Carolyn Eastman: Historians need to correct the assumption that women did little public speaking in 19th century

Historians in the News

Historians need to correct the assumption that women played little part in public debates during the early years of the American republic because society forbade them to do so, writes Carolyn Eastman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

The historical record shows, she says, that in the late 18th century, most young white women in the northeastern United States engaged in public speaking, and she suggests that historians overlook that phenomenon because they hold to modern conceptions of what constituted "public." While historians today think only of speeches made from podiums, bars, or pulpits, early Americans had a different perspective, she says: "What people in the 18th century most often meant by 'public' was sociable as opposed to solitary (which was 'private')."

At that time, "girls spoke regularly at school 'exhibitions' from Maryland to Maine at least twice a year, no matter how rudimentary the school's curriculum," she notes. Speeches by young women were commonly published in books, magazines, and newspapers of the era. And, she adds, many public discussions took place in "female-governed spaces" like parlors "that fostered practices of sociability not readily classifiable as either strictly public or private."

That all has implications for historical views of early America, Ms. Eastman argues. The evidence "suggests that republican motherhood was by no means the only model for women seeking to define their roles in the post-revolutionary era," she writes. Rather, education also "taught girls that educated and well-spoken women had an important role to play in American culture," she notes....
Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education summary of article in Gender & History

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