Carl Robert Keyes is an Associate Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He recently launched the #Adverts250 Project, featuring advertisements published 250 years ago in colonial American newspapers accompanied by brief commentary, via his Twitter profile (@TradeCardCarl).
My Revolutionary America class recently visited the American Antiquarian Society for a behind-the-scenes tour followed by a document workshop in the Council Room. As we passed through the closed stacks I remarked to one of the curators, “This still blows me away, yet nothing can compare to the first time I came back here. Taking this all in for the first time is an experience that cannot be re-created.”
The same holds true for a great work of scholarship, an article or monograph that shaped the field and continues to have resonance decades after it was first published. It’s possible to revisit it, to appreciate it and admire it, to discover a nuance not previously noticed or consider a new application of its central thesis, but none of that is the same as the sense of excitement, wonder, discovery experienced the first time you read that article or book and the way it changed the way you thought about the world, both the lived experiences of the people historians study and the structure of the society in which we live.
Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, first published in 1980, is one of those books. I revisit it regularly, for both my teaching and my research, and each time I once again feel a wave of intellectual excitement even though I am already familiar with its arguments and use of evidence. That being said, I recently had the opportunity to experience Women of the Republic for the “first time” in two ways.
The first was the Eleventh Annual Robert C. Baron Lecture at the American Antiquarian Society on October 22. As the AAS website explains, “Each year the Baron lecture brings a distinguished AAS member who has written a significant work of history to Antiquarian Hall to reflect on the book’s impact on scholarship and society in the years since its first appearance.” This year Linda Kerber spent an evening “Looking Back at Women of the Republic” thirty-five years later, though she stated that her lecture alternately could have been titled “Why Diamonds Really Are a Girl’s Best Friend and Other Things Women of the Republic Taught Me.” (I’ll return to that quirky title in just a bit.) Hearing directly from the author about her inspiration for the book, the process of researching and writing it, and shortcomings she recognized in hindsight helped to replicate that “first time” experience.
Kerber traced the origins of Women of the Republic back to her dissertation research, casually mentioning the mentorship of Columbia University faculty of the era who also rank among the giants of early Americanists. She admitted that she shied away from women’s history at the time, wanting to pursue “serious” academic work (or, rather, work that would be taken seriously), but after completing her dissertation and publishing her first book she realized that her research notes were filled with women who did not make it into any of the drafts. Not only had her own vision been narrow, none of her mentors or editors commented on the absence of women in her work.
To remedy this, Kerber set about the project that eventually became Women of the Republic. Navigating archives was sometimes frustrating because curators and librarians had not previously paid sufficient attention to cataloging documents created by women. In addition, the last book about women in the Early Republic had been published in 1935, certainly regrettable but a circumstance that Kerber turned to her advantage. Her excitement, still palpable, at the freedom to explore American women’s past unencumbered by a dense apparatus of historiography permitted greater intellectual creativity and freedom. And in the process, she joked, she devised her own keyword—Republican Motherhood—a short phrase for a much more complicated concept that continues to evoke depths of meaning for generations of scholars and their students.
Writing Women of the Republic prompted Kerber to delve into eighteenth-century legal structures, especially coverture, that confined women well into the nineteenth century and beyond. Probate law in the Early Republic yielded a particular quirky practice Kerber underscored: when a husband left behind debt upon his death, jewels were the last possessions that could be seized from the widow. Diamonds, indeed, were a widow’s best friend.
As a grand finale for the lecture Kerber treated her audience to a clip of Carol Channing singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It appeared to be footage from a private party, recorded later in Channing’s career, rather than a carefully staged (and hyper-edited) “perfect” performance. As a result, Channing did not appear quite as polished as earlier in her career—just as Kerber noted that over time it has become increasingly apparent to her and other scholars that Women of the Republic has some flaws (for instance, ignoring enslaved women). Yet Channing’s performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” was still magnificent, a classic emanating from a full-bodied voice that gracefully acknowledged the passage of time, embracing the impact she continued to have on the friends and colleagues who surrounded her and benefitted from her contributions to their craft.
The parallel to Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic was hard to miss. Thirty-five years later, we continue to welcome Republican Motherhood into our research and into our classrooms. We celebrate it, and sometimes critique or test it, but always appreciate it as a landmark that reframed our narrative of the American Revolution, a narrative that we pass down to the next generation.
And that brings me to the second way I recently experienced Women of the Republic for the “first time”—through the eyes of my students, an experience that is possible every semester and that I will make a point of savoring even more in the future. Several of my students attended Kerber’s lecture. Two of them offer their reflections below.
Samantha Davis is a senior Honors student majoring in History and minoring in Education, Foundations of Western Civilization, and Spanish. She is currently applying to graduate programs in Public History in hopes of pursuing a career as a museum educator.
Linda Kerber’s “Looking Back on Women of the Republic” was enlightening, to say the least. I was already aware that the inequality of women in early America was largely overlooked or ignored by the scholarly community until the 1970s or so when Kerber and other historians began to research women’s experiences. Since then, women’s history has become more widely studied and viewed as an important part of our past. Based on my prior knowledge of women’s history from my Revolutionary America class to that point in the semester, I expected to hear about women who fought in the Revolution or otherwise broke out of their gender-specific roles to contribute to the patriotic cause and then promptly returned exclusively to their roles as mothers and wives when the war ended. That did not turn out to be the whole story. Kerber’s lecture prompted me to reflect on the extent of the inequalities that women lived under during the post-Revolutionary era in a way that seemingly can only come from the author herself.
When she first mentioned that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” I was a bit confused as to how that would play into the rest of her lecture. Though she did not come back to it directly until much later, Kerber focused her lecture around the theme presented by the origins of this very well known phrase. In the Early Republic, jewels were the last thing probate could touch if a husband died with debt. Diamonds and other gifts of jewelry became more popular as engagement gifts; when engagements were broken, women got to keep the jewelry as a consolation gift of sorts. Thus diamonds became a girl’s best friend. As Kerber explained, these jewels represented the oppression of women; they were not allowed to participate in the legal system and they were subject to many restrictions. I had not previously considered that an engagement ring could have such a negative connotation and represent the legal oppression of women because they often have such a romanticized role in modern America.
Kerber went on to explain that by reading through court records she realized that many women were not sufficiently educated to sign their own names, something that resonated with me as a woman fortunate enough to be in college. Court documents recorded divorces, suits, and petitions, among other cases, that provide a window into women’s lives and rights in the Early Republic under the traditional system of coverture. Looking back, Kerber realized that she had gathered a lot of material about a legal system that bound women to patriarchy. She uncovered many inequalities inherent in the system, then compared the past and the present. Her reflections on the persistence of gender inequalities present in the Early Republic prompted me to consider the legacies of the Revolution in an entirely different light than I had previously. Though my peers and I discuss women’s history in class, it was entirely different to listen to the author revisit such a monumental work.
I constantly justify my major in History by explaining its relevance to the present day, but I had failed to consider the lasting effects of the legal oppression of women. Exposure to Kerber’s arguments both in class and through her lecture furthered my reflections on the limitations of the fight for men’s freedom and liberty. Her book on the women of the Early Republic continues to be relevant since many of the inequalities she encountered in the legal documents of the era still exist, not completely erased by feminist movements in the second half of the twentieth century. Though her book focuses on the past, its discussion of the system of coverture is still relevant today because remnants of coverture remained through discriminatory policies based on gender as well as unequal expectations of men and women’s roles in the family and society at large. The laws of the Early Republic securely placed woman in the home, giving control of her wealth, her property, and her person to her husband. The remnants of this male- dominated society are still present in laws such as those concerning custody, citizenship, and abortion.
Through her work, Kerber has demonstrated the importance of women’s history and its relevance to the present. Her lecture inspired me to choose her article, “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective,” for a review and presentation assignment in Revolutionary America class the following week, initiating a discussion of her arguments with my peers who could not attend the lecture.
Andrew Lampi is a senior majoring in Psychology with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. He is currently applying to doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology.
After Linda Kerber’s lecture at the American Antiquarian Society, I was struck by how interdisciplinary her work seems to be regarding judicial advisement that is based on historical foundations. Although I am not a history major myself, I am minoring in an interdisciplinary field: peace and conflict studies. Despite my interests and experiences where I have begun to understand how different fields can connect and interact with each other, I have always considered history to be a field with a limited scope of applications. Certainly there are a number of occupations you can have in the field, ranging from teaching to curating, but I thought history was only for those who actively wished to learn from it. In other words, I thought that history was a rather self-serving discipline, people learned about it for the sake of learning about it. While you could certainly learn from history, that learning was generally confined and applied to the history classroom or exhibit.
What I had never considered is the connection between law and history that Kerber explained so well in her lecture. She described the ways in which she and others had used historical cases as the basis for court arguments. For example, I had never really considered how a well worded argument based on historical examination in a particular field, such as women’s rights, could have such an important place both in the courtroom as well as in the halls of Congress. Kerber enlightened me to the fact that history is not only the basis for our education, our education is put into practice as a society through modifying our status quo to reflect the principles that history has taught us. When she explained how she was asked to create a historical argument for a case in either Oklahoma or Kansas on abortion reform, I was shocked to realize that I had never thought of tracing the argument so far back. Thinking about this now, however, it makes perfect and complete sense.
Kerber is best known for the work she has done on revealing the life, roles, and status of women in the Revolutionary era. From her work in the courts, we can see how her opinions were formed based on her interpretation of all aspects of women’s lives. She presents individual cases intermingled with how women were viewed in that culture, combined with legislature that determined the rights of women. All of these components combine to create the women’s experience of the time. In order to do to this, Kerber had to look at the psychology of the notable women whom she had access to. She had to look at the sociological structure of the society that allowed women to be treated this way. And she had to take an anthropological perspective in order to understand how this culture viewed itself and justified its actions. All of this, and she took these perspectives and used them to enact social reform in today’s modern world.
Through Kerber’s example, we can see how interdisciplinary understanding our past truly can be. To be a historian is to wear different hats at different times. Each role allows you to understand a different component of the past, which is pasted on to the collective idea of how the world used to be. We also see how myriad the applications of history are today. I never would have thought that history could so directly inform our lives today, but being able to understand the past so comprehensively allows historians to view the present from a different perspective. And as a student of interdisciplinary studies, I can appreciate history even more greatly than I had before, now that I know how much of an interdisciplinary field this truly is.