Women in the Republic of Virtue –
In revolutions, women tale up the flag and even the sceptre: every arm and voice is needed. So among the revolutionaries were the voices of women like Mercy Otis Warren. During the following years, women’s roles in the home as educators and molders was emphasized: a “republic of virtue” required both a knowledgeable and a moral public. Perhaps the most telling invasions of twentieth century tyrants were private – as the private became the public. That insertion appalls us, as the communist regime “becomes” family and church; the patriarch’s voice, visage enters the public’s mind, casting a weighty shadow. We think of the one-child rule of China, but the valuation was little different in the Communist underground in the west, encouraging promiscuity and devaluing marriage, denigrating child-bearing and emphasizing abortion.
Women and men both understand the public; both understand the private. But the private has long been women’s domain. When, as our current government does, a power demonstrates arrogance and pride that signals danger to the independence of that world, women may well feel it first. This may explain the large percentage of women in the tea party movement today. We appreciate the rule of law in setting boundaries, but also appreciate the role of boundaries in keeping out the public, the government.
Susan Ridley Sedgewick, writing almost two hundred years ago, would appreciate much. She had seen that limiting women’s roles to the private & domestic was costly in both personal, psychological ways and public, pragmatic ones. She could appreciate our roles today. But she also sees women in her time, centers of domesticity, as resting, not resigned. Linda K. Kerber, in Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America, quotes her “It has indeed been observed by foreigners, with some surprise, that females here are remarkably exempt from the care of the public weal; that they either know nothing or care little about subjects connected with it.’ . . . Visitors usually accounted for this lack of involvement by commenting that American women were straitened by domesticity.” A century later, a popular work would be The Servantless House – American women, from the beginning, were likely to be neither servants nor have them. Still, Sedgwick argues: “But there is a better reason. . . . Government here, though extending over all its protection and vigilance, is a guardian, not a spy. It does not rudely enter our houses, hearts, and consciences, . . . in codes of conscription, disabilities, and test-acts. . . [women] conceive themselves to have the best government in the world, because, in the main, – to use a female figure of speech – like a well made garment, it fits perfectly, and presses nowhere. But let this same garment give token of fracture, decay, or uneasy alteration, we should find their tongues move as quickly as their needles.” Kerber notes that “so long as the male political order refrained from direct pressure on the family, her argument implies,” (276) women will “masquerade” as weak; in times of need they will “take political positions, make their own judgment of the contending sides, risk their lives–emerge stronger and in control.”