112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

How Women's Work as Home Educators Shifted the Private/Public Divide

Rachel Buck, University of Arizona

Women have long been seen as educators in the home. In this presentation, I explore the idea of "republican motherhood" and how women used this as a rhetorical strategy to negotiate the tension between the private and public sphere.  I look at the literate practices of Tucson Woman's Club, an organization founded in 1900, as a specific example of women understanding their own collective agency to engage in civic action.


In 1918, Mrs. J.D. Mathews delivered a speech before the Tucson Woman’s Club in defense of woman suffrage.   She asks her audience to consider that if a mother is competent enough to care for her children’s health and education, then why can’t she grasp “governmental questions as well”? In her speech, Mrs. Mathews demonstrates many of the issues surrounding the roles and responsibilities women had in the private domestic sphere.  In addition to the many “house duties” that women had, they were also teachers in their own their own homes.  Mathews points out that women had the mental capacity to educate their children, and they were certainly capable of participating in matters outside of the home, and that, indeed, it was necessary for women to be involved in politics because so many “outside” influences affect what happens in the home.

Many women in the nineteenth century, including Lydia Sigourney and Catharine Sedgwick, published work extolling the virtues and power that mothers had as teachers in the home.  This idea, later termed “republican motherhood” by scholars, empowered women as educators through their indirect influence in the public sphere by educating future citizens.  The way women have understood their roles as mothers and women has influenced how they participate in public organizations, including women’s clubs. Using republican motherhood as a rhetorical strategy has allowed women to speak in public settings and engage in civic activities.

In my presentation, I will first trace how scholars have used the term “republican motherhood” to describe the empowering role women felt they had. I will look specifically at works by Sarah Robbins (2004), who examines the literacy narratives of the day to explore the ways that women in the nineteenth-century taught children reading and writing, which she calls “domesticated literacy.” Linda Kerber (1980) and Margaret Nash (1997) use the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia and its founder, Benjamin Rush to understand the model republican woman and her place in society. Mary Kelley (2004) expands the definition and understanding of “republican motherhood” into “gendered republicanism” to understand woman’s influence that reached beyond members of their own homes. 

In order to explore republican motherhood and the home, I will use a local case study as an example from the early twentieth-century.  The Arizona Historical Society Archives has valuable information about The Tucson Woman’s Club, an organization founded in 1900. The material is important in showing how members of the club understood their collective agency and their everyday activities. Members met monthly to discuss Art, Current Events, History, and Literature, but were also very involved in civic and philanthropic activities within the community. As the organization grew, they also expanded their topic sections to include Household Economics and Civics.  This organization is important in learning how women of the time understood their roles in the home, but also how they organized as a community to discuss and expand those roles.

By drawing upon Jacqueline Jones Royster’s definition of literacy, I will look at the various ways that these women demonstrated “the ability to gain access to information and to use this information variously to articulate lives and experiences and also to identify, think through, refine, and solve problems, sometimes complex problems, over time.” The Tucson Woman’s Club used literate practices that challenged the dominant view of women.  By studying the individual literate practices of republican mothers in the early republic and collective rhetorical practices of women’s organizations before and after women’s suffrage, we can better understand the relationship between the private and public spheres and the individual’s relationship in a community.