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Republican Motherhood
Digital History ID 243

Author:   Susan Mansfield Huntington


A new division of household labor emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which provided the basis for a novel conception of women's roles. While increasing numbers of middle-class men viewed themselves their family's breadwinner and provider, a growing number of women considered themselves responsible for nurturing their children's character and making their home a sanctuary from the corruptions of the outside world.

Precisely because women were barred from participating in the "masculine sphere" of business and politics, they could see themselves as untainted by the materialism and the self-seeking of public life. According to the ideal of "republican motherhood" that flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women were models of piety and virtue who were responsible for shaping society's moral and intellectual character.

During the early nineteenth century, this conception of women as purer and more moral than men sanctioned unprecedented efforts by women to reform the public sphere. Women provided much of the grassroots support for campaigns to establish public schools and asylums for the mentally ill, to abolish slavery, and to suppress such forms of male vice as heavy drinking, gambling, and prostitution. One of the earliest forms of women's activism was the founding of Maternal Associations, which disseminated new ideas about childrearing and provided childcare for impoverished working mothers. In the following selection, Susan Mansfield Hungtington (1791-1823), one of the founders of the Boston Maternal Asoociation, underscores the growing self-consciousness with which mothers approached child nurture.


April 4 [1815] It appears to me that three simple rules...would make children's tempers much more amiable than we generally see them. First. Never to give them any thing improper for them, because they strongly and passionately desire it: and even to withhold proper things, until they manifest a right spirit. Second. Always to gratify every reasonable desire, when a child is pleasant in its request; that your children may see that you love to make them happy. Third. Never to become impatient and fretful yourself, but proportion your displeasure exactly to the offence. If parents become angry, and speak loud and harsh, upon every slight failure of duty, they may bid a final adieu to domestic subordination, unless the grace of God interposes to snatch the little victims of severity from destruction. I feel confident...that although more children are injured by excessive indulgence than by the opposite fault, yet the effects of extreme rigor are the most hopeless. And the reason is, associations of a disagreeable nature...are the strongest....

For my own part, I find myself falling so far short, that I am, sometimes, overwhelmed with the distressing apprehension of erroring fatally. Dear children! I tremble for you, when I reflect how dangerous is the path in which you are to treat, and how difficult the task of directing you in safety.

From Benjamin B. Wisner, ed, Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Susan Mansfield Huntington (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1826), 127-129.

Source: Benjamin B. Wisner, ed., Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Susan Mansfield Huntington (Boston, 1826), 127-29.

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