal and prescriptive was also reflected in the poem itself, which asserted women’s steadfast determination to acquire and demonstrate knowledge (“we’ll strive to show”), along with persistent concerns about male reception (“if you will deign to hear us”). Such worries about male criticism were not unfounded, but the story is more complicated than that....

  13. List of Archives
    (pp. 171-174)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 175-222)
  15. Index
    (pp. 223-228)