Lucia McMahon. Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. xvii + 228 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5052-5.
Reviewed by Martha King
Published on H-SAWH (January, 2014)
Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series and Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters)
In this carefully researched book, Lucia McMahon uses the organizational concept of “mere equality” to show how early national Americans grappled with women’s intellectual capacity (p. x). To do so, she focuses on the interplay between prescriptive literature and the lived experiences of educated women in the early Republic to see how these women lived in relationship with men. Her term and the title of her study is drawn from an anonymous 1802 essay, “Plan for the Emancipation of the Female Sex,” that suggested the underlying compromise educated women had to make in relinquishing authority in order to live in the world “merely as the equals of a man” (p. 1). For McMahon, “mere equality” becomes a buzz phrase to try to describe how educated women between 1780 and 1820 claimed to be the intellectual equals of men yet accepted their own sexual difference and implied loss of influence and power nevertheless. The author demonstrates a close reading of the contemporary prescriptive literature (engravings, poetry, essays, anecdotes, novels, and character sketches), and her interpretation is amply informed by the growing scholarship on women’s literature and education in the early nineteenth century. But it is by focusing on her subjects through the lens of their personal correspondence, housed in a dozen repositories, that McMahon is able to root her close analysis in the actual words used by women and less in the non-epistolary context of their specific surroundings and historical times.
The author of numerous articles on women’s education in the early American Republic as well as the coeditor of the journal of an early nineteenth-century New Jerseyan, Rachel Van Dyke, McMahon is on firm ground to offer fresh and detailed evidence from years of close reading and archival research in underutilized collections. While admittedly hers is a case study of elite or upper-middle-class white women from the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, her subjects are relatively unknown historically and they provide insights and examples to illustrate her overriding and oft-repeated thesis. Rather than focusing on familiar learned women of the early Republic, such as Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, or Susanna Rowson, she introduces us to heroines who led relatively quiet lives away from the public stage but who were arguably no less worthy of study, such as Violetta Bancker, Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick, Jane Bowne Haines, Linda Raymond Ward, Elizabeth and Margaret Shippen, Eunice Callender, and Sarah Ripley.
In her initial chapter, McMahon tackles women’s education generally and looks at women who attended female academies, reminding us that Litchfield and Philadelphia Young Ladies Academy, while well documented, were only two of many formal educational options for young ladies of the time. The picture she paints reveals the curricular rigors facing female students at the academies and the transformative aspects of their privileged access to educational opportunities. Education led to class status as well as class formation for the young women of her description. McMahon differentiates her work from such scholars as Mary Kelley (Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic ) and others who have focused on public and printed aspects of women’s education or on women as makers of public opinion. Instead, she delves into the unpublished personal letters exchanged by educated women. Like Kelley, McMahon shows how education became a tool of women’s self fashioning and was at once an individual and a social enterprise, but unlike Kelley’s subjects, McMahon’s women largely retreated into domestic spaces and did not play pivotal roles in the public arena.
The remaining five chapters of this work flow smoothly through women’s typical life stages and relationship arcs: female friendships, family matters, courtship ideals and practices, companionate marriage, and republican motherhood. Curiously, widowhood is absent from this discussion although many of her subjects experienced the death of a spouse. For all her chosen subjects, however, McMahon deftly teases out how they grappled with their individual intellectual aspirations and the social and political constraints under which they lived. She uses examples to show how women held the tensions of loss of influence and power as women, while at the same time desiring the economic, social, and political equality of men.
Not surprisingly, education did not prompt these women to reject their domestic roles. While their formal education may have been temporally limited and less than that of men, women continued to have intellectual aspirations throughout their lives. McMahon cleverly shows this paradoxical and simultaneously expansive and constraining identity formation by depicting the experiences of sisters in the Shippen family set in relief against the options faced by a brother. As his world expanded, theirs remained static, illustrating a growing gender gap. She also beautifully characterizes the emotional and intellectual blossoming of female friendship in the lives of the like-minded Eunice Callender and Sarah Ripley, and uses this friendship to demonstrate the tensions many women faced between the roles of the undereducated coquette and the overeducated pedant.
McMahon’s chapters on courtship and marriage show the benefits anticipated and ideals held by educated women when pursuing potential romantic relationships with men. At the same time that such couples as Benjamin and Linda Raymond were attracted by their differences, they sought an interconnectedness through knowledge and desire, creating a union of reason and love. For Reuben Haines and Jane Bowne Haines, a couple for whom we are told shared little other than their Quaker background, the companionate ideal of marriage with its emphasis on egalitarian principles, could offer women autonomy but also the potential for conflict in its exercise.
McMahon is at her strongest, in this reviewer’s estimation, in her chapter revisiting republican motherhood, demonstrating a mastery of existing scholarship, in this instance Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (1980). She provides a compelling case study in the life of Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick, the mother of seven children who experienced profound maternal grief not just in the death of infants but also in that of a beloved adult daughter. Here McMahon skillfully juxtaposes Kirkpatrick’s options and gives context to her choices and contrasts those made by her more famous sister, the Washington socialite and author Margaret Bayard Smith. Kirkpatrick chose the duties of motherhood over the desire for literary fame. Marriage often induced silence and created intellectual discontinuity for women like Kirkpatrick who, if they did write, rarely had time to record their reflections or reading practices, or downplayed their mundane activities. But luckily for McMahon, Kirkpatrick kept a journal of her family’s experiences. Her charitable and benevolent reform activities provided an outlet that many women sought and this pushes us to questions of representativeness.
How representative were the women McMahon has selected for study? The author argues that the individuals presented “lend themselves to some generalization and are representative of a larger emotional and intellectual universe--similar language, preoccupations, and ideals can be found in a variety of early national writings and experiences” (p. xii). But we cannot truly appreciate them in isolation from the multiple networks and communities of which they must have been a part even if their ordinariness as women resonates with the experiences of their peers. We are left wanting to know more factual context about their lives and not just what they wrote about their experiences and thoughts.
By and large, we have little sense of the awareness of her subjects with regard to the events of a larger world, but through the correspondence and quotations that McMahon has selected, we see their letters, shared reading practices, and commonplacing as attempts to turn inward. McMahon astutely adds to the literature that questions separate spheres and suggests that there was a more fluid interaction between men and women. “True equality might seek to erase or discard difference; mere equality rested in complementary relationships between the sexes” (p. 81). In her view, the separate sphere ideology was “a reaction to early national women’s experiments with mere equality rather than an accurate depiction of lived experience” (p. 169).
McMahon concludes that while mere equality gave educated women a chance to achieve “some measures of personal and social equality,” it ultimately failed to “challenge the structural underpinnings of male patriarchy and privilege” (p. x). The struggle for women’s franchise is beyond the reach of this book. The author shows how some women might have attained education in some places, but the uses and even the definition of that education still remained constrained by custom, law, and prejudice. The clergy, law, and legislature remained closed to women. She claims that the demise of mere equality “was perhaps inevitable” as women began to embrace sexual difference and act in expanded roles as women (p. 170).
H-SAWH members may wonder what it meant to be an educated woman in the early national South after reading such rich narratives of mid-Atlantic and New England sisters. McMahon expressly states that “more research is needed on how educated women from the southern and western regions experienced and expressed their intellectual aspirations” (p. xii). And while the South did not have as many opportunities for women’s education, female academies could be found in most southern cities by 1820. McMahon thus paves the way for future scholarship in this less richly tilled field of examination.
At times a “promise” or a “lesson,” mere equality, as presented by McMahon, was a “vague, malleable concept that was subject to multiple interpretations” (p. x) One wonders how much the women of her study actually understood their own lives and the paradoxes she depicts in terms of this construct. While McMahon’s concept of “mere equality” may not have the same staying power in our historiographical lexicon as “deputy husbands” (from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 ) or “republican motherhood,” the lives and letters she examines to make her argument are nonetheless welcome sources and fertile ground for further scholarly engagement, and for this and more we are indebted to her instructive work.
 Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
 Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).
 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-sawh.
Martha King. Review of McMahon, Lucia, Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic.
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