Some of the characters of Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette written in 1797 are prime examples of Republican Motherhood. Republican Motherhood according to Rosemarie Zagarri are the “natural rights, ideas defined women’s relationship to the political community and forced Americans to specify precisely what that relationship should be.”
Before jumping into The Coquette, one must know the meaning behind the word and the inspiration for this book. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word coquette can be defined as “a woman who endeavors without sincere affection to gain the attention and admiration of men.” Written in letter form, The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster is based on the true story of Elizabeth Whitman. Elizabeth Whitman came from a respectable family, as the daughter of a Connecticut minister, she was well-educated, and admired by most people in her social class. Has a young woman, Elizabeth had many suitors, at one point, Whitman was engaged to be married, however, by taking part in a secret affair, she was left pregnant and alone. Elizabeth Whitman wrote her life in letters to her friends never stating the identity of her lover. In 1788, under the false name of “Mrs. Walker,” she passed away after giving birth to a stillborn. It was after her story was published in the local papers with a list of her belongings that her identity was revealed. The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton was a cautionary tale to young women in the eighteenth century explaining the dangers about going against society and doing what you feel is right for you.
In Hannah Webster Foster’s novel, the name of the main character that the book is based off is changed to Eliza Wharton. Eliza Wharton is young lady who has returned to the world with redoubled lustre (Foster 12) after the death of her fiancé. Going against the words of her peers, Eliza secretly starts a relationship between two men: Reverend J. Boyer, an educated man who came from a “worthy family” (4), and Major Peter Sanford, “a man of vicious character” (23) who is not could for the society. One of Eliza’s friends who clearly states her views and beliefs toward Eliza’s behavior is Lucy Freeman (Sumner). Lucy is not only a friend to Eliza but also a confidant. Halfway through the novel, Lucy marries Mr. George Sumner, a loving man from the same social class as she. As a woman living in the American Republic, Lucy’s obligation is to her husband. Wanting to remain faithful and loyal to her husband was what Lucy wanted other women to do. “I have pride enough to keep me above coquetry” (23).
Before the American Revolution, women were considered inferior to that of men, their status as women in society lacked any legal rights. Under the laws, they did not have any freedom and were dependent. They did not have a voice in economic, political, or civic matters their society during the eighteenth century. After the American Revolution, and the publication of Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft, women started to gain more than just respect for themselves they also gained dignity that had been denied to them. women obtained more rights, more freedoms than they previously had, however, those rights and freedoms were few. Women embraced their new opportunities by practicing their abilities to participate and better their country. During the war, the roles of women were significant. After the war, the general everyday lives of women centered around cultivation and family. They were needed in the home raising children. The roles in the eighteenth century after the war became fixed once more. Both genders were supposed to act, talk, and look a specific way. They were supposed to think a certain way and make choices a certain way. With making certain choices came limitations to both parties, women suffered a lot more. They were shunned and disregarded if they did not follow their societies morals. Women had to walk a fine line when it came down to their looks and manners. Their future was to be a wife and a mother.
In an essay written in 1802 titled, “Plan for the Emancipation of the Female Sex,” the unnamed author clearly acknowledges the laws and regulations placed on women by emphasizing the connections between education and equality. This essay would go against Lucy Sumner’s views and beliefs because the author stated that, women “would willingly relinquish that authority which they have son long enjoyed by courtesy, in order to appear formally on the theatre of the world merely as the equals of man.” The key word in this quote is “willingly.” The unknown author is stating that women during the late 1700s to the early 1800s had a choice in what roles they played in their society. That choice was not only given to men, all they had to do was ask.
McMahon, the author of Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic included this essay in her book to compare the “separate spheres” and the notion of “republican motherhood.” While reading about the American Revolution, one has to be aware that it was the main event that brought about political changes and the support for women’s education. McMahon examines the experiences and responds to the traditional white women. McMahon went on to state that the “interplay between public representation, personal experience, and societal response framed women’s acquisition of education as an individual as well as a social enterprise” (19). It is here that McMahon argues on both sides. At first, she agrees with the unknown author, and says that they do have a choice, but then, she disagrees with the author because of the people around them that ultimately make the choice for them.
Republican Motherhood describes the roles that society placed on women in the new American Republic during, and after the American Revolution. This book is not the first of its kind, however, it is the way in which Foster depicts the differences between how society views women, privileged men, and limited freedoms. The Coquette has been used to draw a clear line between both genders and it has contributed to the shaping of gender roles in the 21st century. Even though, Lucy Sumner thinks that women should not get involved in economic and political issues, she still thinks that women should be educated so they can educate their children and guide them toward the paths of morality and virtue.


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