Politics in the early days of our republic was much as it is today. It was often dirty and dishonest; it was a place for ambitious self-promotion. But whereas today some of our most electric politicians are women — Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi — our infant nation’s rigid gender roles held little tolerance for women who might wish to sully themselves in the public arena. For women — the intelligent and ambitious especially — their sphere of political influence was understood to reside within the home.
Still, women helped sustain the new republic through their roles as wives and mothers, securing a new social order in which liberty and the public good were the objectives, by ensuring that their husbands adhered to and their children were raised with republican principles. Historian Linda Kerber, in her famous 1976 essay in The American Quarterly, described this female civic participation as “Republican Motherhood”:
The Republican Mother’s life was dedicated to the service of civic virtue; she educated her sons for it; she condemned and corrected her husband’s lapses from it. . . . The theorists [of the early republic] created a mother who had a political purpose and argued that her domestic behavior had a direct political function in the republic.
Traditional republican motherhood — in which women served on the sidelines as political and moral compasses for men — is clearly obsolete. Today, instead, we see a new kind of republican motherhood emerging. And in the year of the big-R Republican woman, Michele Bachmann just might be its matriarch.
The goals of modern republican mothers are broadly similar to those of the original ones: to foster a relationship between citizen and state in which the citizen is sovereign over government. But whereas the republican mother of our Founding era participated in politics only indirectly, the new republican mother plays a decidedly active role in our public life. Gender has been not overcome, but integrated.
Bachmann joined Congress only in 2007, but she quickly gained national recognition first as a firebrand and then as a darling of the Tea Party movement. Her decision to strike a path outside the party apparatus — giving her own response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, for instance — has prompted criticism. But she managed to leverage her standing with the Tea Party into an official leadership position by establishing the Tea Party Caucus in the House. And an unsuccessful run for chair of the House Republican Conference helped sharpen her name recognition and made clear her national aspirations.
Compared to other GOP candidates such as Governors Romney and Pawlenty, Bachmann does not have a substantial political résumé. And yet her experience, bolstered by her educational accomplishments, defines her departure from her 18th-century female forebears. Bachmann holds a J.D. from Oral Roberts University and an LL.M. in tax law from William & Mary School of Law, and she practiced law for five years for the IRS before choosing to be a full-time mother.
The republican motherhood of our Founding era was significant only in part because it gave women — to borrow a phrase from the Left — agency, or an opportunity to influence civic life. What was unique about republican motherhood — and fundamentally more important — was the set of ideals women helped advance. And this is where Bachmann can differentiate herself from her opponents — many of whom are unsteady at best on the principles of constitutionally limited government — and fashion herself the new republican mother.
At the time of the Founding, Republican motherhood was not simply an act of domesticity; it would not have been Republican motherhood without the principles it represented. When most citizens still expected the American experiment to fail, the ideals of republicanism — manifested in the Constitution — were the measure of the country’s success. And it was the mother who kept her husband and her sons focused on liberty and civic virtue.
On Monday, when Bachmann pledged her allegiance to “the Founding Fathers’ vision of a limited government that trusts in and perceives the unlimited potential of you, the American people,” she was clearly not seeking to steer the conscience only of her husband and her sons. Instead, she was attempting to focus the American public on those values and ideas central to our nation’s success.
What’s more, Bachmann — who has five children of her own, sheltered 23 foster children, and started a charter school — remains a viscerally maternal figure. But she has also, and without awkwardness, embarrassment, or gender anxiety, embraced the traditional role of the republican father.
Bachmann still needs to grapple with a number of potential liabilities, from startling statements — most recently, confusing the towns in Iowa where John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy had lived — to a social conservatism that worries voters of a libertarian stripe.
But it is clear that the traditionalism infused with classical liberalism that is peculiar to America has transcended in deep and important ways our modern gender wars. We are sure to see much more of the new republican mother in the years to come.
— Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.