A Female Figure of Speech

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.”

5 thoughts on “A Female Figure of Speech”

  1. When Napoleon asked Madame de Stael disapprovingly why she meddled in politics, she remarked that when women have their heads cut off they should want to know why.

  2. American women were quite different than their European forebears. The frontier was not just the scene in the movies. They had to be part of the economic family unit. My great grandmother moved to Illinois after the Civil War with my great grandfather. They farmed in the area around Dwight and she had 12 children, nine of them sons. They had a household that included a widowed sister-in-law and several hired girls. The dining room table they used, I have now. It has leaves that will pull out to seat 14 or 16 people. That was a substantial economic unit. My great grandfather could not read or write. Somebody did the figuring in that household.

    Before he died, he built the biggest house in Odell and they donated to the new Catholic Church, St Paul’s in Odell. The first stained glass window on the left has a panel saying it was donated by them. That little church school had a couple of National Merit Scholars until the state closed the high school and made them join the big public high school.

    It was no surprise that the first state to grant women the vote was Wyoming. Frontier women made the country.

  3. I have often wondered why the push for women’s right to vote in the US — and specifically the western US — did not excite the same degree of vicious animus that the campaign for female suffrage did in Britain. While there might have been some scorn and derision exercised upon American suffragettes, it was not anything like that which was poured upon the English version. I have speculated that it was because of what was necessary upon the frontier – that everyone, man or women, had to hold up their weight – and because of that, American men (specifically westerners) were much more open to the notion of female political equality – because in so many ways on the frontier, women had already proved they were more than capable of holding up their half of the world.

  4. My mother literally worked her way through high school as well as college – spurred by my grandmother, a rural schoolteacher. After she married my grandfather she remained a reader; he adored her (because or but?) still expeccted her to feed a threshing crew. They loved reading and arguing but to develop those skills in the depression my mother fed the fire of the home she stayed in during the school week. She and my aunt became home ec majors – that was when the ‘scientific home’ was an important concept and learning to efficiently run a healthy home was considered a difficult and major goal. If a hundred years before the concept of the “republican mother” was important, in the early part of the twentieth century nutrition and sewing were considered skills as well as arts.

    But I really like the idea of a government that doesn’t bind us – as a well-made dress doesn’t. It restrains so natually and lightly we don’t feel its weight. And it leaves us free to be who and what we want to be. And I like the idea that we need not concern ourselves with the government if it so lightly intrudes upon our lives.

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