“They may form good judgement, but it would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman’s birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men.”
Hannah Mather Crocker’s essay, “Observations on the Real Rights of Women,” is an early example of feminist thought in the post-Revolutionary or early national period of America. It was the first book-length essay devoted to women’s rights that had been written by an American woman. In the essay, Crocker argues strongly for women’s education as a means to women’s equality. The tone of the work, however, in stark contrast to the more radical arguments presented by British women such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Frances Wright. Crocker instead takes a nonconfrontational and modest tone, seen through a Christian lens, as there was a post-Revolutionary backlash against some of the more strident advocates for women’s rights at the time. As a result, Crocker’s contribution to feminist thought, often referred to as “proto-feminist” thought, has been neglected, although recently rediscovered by historians as an important female voice in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. She is rightly considered a founding mother of the American Revolution by some.
Hannah Mather Crocker was writing in the post-Revolutionary, or early national, period of American history. It was a time when a young country was beginning to formalize its institutions, its politics, and its social opinions. The American Revolution was over, and now the challenge of building and expanding a new country was beginning. The Age of Enlightenment, or Reason, that had led to revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality also helped to move forward the issue of women’s rights. Discourse into women’s rights had begun as early as the fifteenth century, and the debates that followed were known as the querelles des femmes, or the Woman Question. By the early nineteenth century, there had been a backlash against the more radical of these arguments for women’s rights, exemplified by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Even though she was British, Wollstonecraft had a great impact in America and her essay, published in 1792, spurred a flurry of debate on women’s rights in the new country. Bear in mind that as with the discussion of equality for men, race was still not a consideration, and therefore the women’s rights discussed were restricted to white women’s rights.
As Crocker was writing in 1818, she was living in a unique time period. She had lived through the American Revolution and therefore had seen first-hand how American women had participated in this war and had helped win independence for America. As an educated woman, she knew that women were capable of learning and could be educated just the same as men. But she also knew that there was backlash against women’s rights and that if she was to be effective in her own messaging about women’s rights, she had to be more subtle than Wollstonecraft.
Her discussion about women’s rights therefore revolved around the concept of separate spheres: that women had control of the domestic sphere while men had control over the public sphere. They were equal, but different, and women could influence men best by persuading them with reason. They had the potential of being men’s intellectual equals, but they should not use these gifts to usurp men’s rightful leadership roles in politics or religion. Thus, she was presenting an argument for women’s equality in a submissive and nonconfrontational way, and she was assuring her audience that women could fulfill their domestic role, while at the same time being the intellectual and moral equal of men. It was for this reason that many who read her essay outside of her own time period did not consider her as an early feminist writer.
Hannah Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 27, 1752. She came from an illustrious early American family, and her grandfather, Cotton Mather, was a prominent Puritan minister and writer. She came of age during the Revolutionary War, and she actively participated by smuggling war plans to Joseph Warren, a revolutionary commander and high-ranking freemason. She married Reverend John Crocker, who was a Harvard graduate and captain in the revolutionary militia, in 1779. By the time her husband died in 1797, the couple had produced ten children between 1780 and 1795.
Hannah Crocker was well-educated, no doubt because of the Mather family’s strong interest in learning. She was considered a Boston Bluestocking, or a woman who had a strong taste for learning. A member of high social standing in Boston, her maternal uncle, Thomas Hutchinson was also colonial governor of Massachusetts. Crocker had a long history of involvement in Freemasonry and actually set up a rare women’s-only lodge, known as St. Ann’s Lodge. Freemasonry was a radical intellectual movement that emerged from the Protestant Reformation and was a secret fraternity, almost exclusively of men. Through her involvement with St. Ann’s, she was a keen advocate of women’s education and wanted to teach illiterate women so that they would be more respected and better treated by their husbands. She was clear that the lodge was set up for friendship and for the pursuit of learning, especially in science and literature.
Crocker did not begin her writing career until after her children were grown. In 1810, she took on the pseudonym of “Aurelia Prudencia Americana” and defended freemasonry from its growing critics in a series of newspaper letters, especially regarding its treatment of women. It was here that she first made plain her argument for women’s rights through education. Putting her beliefs about women’s education into action again, she established the School of Industry for poor girls in Boston’s northern district in 1813. In 1818, she published her main essay in support of women’s rights and education, “Observations on the Real Rights of Women.” She continued to write and had a keen interest in preserving history, although much of her work remains unpublished and difficult to access for modern readers. Her final project was a personal memoir and narrative history of Boston (Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston), but she died before she could complete the work. She died on July 11, 1829, and is buried in the Mather family tomb at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston.
Hannah Mather Crocker was a woman who was a product of her time and her social standing. Writing during the early national period, her opinions reflected this. Although her essay on the rights of women has been dismissed by some as a conservative rebuke of the more radical proponents of women’s rights, it is better to try to understand her writing in a more nuanced way. She knew she had to craft her message of women’s equality carefully, or it would be easily dismissed as too radical, as Mary Wollstonecraft before her had been. Therefore, her essay has an intentionally non-confrontational tone. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century when Crocker was writing, there had been backlash surrounding the discussion of women’s rights. The issue of women’s rights had been raised along with republican virtues of freedom, liberty, and equality, and there were many who were discussing the issues, especially after Mary Wollstonecraft had published A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. It was into this atmosphere that Crocker began her own discussion of women’s rights. Her title of “Observations on the Real Rights of Women” indicated the fact that she would discuss women’s rights from a more pragmatic perspective than others had, particularly the more radical Wollstonecraft. Again, it is worth remembering that women’s rights, at least to Crocker, meant middle- to upper-class white women’s rights.
Crocker believed that women and men had equal abilities to reason, but in reality they operated in separate spheres. Her strong Christian beliefs supported this distinction. Women were to be active in the domestic sphere, while men had leadership in the public sphere, which included politics and business. Interestingly, her own foray into published writing brought this distinction into conflict in her own life, and at times, in her writings as well. Her rhetorical strategy was on occasion nuanced to argue against this very theory, but her more radical thoughts were only brought out after she had made the reader comfortable by providing a conservative and traditional backdrop to her thesis. It is also important to note that Crocker was from an illustrious Puritan family and therefore also had a strong religious understanding of the world. Her writing refers to Christian concepts quite readily, as this was her world view, as well as that of many others during the time period.
The vast majority of the excerpt of this essay comes from the second chapter of her work, where Crocker explains how women have been restored to equality as a result of Christianity. The excerpt begins with a discussion of how best women can exert influence in society. She feels this can best be accomplished by persuading men using intellect, or reason. This can be done, according to Crocker, within the confines of the home and family, which correlates to her belief in separate spheres and distinct roles for men and women. She here states that women’s role is to “sooth the turbulent passions of men,” by creating a safe haven for them to retreat into in the form of a stable and caring home and family life. Here they can get away from the “rigid cares of business” and find peace and security. The responsibility for creating this idyllic home life rests squarely with women, and Crocker feels that is it women’s role to keep “calm and serene.” This can be seen to be a very traditional view and one with which few conservatives, especially men, could argue. Here she is actively employing the tactic of first promoting something traditional that would serve to distract some readers from her more radical conclusions at a later point.
Crocker then states that men and women need to be partners through the good times and the bad times and need to support each other. She next explicitly states her core belief: that women can be equal to men when it comes to judgement and reason, and even when it comes to such traditionally male subjects as “law, politics or religion.” Again, she tempers this somewhat radical view though. She states that even though women may be capable of doing it, they should not try to be politicians or orators, as it would be “physically incorrect.” Women should not enter the public realms of politics or civil society. Here, her opinion of men’s and women’s differences when it comes to their physical attributes and competencies is made apparent to the reader. Women and men are equal, but different. Women’s influence in the public sphere should be restricted to an advisory role, using their intellect to guide any advice given.
Crocker then goes on to explain further the roles and capacities of women. She explains that the expectations of women when it comes to intellectual pursuits should be tempered, as they have to also take care of the household and children. She may be referring to her own life here, as she did not begin to publish her writing until after her ten children were grown. To provide an example that her reader can better grasp, she explains that a mechanic would obviously not be as learned as a man who had spent his entire life studying. Just like the mechanic, Crocker makes the comparison now to women, who would not be able to boast of their talents in mechanics or warfare. Instead, women are best-suited to keep the peace (“cultivate the olive branches”) within the family, and more particularly, to prepare her children for successful futures by educating them. Although the gender of the children is not stated explicitly, it is through the future careers she gives for these children as “statesmen, soldiers, philosophers,” that it seems clear her focus here is on sons and not necessarily on daughters.
Crocker follows the tenets of what has come to be known as “republican motherhood.” Under this belief, women had a powerful role in the moral development of their children in order to raise better and more virtuous republican citizens. This in turn would ensure the success of the country in the future. It was in a sense a mother’s civic duty to educate her children. Crocker explains that this is to instill in them a love of “virtue, religion and their country.” She further states that many notable people (again, she does not state the gender of these people, but it can be inferred she is referring solely to men) were taught “their heroic principles” from the very beginning of their lives by their mothers. At this point, Crocker states her belief that mothers should also be recognized (“share with them the laurel”) for their contributions, albeit not publicly. She is clear that it is the man who has the “right of conquest” and women should simply “rejoice” in their success.
After seeming to focus only on a male son’s education, Crocker now deftly turns her attention to those people who do not believe women should be educated. Here she makes her opinions of such people clear when she refers to “a few groveling minds” who do not think women should be educated beyond certain domestic chores such as cooking, sewing, knitting or spinning. She also issues a warning to women not to indulge too much in the “art of dress.” In other words, Crocker urges women to cultivate their minds and not pay too much attention to their wardrobe, which she views as a frivolous pursuit. In a sense, Crocker believes that if women are to be taken seriously by men, then they must concentrate on serious intellectual pursuits.
Crocker goes on to talk about women who have taken the time to further their studies in education and literature. She defends their right to continue their studies and moreover also defends their right to contribute, presumably publicly through publishing their findings, to furthering knowledge and research. But again, she tempers this with the proviso that they should only do so after they have completed all of their “domestic duties.”
As a woman who was very familiar with Freemasonry and its rituals, it is not surprising that Crocker would advocate for women to have the right to organize and promote benevolent societies. She had herself founded one when she set up St. Ann’s Lodge, which was established on the principles of masonry. She does not explicitly reference masonic societies here, but rather any society that would promote “religious, charitable and benevolent purposes.” She uses as an example a society that would promote research into history and literature, saying that it would be beneficial to both young men and young women. In advocating that women found such societies, however, Crocker was pushing the boundaries of the separate spheres concept, as this would push women more into the public realm that she generally reserved solely for men. It is in these kinds of subtle ways that Crocker at times reverses her position on separate spheres in a rhetorical strategy designed to advocate for women’s greater role in society, while appearing at the same time to endorse men’s sole ownership of this realm.
Her bias against fictional novels next becomes apparent when she states that reading them could corrupt the minds and the morality of youth of both sexes. Instead, she promotes the reading of history to “strengthen their memory and improve the mind.” In fact, Crocker goes further when she says that higher learning that includes such things as metaphysics, or a type of philosophy that aims to understand the world as a whole, does not often agree with women because they are naturally cheerful and are not as physically robust as men. But she insists that women are equally capable of such learning in every type of science and even law.
Again here, she falls back on the distinction between men and women. She makes it clear that women can study law, but they should not practice law, as it would not be proper for a woman to do so under the societal rules of the day, which stated that women should not speak in public. She then discusses the relationship between men and women and how it should operate, presumably within the confines of marriage, although she is not explicit on this point. Crocker is clear that because of her Christian beliefs, the relationship between men and women should never resemble slavery, and women should not have a “servile dependence on men.” Their relationship should rather resemble a friendship, as God intended. Here Crocker suggests how men should properly act within such a relationship. They should protect the innocence of women and not make them unhappy. Crocker then states that women would not want to share the leisure interests of men, especially those that involved gambling, horseracing, or the more extreme and “barbarous” pastimes of cock-fighting or bull-baiting. She felt that these were not suitable activities for women who were too delicate. No doubt this distaste for such activities again stemmed from Crocker’s strong religious views.
After discussing that women are to be equal to men within relationships, Crocker goes on to explain how women could actually dominate the domestic sphere. She uses a variety of military terms here, which although at first blush seems odd when discussing the household and family but makes some sense when one considers she was married to a Revolutionary War captain and was raising at least part of her family during this same war. She opens by stating that women have the “prerogative to shine” in the home. The term prerogative could in fact refer to a king or queen’s right to make executive decisions apart from traditional and established laws. In this way, she infers that women can have more, or at least as much, control over the family as men. This is a somewhat radical viewpoint. Christian tradition held at the time that the man was at the head of the household. So here again we see that Crocker at first reading seems traditional, and yet in a deeper reading has a more nonconventional point to make to her readers.
Crocker then speaks to women’s roles and responsibilities within the family unit. The first is to educate their children by continually improving their thoughts and minds as they grow. She refers to a woman’s children as “her garrison,” which is interesting considering a garrison is a military unit that is stationed in a town to defend it. This therefore equates the family with a protective force. Crocker gives women the responsibility of keeping the family unit running smoothly (“good order”) and with good and proper morals (“propriety”). By keeping such a calm, ordered, and peaceful home, there is less chance that her husband would stray and ultimately seek such a peaceful atmosphere elsewhere. In short, Crocker is giving a lesson on how to keep a husband satisfied and faithful. She explains that the home must be serene and that no sound be heard with the exception of the “heart vibrating with mutual affection, reciprocally soft.” Here again, Crocker evokes a scene of blissful family harmony. She reinforces that such behavior will perhaps keep men from their “nocturnal ramble” and they will instead want to remain at home. If women can attain “such a victory”—note the military terminology, as if this family setting is akin to some sort of battleground or warfare—she will also win the “undivided affection” of her “generalissimo.” The term generalissimo of course refers to her husband, and here Crocker seems to return the man to his traditional place at the head of the household. However, remember that Crocker used the term prerogative earlier, which would presume a woman was able to overrule a man in certain household and family matters. She ends by assuring women that if they are successful in creating this perfect family life, they will have the “exclusive right to shine” without any rival within her family.
The final excerpt from Crocker’s essay comes from the fourth chapter of her work, where Crocker compares current women’s character and writings to previous examples from history. It is here she is at her most radical. She refers to the historical works of Mercy Otis Warren as well as the life of Martha Washington as but two examples earlier in the chapter. She takes this as a jumping off point to discuss how important women’s rights and education are to the future of the republic. Her point here is that both sexes fought for the independence of America, demonstrating “mutual virtue, energy and fortitude.” She insists that these same attributes must be continued into the future for the country to thrive. She explains that the continued education of women will allow them to have stronger “mental faculties” and thereby be better advisors. Her warning is that if America were to neglect learning such as arts, sciences, and literature, it would risk falling into tyranny. Tyranny in turn leads a country to become “effeminate and degraded,” which can degrade women’s characters. She ends with an historical example of “German women” who were independent and venerated by their men, which led to their success as a nation. Crocker is clear then that only by having strong, independent, and equal women will America meet its national ambitions.
Hannah Mather Crocker’s work follows on from other authors who advocated women’s rights through education, such as Judith Sargent Murray’s writing in The Gleaner. She was also writing after Mary Wollstonecraft’s more radical and secular A Vindication of the Rights of Women was popularized in America after 1792. The backlash that occurred against women’s rights was spurred on by the publication of Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798, written by Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, and published after her death. Since this work exposed the fact that Wollstonecraft had had a child out of wedlock as well as having other sexual affairs, Wollstonecraft became a scandalous and polarizing figure.
Crocker, as a religious Christian Puritan woman, was appropriately scandalized by Wollstonecraft’s personal life, but she had the courage to support Wollstonecraft’s main tenets that woman were capable of intellectual equality with men and should be educated as such. Given this backlash against women’s rights in the post-Revolutionary period, Crocker needed to present her views in a less radical tone. As well, she was strongly influenced by her Christian religion, and she was therefore inclined to believe that men and women operated mainly within separate spheres of society. Many took her views as a far more conservative response than other writers, and therefore some of her feminist descendants have dismissed her work.
Instead, this more subtle argument for women’s rights and intellectual equality with men is now viewed as a “proto-feminist” work. Her belief in, yet at the same time subtle questioning of, separate spheres of influence, was rhetorical strategy at its best. As well, her belief that women could and should act as persuasive influences over men’s activities in the public realm through reason was her way of advocating for women’s voice in politics. It was certainly not what the suffragists envisioned with giving the vote to women, but for her time period, Crocker believed this to be a step forward for women.
Although Crocker was considered one of America’s leading political theorists regarding women’s education and rights during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, she did not have tremendous long-term influence beyond this time period. Some of this may be due to the fact that much of her work remains unpublished, and her work was therefore difficult to access. Regardless, many writers who followed her dismissed her intellect and advocacy of women’s rights through a rather select and cursory reading of her works. She was considered too conservative and, in effect, not feminist enough. It was not until women’s history became a more professional branch of history that a new generation of female historians began to re-evaluate Crocker’s writings. As more of her work is now being published, Crocker is finding herself restored to being an important voice of change for women in America.
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