Why a Month?: Republican Motherhood

Today marks the beginning of Women’s History Month. From the National Women’s History Project:

It often seems that the history of women is written in invisible ink. Even when recognized in their own times, women are frequently left out of the history books. […]

When we began our work in the early eighties, the topic of women’s history was limited to college curricula, and even there it languished. At that time, less than 3% of the content of teacher training textbooks mentioned the contributions of women and when included, women were usually written in as mere footnotes. Women of color and women in fields such as math, science, and art were completely omitted. This limited inclusion of women’s accomplishments deprived students of viable female role models.

Today, when you search the Internet with the words “women’s +history + month,” you’ll find more than 40,500,000 citations. These extraordinary numbers give testimony to the tireless work of thousands of individuals, organizations, and institutions to write women back into history.Much of this work was made possible by the generous support of people like you.
We are inviting other women’s and educational organizations as well as women’s history performers, authors, historic sites, and museums, unions, military units, universities, and women’s history programs and parents, grandparents, and interested individuals to join us in recognizing the importance of women in history.

The theme for this year is “Writing Women Back into History.” This is an admirable idea, but it’s also immensely depressing that we should have to do so. Perhaps some people would like to argue that we shouldn’t. “When’s Men’s History Month?” they cry. Well, if I may be so frank, it’s the other eleven months. Think back over your secondary curriculum and you will probably notice that most of the people you study and talk about in history classes are men. You hear about women when talking about “women’s issues” like reproductive freedoms, abolition, and labor. (This is not always the case. Big props to Mr. Romanski in the Abington Heights School District for always encouraging a close examination of historical fact that forced us to actively look for the impact of minorities on events.)

So I’m starting a feature called “Why a Month?” where I’ll try to explore the complexities of a notion like “women’s history” that is forced to remain separate  from history in general. I’ll try to examine a lot of the figures and concepts that we tend to talk about when we talk about women’s history. So let’s start with an attempt at injecting women into the narrative that always stuck in my craw.

In American History classrooms, you may hear about women’s role in supporting the country after the Revolution, a concept called Republican motherhood where American Enlightenment philosophers acknowledged the “important role” of women in the new nation as the primary parents of the post-Revolution generation. (This has absolutely nothing to do with the party of George Bush and Ronald Reagan. That Republican Party wouldn’t come around until the mid 19th century.) It was up to the wives of the patriots to raise their  children in a way that not only benefitted but glorified the new American Republic.  There’s a more charitable, educated explanation of the concept that argues that it empowers women in its own special way here.

The video’s right that this is a sign of men valuing women, but in a very skewed way. Valuing “women’s work” is not the same as letting women into “male” professions, especially when women were dressing as men to take part in both the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Motherhood is an important and valuable part of many women’s lives, but what about those who don’t want to have children, who want instead to directly affect policy, to vote or hold public office?

It’s condescending, neigh on offensive to suggest that talking about Republican Motherhood makes up for the relative invisibility of women in historical narrative of the Revolution, when historical fact suggests that women were functioning in the public sphere as widows or by passing as men. Sure, Abigail Adams, felt that she needed to tell her husband to “remember the ladies,” but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a force within herself. She was her husband’s closest political advisor, even acting as a kind of anti-Tory inquisitor post Revolution, which technically made her both a politician and public official. I mean, does this look like a woman who’s gonna take any guff?

Seriously. Girl is fierce.

We’re definitely gonna need more than a month!

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4 thoughts on “Why a Month?: Republican Motherhood

  1. I mean, Lil, it’s basically the same as Black History Month, which just ended.

    Consider the persistent stereotype notion. When you meet, say, a gay person who differs from your stereotypes, the usual result is not to alter your modes of thinking but rather to regard them as special and keep them separate from the rest of your thinking.

    It’s that last bit, we keep these thoughts separate from the rest of our thinking. Which is why you hear things like (excerpt from my mother’s Psych of Racism class): ” Why are you forcing all this Black History down our throats, we already have Black History Month.?” Does that make sense?

    Also, great post , Lil.

    But I don’t know that their can be such thing as a truly inclusive history. I hope that their can be, but so much of history relies on how you frame it. Whose point of view do you rely on/examine? Who’s actions do you examine when and where are they? Who caused what? What about causality? (which should complicate the question infinitely).

    What do we do here?

  2. Seriously, I’d like every one to read this for my birthday 🙂 haha

    Great Post. I’m optimistic that one day we’ll have entirely inclusive history, women and minorities galooooore. (and that history and liberal arts classes will take over high school curriculum :p) but until then I’m more than pleased to share my birthday with the start of Women’s History Month

  3. An interesting tangent to this is something I’ve seen in Qatar (and to a lesser, but more irritating, extent in the states). I’ll be grocery-shopping and see an Arab guy walking down the aisle wearing jeans, a designer t-shirt and a baseball cap, with his wife, who is wearing a fully-buttoned abaya, a sheila and sometimes even a niqab. To me, it is the clearest reminder of women’s roles as carriers of culture.

    Women all around the world, particularly places where culture and commerce collide, keep cultural history alive–they cook the traditional meals, teach children the traditional values, and yes, wear the traditional clothes, even as their fathers, husbands and brothers explore other’s cultures. I believe women have a right to choose to defend hearth and home and culture, but I do not always believe the women I see fully-veiled shopping for Diesel jeans to wear under their abayas have chosen this role.

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