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

Rating: 3 out of 5

Mary Kelley's book explores the impact of the American Revolution and the antebellum period in shaping the lives of women (one should read elite white women here). Kelley takes a unique perspective in that she examines the role of education on these changes. Learning to Stand and Speak argues that educational benefits allowed women to redefine themselves and their relationship to what Kelley labels civil society. Civil society being all elements of the public sphere except politics.

Kelley argues that her book is different and unique because it “challenges the familiar model that divides the nineteenth century into private and public, feminine and masculine, household and marketplace.” [1] In Kelley's opinion it was the advent of female academies and seminaries which allowed for both students and teachers to simultaneously dismantle these binary ideas instead linking them to the rights and obligations of citizenship. It was, in Kelley's opinion, this education which allowed women to contribute to national discourse regarding religious doctrine, politics, women and domesticity and the nation's potential.

Kelley argues education should be seen as the reason some women were able to play leading roles in the public space and influence the outcomes. Yet, Kelley's work also demonstrates that women's education suffered from a compromise in which a female education was made dependent on her fulfillment of gendered social and political obligations. Kelley supports the idea that a woman's education was focused on preparing her for her role as a wife and mother. Kelley's book focuses on the ways that women used these expectations to create a new narrative and role for themselves. She believes that women appeared to conform to gendered expectations but instead used these ideas to justify their presence in civil society. She believes that in this way women made themselves crucial to the republican experiment and helped construct the gender, race and class systems of the 19th century.

Kelley argues that though women had a voice it came at a cost: the submission to patriarchal ideals. Kelley's work demonstrates the complex situation that women of the 19th century faced. She showcases that these women were innovative in using education--with its benefits and restrictions--to create change by manipulating aspects of patriarchal ideals to make themselves appear less threatening. “Decade by decade, they revised and elaborated the choices they made… they became influential makers of public opinion. In all this they enacted a transformation in women’s relationship to public life that has proved an enduring legacy.” [2]


[1] Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 25.

[2] Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak, 279.

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