These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia

These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia

These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia

These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia

Synopsis

On July 4, 1796, a group of women gathered in York, Pennsylvania, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of American independence. They drank tea and toasted the Revolution, the Constitution, and, finally, the rights of women. This event would have been unheard of thirty years before, but a popular political culture developed after the war in which women were actively involved, despite the fact that they could not vote or hold political office. This newfound atmosphere not only provided women with opportunities to celebrate national occasions outside the home but also enabled them to conceive of possessing specific rights in the young republic and to demand those rights in very public ways.

Susan Branson examines the avenues through which women's presence became central to the competition for control of the nation's political life and, despite attempts to quell the emerging power of women--typified by William Cobbett's derogatory label of politically active women as "these fiery Frenchified dames"--demonstrates that the social, political, and intellectual ideas regarding women in the post-Revolutionary era contributed to a more significant change in women's public lives than most historians have recognized.

As an early capital of the United States, the leading publishing center, and the largest and most cosmopolitan city in America during the eighteenth century, Philadelphia exerted a considerable influence on national politics, society, and culture. It was in Philadelphia that the Federalists and Democratic Republicans first struggled for America's political future, with women's involvement critical to the outcome of their heated partisan debates. Middle and upper-class women of Philadelphia were able to achieve a greater share in the culture and politics of the new nation through several key developments, including theaters and salons that were revitalized following the war, allowing women to intermingle and participate in political discussions, and the wider availability of national and international writings, particularly those that described women's involvement in the French Revolution--perhaps the most important and controversial historical event in the early development of American women's political consciousness.

Given these circumstances, Branson argues, American women were able to create new more active social and political roles for themselves that brought them out of the home and into the public sphere. Although excluded from the formal political arenas of voting and lawmaking, American women in the Age of Revolution nevertheless thought and acted politically and were able to make their presence and opinions known to the benefit of a young nation.

Excerpt

In November 1793 a report direct from Paris described for Philadelphia readers a “Grand Festival dedicated to Reason and Truth” held at Notre Dame in Paris. This public ceremony included a group of young women dressed in white, who surrounded an Altar of Reason upon which a figure of Liberty stood. the following August, Philadelphians echoed their French peers by celebrating the French Revolution in a similar manner. At ten o’clock in the morning participants assembled at the intersection of Market and Broad Streets. From there they paraded, accompanied by music, to the French minister Fauchet’s residence two blocks away on the corner of Twelfth and Market Streets. Here “Maidens dressed in white and tri-color costumes” surrounded an altar of liberty reminiscent of the one constructed by Jacques-Louis David for the Notre Dame ceremony. in Philadelphia, these symbols of French political street theater assumed an American form in which young women expressed their opinions and asserted their rights as participants in public political culture. This book will explain how and why these Philadelphia women were a focal point of a very public, and a very political, activity.

The idea for this project began with my belief that the social, political, and intellectual ideas regarding women in the post-Revolutionary era contributed to a more significant change in women’s public lives than most historians have recognized. There was more at work in the political consciousness of men and women in the early republic than just a conservative ideology that paid lip service to women’s civic roles . . .

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