Political News and Female Readership in Antebellum Boston and Its Region

By Zboray, Ronald J.; Zboray, Mary Saracino | Journalism History, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Political News and Female Readership in Antebellum Boston and Its Region


Zboray, Ronald J., Zboray, Mary Saracino, Journalism History


In the midst of the Panic of 1837 Hannah Lowell Jackson revealed to her sister, Sarah Russell, her expanding interest in newspaper accounts of rapidly unfolding political events. President Martin Van Buren's executive order that post offices accept only hard money elicited a vehement reaction, in print and on the platform, from Boston Whigs. Jackson's reading about such matters was not limited by the "women's sphere," despite the apparent efforts of her father, textile magnate Patrick T. Jackson, to restrict her political knowledge:

Father, you know, is not in the habit of talking about public affairs, in his family, & therefore, Mother, Catherine, Ellen & I depend upon the papers for information, & try to help each other to understand them. "The Transcript" used to be the favorite paper, & its arrival every morning gave rise to long discussions who should read it first, now, however we prefer the long columns of politics in the other papers, to even the Transcript's amusing stories. This evening however, the Transcript brought us good news, that the President has agreed to call the Congress together, &c.(1)

The depth of women's political consciousness and the role of newspapers in constructing it manifests itself in this letter. Shut off from discussing the news with the family's father, the Jackson women avidly pursued their concern for the lack of hard money, and the political crisis it provoked, through the columns of newspapers. No longer content with only one newspaper's reportage (that of the often taciturn Boston Transcript), these women deepened and broadened their understanding by consulting several different newspapers for more extensive coverage.

The Jacksons were not unusual; women's experience with political news strikingly appears throughout antebellum manuscript sources, but historians of print culture generally overlook this in favor of evidence that defines a women's sphere of domesticity.(2) These historians thus follow the pioneering work of scholars like Barbara Welter, Nancy Cott, Mary Ryan, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg who made the women's sphere the governing concept of antebellum women's history.(3) According to them, the erosion of household production during early industrial capitalism confined women to the privacy of home and family, while men dominated the public arenas of the marketplace and politics. Within their domestic sphere, women developed their own culture centered upon children, religion, morality, and sorority. Little wonder that most print culture historians assume that antebellum women preferred novels, sentimental literature, and "lady's" magazines which reflected domesticity over political news columns and editorials."

Political news plays a quite different role in "Republican Motherhood," the concept that has shaped scholarship on women of an earlier generation. Insofar as women needed to be informed in order to inculcate political virtue in their children, Republican Motherhood did not exclude newspaper reading and allowed even some limited political activity. The American Revolution set the stage for such activism, according to Mary Beth Norton, and heralded women's post-Revolutionary role in political socialization, as described by Linda Kerber. In support of this role, papers like William Cobbett's Porcupine's Gazette and Benjamin Franklin Bache's Aurora self-servingly addressed women, in the words of Karen List, as "political actors with parts to play."(5)

Just how much Republican Motherhood actually inspired women to read newspapers--and conversely, how much the women's sphere dissuaded them from doing so--remains open to question. Certainly, for the antebellum era, historians like Gerda Lerner and Lori Ginzberg have already shown that domesticity did not preclude all political activity, particularly in the form of women's petitions and membership in abolitionist, religious, and benevolent societies.(6) But, still, historians of print culture have not followed up the implications of this reevaluation of the women's sphere. …

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