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Blackwell, Marilyn Schultz, fl. 2007. "Review of Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic". In Collected Book and Web Reviews (Alexander Street Press, Alexandria, VA, 2005) pp. [N pag] [View document in context of full source text] [Bibliographic details]


Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic

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Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic

By Mary Kelley. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 294 pp. Cloth, $39.95, ISBN 0-8078-3064-X).

Reviewed by Marilyn Schultz Blackwell

In her impressive new book on the early American republic, Mary Kelley documents the link between women's intellectual development and their politics. Ever since Linda Kerber, Nancy Cott, Ruth Bloch, and others highlighted the rising status of middle-class women in post-Revolutionary America, historians have generally assumed that access to education undergirded the emergence of women into civil society. Now comes Kelley to prove this connection by marshaling voluminous evidence to show the way reading and thinking led to new forms of authority and political behavior on the part of these privileged women. Lifting her title from activist Lucy Stone, who believed she had "learned to stand and speak" during debates at Oberlin College, Kelley details how women established their intellectual equality with men and put their learning to use. (132) The quest for knowledge and new opportunities to explore and debate it-with family mentors, fellow students, members of literary or mutual improvement associations-provided educated women with a platform catapulting them into literary careers, teaching, and public activism.

A specialist in women's nineteenth-century literature, Kelley established her stature two decades ago with Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth Century America, a volume documenting the knotty relationship between the first generation of popular women writers and American culture. In turning her attention from writers to readers, Kelley claims that advanced education led reading women to recreate themselves as "makers of public opinion" through their subsequent writings and participation in local voluntary societies. She grounds this research in Jurgen Habermas's concept of an outwardly oriented "subjectivity" and feminist definitions of women's political behavior. Learned women, she asserts, began "to envision themselves as historical actors who had claim to rights and obligations of citizenship." (17) Kelley's study makes a significant contribution to the history of American women by showing how education spawned women's engagement with "civil society."

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To uncover a process that took place largely within women's consciousness is no easy task, but Kelley provides ample evidence of women's intellectual development and how they shaped new identities as citizens of the republic. She relies heavily upon private diaries and letters, in which women detail both their reading habits and educational experiences as well as their responses to literature. Just as their engagement with books created a new sense of self and taught them "how to live," so too their experiences at a growing number of female secondary schools prepared them for social leadership and literary careers. (166) Through her examination of the records of female seminaries and other local curricula, Kelley discovers that by the 1820s, women's rigorous educational programs were equal to those offered at male colleges. Having validated women's intellectual equality, leaders of these schools also assured that women's pursuit of knowledge would be channeled into social obligations rather than individual goals.

Beyond formal schooling, Kelley examines women's educational organizations. Deftly employing documents from women's voluntary societies, she reinterprets the significance of women reading together. Literary societies were not only places for middle-class women to socialize but also sites of preparation for future roles as missionaries and reformers. Through collective reading, sharing of ideas, and rhetorical exercises, these women extended the scope of their influence beyond their private imaginings and transformed their organizations into engines of female nation building.

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Elite and learned women-white and black, in the north and south-created what Kelley calls "gendered republicanism." Budding in the late eighteenth century to become full blown by the antebellum years, this form of female citizenship was rooted in the assumption that women's education would serve the nation, their aspirations for self-development contained within a system of deference to male authority. While some confined their activities to home and family, modeling virtue for their husbands and teaching it to their children, others carved out a more expansive role for themselves in public life. Despite limited access to education and exclusion from most female seminaries, a few African-American women, like Sarah Mapps Douglass and Charlotte Forten, also experienced this transformation in their sense of purpose, admittedly with racial identity and a commitment to racial uplift at the forefront.

Defining a special female sensibility that combined reason and learning with womanly sympathy and affection, these women claimed the authority to define American womanhood. No two cultural arbiters were more prominent in this endeavor than writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale and educator Catherine Beecher. Key participants in a flourishing female intellectual culture, they laid out a program for all women while cloaking their claim to female authority in the form of national obligation. Beecher led thousands of women into the nation's classrooms, where they influenced their students and expanded their economic opportunities. Even as she rejected the radicalism of women's rights, Hale proclaimed that "the development of the human mind and the direction of public opinion are both committed to women."(189) With the publication of Woman's Record, Hale joined other women who wrote history and produced more than 150 historical narratives between the Revolution and Civil War. As they recovered the achievements of their forerunners, these writers demonstrated women's intellectual capabilities while also contributing to shaping the national consciousness. Their narratives and poetry championed a commonly accepted view of the American republic, in which Protestant values and just laws had elevated women above those of any other nation. This formula taught American women what they could do with their learning. As moral uplifters of both inferior races and those who had gone astray, benevolent women supposedly held a mandate to "civilize the world." (277)

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While acknowledging that this empire-building project helped to create racial and class divisions, Kelley proclaims the benefits of women's self-development, which left an enduring legacy on the nation. Of course, not all activists attended female seminaries or had access to libraries and reading clubs. Kelley may impute a bit too much weight to book learning over practical experience, which spawned social activism as well. Moreover, proclaiming that women shaped public opinion is one thing, but showing that they actually changed minds, particularly the minds of men, is another. To what extent did this literature resonate with men and organized politics? Kelley pays little attention to male readers nor does she include examples of women who edited and wrote for political newspapers and regularly parceled out advice, even partisan advice, to men. Nonetheless, with an impressive use of sources and detailed analysis of women's consciousness, this volume will become essential reading for students seeking the missing link between women's learning and the emergence of women who helped to shape the character of the nation.

An independent scholar, Marilyn Schultz Blackwell, Ph.D., is the author of numerous articles on U.S. women's history, including: "Meddling in Politics: Clarina Howard Nichols and Antebellum Political Culture," ,Journal of the Early Republic 24 (Spring 2004):28-63. She is currently working on a biographical study of Nichols.


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