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

reviewed by Christine Woyshner - December 05, 2008

coverTitle: Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic
Author(s): Mary Kelley
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
ISBN: 0807859214, Pages: 312, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

Mary Kelley breaks important new ground in her book, Learning to Stand and Speak, a history of women’s education in post-Revolutionary and antebellum America. She links together ideas from three areas: the history of women’s education, women’s clubs and associations, and public life. Kelley argues that increasing efforts at the formal education of women during this time helped them challenge assumed gender expectations because women began to apply their lessons to the public sphere, or civil society. While she does attempt to include a diverse array of women, any historian cannot help but recognize the limitations of that era; Kelley’s focus is on white women of the middling and upper classes who attended seminaries, academies, and other institutions in the nation’s early years. However, this is not to be taken as a drawback to her study. Kelley weaves a rich narrative that draws on school curriculum documents, letters, published works, and other sources, to show how “an advanced education opened the door to economic self-support” for white middle-class women, who became writers, editors, and teachers (p. 5).

One of the most significant contributions this book makes is in linking women’s education to their emerging political voices. For good reason, Kelley refuses to employ the well-worn trope of separate spheres to illuminate her protagonists’ public activities. Invoking social theory and drawing on Habermas and a host of political scientists, she instead applies the notion of civil society in order to delineate the space within which educated women wrote, taught, and flexed their civic muscles. Taking a cue from Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who used the term, she writes, “Women boldly entered civil society beginning in the 1790s and in increasingly large numbers in later decades” (p. 7).  Nonetheless, it would have been helpful for the reader to have a working definition of civil society. For Kelley, it appears to be anything that is not private, but political scientists typically offer a more nuanced definition, such as “the networks of groups and organizations within which people relate to one another and engage in community and political affairs” (Woyshner, 2009, p. 3). Moreover, civil society is not a neutral term, so I would have appreciated Kelley’s troubling it a bit more (Edwards & Foley, 2001, p. 2). Nonetheless, it is refreshing to have a different way of viewing women’s public activity that does not rely on the sphere metaphor.

Learning to Stand and Speak falls into two parts. In the first three chapters Kelley establishes the growing interest in women’s education through the establishment of academies, institutes, and seminaries devoted to women’s education. The second half of the book focuses on women’s public lives.  Throughout, the reader will recognize well-known schools for women, such as Hartford Female Seminary, Mount Holyoke Seminary, and Litchfield Female Academy, and be introduced to the lesser-known, such as the Lafayette [Kentucky] Female Academy. Likewise, the works of familiar women—such as Catharine Beecher, Sarah Josepha Hale, Mary Lyon, and Margaret Fuller—are analyzed, bringing their ideas into the framework of women’s education as a precondition for women’s civic engagement.

In the first part of the book, Kelley discusses women’s education in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. White women of the middling classes in increasing numbers were formally educated throughout the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. This formal education gave women—and men—social and cultural capital and solidified their standing in society. Also, for women, attending school helped prepare them for their maternal and political obligations, to raise the sons of liberty. Kelley takes this further, arguing that women used their education to wield influence in the public arena and, as was accepted and even expected, to bring their virtuous influence to bear on men’s political activities (p. 29). As Kelley argues, women were expected to be a moral influence on their husbands’ and sons’ political choices (p. 44).  

The curriculum at women’s schools has been a rich area of scholarship in recent years, led by historians Nancy Beadie, Kim Tolley, and Margaret A. Nash. We are just now learning about the rigorous curricula at women’s schools, in which women and men studied the same subjects, such as Latin, Greek, the sciences, and mathematics. Often, this took place alongside the ornamental curriculum for women, which included drawing, music, and needlework (pp. 69-72). Nonetheless, I wish Kelley had given a clearer overview of the types of schools available to women and men during the time period under study. It would have been helpful, in the Introduction, to know more about the types of schools, the regions they were established in, and the students they served. Kelley does, however, discuss the growth, spread, and types of schools in the second and third chapters. Also, although she mentions Linda Eisenmann’s important observation, that higher education “was a flexible nineteenth century concept” (Eisenmann, p. 697), throughout the book Kelley ends up creating a false distinction between types of schools by referring to academies and seminaries as female institutions and colleges as institutions that educate men. As Margaret A. Nash explains in The Education of American Women, “Defining exactly what was meant by the terms institute, academy, seminary, and college is a difficult, perhaps impossible task” (pp. 5-6). During the period under study, women and men attended single-sex and, less frequently, co-educational, seminaries, colleges, institutes, and academies.

In the second half of the book, Kelley turns to women’s writing and public lives and forges a link between formal education and the associational life of women (p. 29). She places literacy practices at the center of the work of voluntary associations. Some were explicitly dedicated to reading, writing, and discussing, such as literary societies and reading circles; others, such as benevolent and mutual improvement associations, also valued the written word, as these groups created their own newsletters and maintained libraries for members. Kelley pushes this line of thinking, arguing that women’s organizations placed literacy practices over the work of benevolence (p. 124). By valuing literacy practices, women in organizations “continued to enact the powerful alliance around reading, writing, and making public opinion” (p. 117). In extending their public voices, women’s organizations, however, did not universally take up suffrage for women. Instead, they discussed the issues of the day, such as slavery, the education of women, and the forced migration of American Indians (pp. 128-130).

Concluding her defense of the argument that “women who were makers of public opinion testified to the role that their schooling had played in the evolution of a distinctive subjectivity,” Kelley discusses women’s writings and the writing of the history of women by women (p. 111). Women’s writings entered the literary marketplace in increasing numbers in the first two decades of the nineteenth century in the form of books (history, biography, and belles-lettres), poetry, and tracts (p. 155). These writings by women for women were powerful statements in the public realm, and Kelley shows how the writings of women who did not challenge the gender status quo were more widely received than those, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who challenged gender conventions. In bringing the discussion full-circle, Kelley argues that women readers “explored ideas and personae, sampling perspectives and measuring relevance for their lives” (p. 166). Educated women who “learned to stand and speak” and enter the discourse in civil society carved out a place for themselves that was both empowering and acceptable to the wider public. This well-written and richly detailed book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on women’s history and education.


Edwards, B. & Foley, M.W. (2001). Civil society and social capital.  In B. Edwards, M.W. Foley & M. Diani (Eds.), Beyond Tocqueville: Civil society and the social capital debate in comparative perspective (pp. 1-16). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Eisenmann, L. (1997). Reconsidering a classic: Assessing the history of women’s higher education a dozen years after Barbara Solomon. Harvard Educational Review, 67, 689-717.

Nash, M.A. (2005). Women’s education in the United States, 1780-1840. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Woyshner, C. (2009). The national PTA, race, and civic engagement, 1897-1970. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 05, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15461, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:42:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Christine Woyshner
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE WOYSHNER is Associate Professor of Education at Temple University. She is author or coeditor of four books, including Social Education in the Twentieth Century: Curriculum and Context for Citizenship; The Educational Work of Women’s Organizations, 1890-1960; and The National PTA, Race, and Civic Engagement, 1897-1970.
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