Guest Post: Professional Motherhood: A New Interpretation of Women in the Early Republic

Directory Title Page 1828Today’s guest post comes from C.C. Borzilleri, who is a 2019 graduate of Georgetown University with a BA in History and Government. A lifelong resident of Litchfield, CT, she wrote her senior thesis on the history of women educated in her hometown. She is now working at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, a privately funded presidential library with offices in Vermont and Washington, DC.<

With this year marking the 40th anniversary of Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic, popularizing Republican Motherhood as an understanding of women in the Early Republic, I propose a supplementary theory to understand women in this time. Kerber’s Republican Motherhood articulated the accepted role of women: the “steady infusion of virtue into the Republic” by raising children to be responsible citizens.[1] This mindset justified the education of women because they were responsible for the early inspiration of their children to care for the new nation. Kerber emphasized the division of public and private space, with the corresponding distinction of the public for men and the private for women. But her theory does not paint the full picture of activities women carried out.

Studying the outcomes of women educated at the Litchfield Female Academy (LFA) from 1792-1833 to write my senior thesis at Georgetown, I found dozens of women who pursued a fine balance of working outside the home without fully disrupting the separation of public and private space. They served as presidents, treasurers, and board members of voluntary organizations with varied missions: to care for orphans, instill morality among their communities, and to beautify their towns for the benefit of all.

These women acted according to nineteenth-century gendered expectations, but rather than limiting themselves to their homes, they chose to educate the children of the whole community, to teach young women for miles how to raise their families properly, and to care for the sick and the needy throughout their towns. By operating as mothers at the community level, women did not even need to have their own children in order to carry out the tasks that their own mothers had trained them for. These women had been highly educated as girls, and at Litchfield they were instilled with the protestant evangelism of the Reverend Lyman Beecher to yearn for pious, moral reform in their communities. With the skills and the motivation, these women broke free of their boundaries without upending the whole structure of society.

A prime case study of this phenomenon is Fanny Smith Skinner, who attended the LFA in 1796 and later moved to Utica, New York with her husband Thomas. Utica published an annual town directory, listing the names, professions, and residences of all members of the community throughout. These records provide an ideal tool for studying individuals’ involvement in their town and their connections to each other.[2]

Fanny Skinner appears in the directories as a leader of prominent Utica organizations that sought to exert maternal influence through the community. The Infant School of Utica, with Skinner as its Second Directress from its 1828 founding, strove to provide childcare for working parents—which both allowed the parents to earn income as well as exposed these children to the strong morals of their Protestant caregivers. At the Female Moral Reform Society, where Skinner was the President throughout the 1830s, women sought to educate their community on proper behavior—both towards women and by women.

Most radically, Fanny Skinner was also the President of the Utica Female Anti-Slavery Society throughout the latter half of the 1830s—a position in which she sought to convince her whole community of the evils of slavery. In 1838 she invited abolitionist Angelina Grimké-Weld to Utica to speak to her society of anti-slavery women, writing to Grimké-Weld that, “I am sure were you fully aware how greatly they need such an effort you would not hesitate. There are a few of us here who I trust, do feel in some degree the claims of this holy cause, but in general, our Sisters who count themselves abolitionists are most deplorably stupid.”[3] Her strong will was evident, and her words were designed with a mission in mind. At the LFA, Fanny had learned to write masterful letters, a skill that came to be quite useful in her later life.

Map of Utica, 1828Skinner bolstered her network in Utica by running a boarding house. She did not have any of her own children, but that did not stop her from imparting her wisdom upon those who looked up to her. She housed a group of prominent men who became close allies of hers throughout their residencies. The support of both time and money which her boarders gave to causes that Fanny championed speaks to the impact and influence which she held over the people she encountered.

Going through the list of Skinner’s boarders leaves an onlooker wondering who in town wasn’t connected to her: Charles Mann was a trustee of the Utica Academy, served terms as a City Officer and Alderman, and was one of the founders of the Utica Female Academy. William Tracy and Charles Coventry also served as trustees and board members at the Utica Female Academy. William Bailey ran the Utica Lyceum, an organization that encouraged the study and spread of knowledge about natural history and sciences, and Bailey’s name became synonymous with the Lyceum’s mission to educate the public. Samuel Dakin boarded throughout the 1820s, during which time he purchased the local publication The Gazette. The list goes on, and the accomplishments continue.

The connection of Fanny Skinner’s boarders to the Utica Female Academy was especially noteworthy. Living with a woman like Skinner could have encouraged her boarders to take a strong stance on either side of the issue of advancing female education. Either fully supporting their hostess’s background and mission, or else feeling that they preferred a stronger connection to traditional norms with women staying securely in their own private sphere. Their tendency towards supporting the academy speaks to Skinner’s character. She even managed to be listed almost universally as Mrs. Fanny Skinner rather than Mrs. Thomas Skinner, thus saving her from the obscurity that many of her peers faced whose records have been buried with essential anonymity.

Skinner worked within the confines of society—doing domestic tasks such as caring for others and devoting time to education of youth—but her involvement at the highest level of leadership in so many organizations that carried out domestic work at a community level, marked Fanny as a professional mother rather than a republican one.

Women who professionalized motherhood throughout their lives did not aim to fight for equality to men, but they did seek a role beyond what society readily offered them. They pursued public-facing service in a way that didn’t directly challenge norms of their times, and they drew upon the skills which society found acceptable for them to possess to carve out a space in which they could best serve those in need.

[1] Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (UNC Press, 1980), 10.

[2] Utica City Directories were accessed through the Sabin Americana database from Gale Cengage Learning. Unless otherwise noted, information in this post comes from Utica Directories dated 1828-1840, available online in their entirety.

[3] “Letter to Angelina Grimke Weld from Fanny Smith Skinner, June 15, 1838,” in Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké, 1822-1844, (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1934), 678.

5 responses

  1. While the author presents interesting research, the interpretation is hardly “new.” Nancy Cott and Lori Ginzberg both made similar arguments more than thirty years ago.

    • Typical Ivory Tower response that leaps to stifling young scholar’s research rather than encouraging new avenues of study. Not everyone is going to be aware of every interpretation published in the past fifty years.

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  3. Pingback: Guest Post: Professional Motherhood: A New Interpretation of Women in the Early Republic ~ Mass History Commons


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